Suppressing a Truth (bis)
It’s a very simplified picture but most subjects can be understood at at least three levels (let’s call them alpha, beta and gamma) and I am becoming increasingly convinced that much of the mischief in the world, including many of the (religious) wars, is caused by people with alpha understanding talking to gammas with the same vocabulary but different meanings.
Let’s take a couple of examples starting with the one I perhaps know best: mathematics. Initially, perhaps in the infants or primary school, we have an alpha-level understanding of how mathematics works—it’s a fairly arbitrary collection of random facts, tricks and techniques. Once we reach secondary school we learn that there is an underlying pattern and method: someone such as Euclid or Hilbert specifies a set of axioms and the whole edifice is built on top of it. This is the beta-level understanding. Then, as we continue to explore, we find that this is rubbish: no mathematician ever really starts with axioms and the whole axiomatic method is, anyway, fraught with problems—gamma-level understanding. I’m sure that there are twenty more levels but I want to keep this simple.
Even the understanding of single words can pass through the three levels of understanding. Take the word “arithmetic”. To an alpha it is synonymous with the whole of mathematics—mathematics is arithmetic. A beta knows more and knows that there is a lot of mathematics that is not arithmetic. I have just reread Paul Bernays’ On Platonism in Mathematics and find the wonderful sentence (C.D.Parsons’ translation): “But I am referring to arithmetic in a very broad sense, which includes analysis [i.e., calculus] and set theory”.
We can run through the same levels for the sciences: science is a pretty arbitrary process (alpha), scientific advances follow a sophisticated underlying process–the well known and highly respected “Scientific Method” (beta), science doesn’t, and never has, actually followed that method and some science (e.g., string theory) may not actually be science at all (gamma).
Although I’m a lot less comfortable in the visual arts, I assume that a person standing in front of an abstract canvas and saying “my child of 5 could do that” is comparing his child’s alpha-level expression with the artist’s gamma-level expression (although I suspect that some of the art I see is pretty much alpha-level pretending to be gamma-level).
In the sciences, the alphas talking to the gammas is called the debate over creationism (or intelligent design or whatever). The alphas hear the gammas talking about the inconclusive nature of science and disagreeing about what science does and the ways in which one theory is replaced by another. The vocabulary used by the gammas sounds very familiar to the alphas and reïnforces their beliefs. This doesn’t worry me: creationism is obviously not a science and eventually, as evolution removes the least smart, it will disappear.
What does worry me is the argument I have heard made, often by betas, that gammas should not make statements which could possibly be misinterpreted by alphas. I have an illustrative anecdote that I’d like to share. I’m something of an apostrophe pedant and some while ago I copied some photographs onto a CD with the intention of taking them to a shop for printing. I labelled the CD “Photo’s for Printing” and my wife queried the apostrophe. I explained that “Photo’s” was a short-form of “Photographs” and the apostrophe indicated that letters were missing (as in “aren’t”). She thought that it could be misinterpreted by ignorant people who would take it as a possessive apostrophe, know that there should be no possessive apostrophe and thereby think me ignorant. This is a wonderful chain of alpha/beta/gamma thinking. My wife, who is a gamma in the area of apostrophes, was recommending that I deliberately make what she knew to be a mistake (and write “Photos”), in case betas thought that I was an alpha. I worry that the attempts to suppress the writings of scientific gammas, particularly by those fighting creationism in the USA, follows the same pattern.
Suppressio veri, suggestio falsi.