Monthly Archives: October 2011

On Belief, Science and Religion

Where does belief fall in the quest for knowledge? It would be foolhardy to discount the importance of belief when it comes to our worldview, our behaviors and the means in which we create order in our lives. Knowledge is not specific to any one creed, religion or worldview. Nor one worldview has a monopoly on knowledge or truth, and it is my opinion that each unique worldview has something to add to the store of knowledge. However, this does not mean that knowledge and information should be freely shared either, at least that is my opinion. But such a discussion will lead to access and privacy vs. freedom debates, such topics I wish to avoid for the time being.

Belief is vitally important to our lives. I would go so far as to claim that no person lacks belief. Scientists believe in their methods. Various religions and faith systems all have faith in some form of divine power. In one sense of the word, every worldview to some degree or another has some assumptions of belief and/or faith. As an example, take for example the scientific method. Now, a vital step of the scientific method relies on observation via the senses. What happens if our senses are unreliable, what then becomes of our observations of natural phenomena? Can such observations, and all subsequent hypothesis and experiments, be said to be reliable? How does the idea of objectivity fair if we cannot trust our senses? This may be an extreme example, but I feel it helps to make my point.

As another example, let us consider the subjective nature of human experience. I have elaborated in a previous post my belief in the dual nature of our experience. To clarify, I see the our experience as existing on at least two “levels”, one determined by our sensory input of the world as it is (the ontological nature of reality) and the other determined by how our minds interprets and orders said sensory input (our epistemological impression of reality). In such a way our impression of the cosmos exists in two realities, things as they and things as we perceive them. To put it another way, it is my opinion that we “perceive” two realities almost simultaneously, one objective, one subjective. Our beliefs “color” our impression of the cosmos and as such do our beliefs shape our reality. This is why the peer-review process is so important to the advancement of scientific knowledge, because it is my belief that no one person is truly outside of their own beliefs and biases.

So where does this leave discussion of knowledge, of truth? It leaves us with the idea that every single person has something to add to the knowledge of humanity (whether or not all of humanity has access to such knowledge) through their own worldview, more than the sum of their religion, culture, beliefs and biases. It also leaves us with the idea that truth (note the small “t”) is in the eye of the beholder, in some sense. This covers individual “truth”, but what about collective “truth”, similar worldviews shared among individuals, what might be called culture. This is a result of shared knowledge and information exchange. Folklore, mythology, stories, legends and the whole gamete of information people share, including behavior and rituals. This leads into my next few writings, in which I will be looking at Nordic myth, legend and folklore, and its relation to the life of Nordic people, past and present.

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What do we really know?

What is the nature of knowledge? Does the search for knowledge have limits? Can we really “know” anything at all, or are we just guessing? These questions belong properly to the study of knowledge, epistemology. While I will not even try to answer any of these questions, nor discuss the depths of epistemology, all these questions become relevant as I try to bring my “Midwest Vikings” series to a close. They are also relevant for future posts. Epistemology covers topic such as “truth” and “belief”, and both are important concepts when we consider the idea of Midwest Vikings, is it a matter of truth, or one of belief? Is it one of both?

Perhaps the latter is the most accurate description. For while it is true that Vikings surely made it as far as North America (Newfoundland), we know next to nothing about how far they might have come inland. It can be said with some certainty that they sailed farther south that Newfoundland. Here is quote from the PBS website, from a show on the Vikings: ” (Speaking previously of Vinland) NARRATOR: But no grapes grow anywhere near L’Anse-Aux-Meadows, nor did they in Viking times. The nearest wild grapes are found in New Brunswick, several hundred miles to the south. Archeologists did uncover evidence that the Vikings may have gathered some exotic foods in the south, and shipped them back to the base camp at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows.

BIRGITTA WALLACE: With the Norse objects found in a bog here, we found nuts, butternuts, also called white walnuts, that don’t grow north or northeast of New Brunswick and the Valley of St. Lawrence. And what is really interesting about this is that those nuts grow precisely in the same areas as you can find wild grapes. So the concept of Vinland, meaning “Wineland,” is probably really based on the finding of grapes.”

So possibly as far south as New Brunswick and the St. Lawrence. But what about the other 2,000 plus miles up the St. Lawrence to Michigan and beyond? It certainly would not have been done overnight, or even in one winter. How long was L’Anse aux Meadows occupied? According to about.com; “L’Anse aux Meadows is the name of an archaeological site that represents a failed Vikingcolony of Norse adventurers from Iceland, located in Newfoundland, Canada and occupied for somewhere between three and ten years.” How far could one travel in three to ten years? As Greenland was the more-permanent and larger Viking settlement, it should be considered as well. According to Wikipedia, Greenland was occupied by Norse settlers from about 986 until the 15th century. How much of North America could be explored with a “home base” nearby that lasted probably 400 years? The short answer is that we just don’t know.

Thus calls into question the limits of our own knowledge concerning early Norse exploration/settlement of North America. Much could be done in three to ten years, and even more with 400. But if the Vikings got as far as Michigan and the Great Lakes region, the best we can hope for is better evidence to be discovered in the future. The best we have now is littered with hoaxes, half-truths and a variety of interpretations. But even such sketchy evidence by scientific standards does not deny the numerous people who believe the Vikings made it into the Great Lakes. But where do we draw the line? Is belief truth? Is truth nothing more than belief? I think the jury is out on this one.

Perhaps Fox Mulder says it best.

“I want to believe.”

Sources:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenland#Norse_settlement

http://archaeology.about.com/cs/explorers/a/anseauxmeadows.htm

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/transcripts/2708vikings.html

For further reading:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistemology