The Paradox of Everchanging Truths – Why I’m Not Ashamed of My Beliefs

I was reading a Harry Potter fan fiction where Harry is a “rationalist” – in all implications of the word’s present day definition – and tries to justify every new thing he learns in the magic world from the point of his existing knowledge and beliefs. When something doesn’t fit, he upgrades/modifies his beliefs and theories (note to wannabe rationalists who “blindly” follow certain schools of thought). This one quote suddenly hit me hard, and i just had to write *something* about it. I haven’t written in a while so excuse my jumbled thoughts.

Professor McGonagall’s eyes were alight. “After you graduate, or possibly even before, you really must teach some of these Muggle theories at Hogwarts, Mr. Potter. They sound quite fascinating, even if they’re all wrong.”

So here McGonagall casually says that Harry’s muggle theories (i.e years of human acquired knowledge) are obviously wrong. He had been talking about some good stuff, like causality and temporal order (a cause having to occur *before* its effect, in the observable timeline), and Turing Computations (going back into a defined moment of the past and computing a different future from there) and things like that. He couldn’t explain the Time Turner based on his existing knowledge of how cause and effect works. So he accepted that it could work backwards too – something that happens *later* in time might control something that happened *before* it.

See, whenever we read or hear about something that doesn’t make sense according to our established scientific theories, we immediately dismiss the phenomenon as “impossible” or just fantasies made up by humans or superstitions. Or religion. While that is true in many cases, it doesn’t always have to be. There could be – and quite definitely are – laws that are beyond our understanding yet. For all we know, all the basic scientific theories we know now could be false in some way, or at least *incomplete* – which is why they fail to explain many things.

The mind projection fallacy, as described by physicist and Bayesian philosopher E. T. Jaynes, says that that if you are ignorant about a phenomenon, that is a fact about your own state of mind, not a fact about the phenomenon itself; your uncertainty is a fact about you, not a fact about whatever you are uncertain about; gnorance exists in the mind, not in reality; a blank map does not correspond to a blank territory.

In this particular book the people of the magic world know for a fact that most muggle theories are wrong, and hence they have no problem accepting the reality of magic. Meanwhile Harry Potter, a sort of child prodigy back in the muggle world, just CANNOT come to terms with the apparent unbelievable-ness of magic world laws – which allow things like time turning, mind control, trapping a “large space” inside a “small space”, etc.

The lesson to take from this is, just because we don’t find something believable, doesn’t always mean it is false. We are a species that’s SO arrogant that we are never ready to believe anything that the currently most-credible institution in human society hasn’t declared believable. In the present world this institution is Western rationalist science. For a long time this institution was the Church (which followed different interpretations at different times, based on what suited the current emperor). During Moses’s time (ancient Egypt) it was the Pharaoh. Sometimes it was aristocrats, sometimes philosophers. Keeps changing, is the point.

The only constant throughout history is that we were always too arrogant to think outside the box. Pre-Copernicus scientists were too arrogant to believe that the earth wasn’t at the center of everything. 18th century biologists were too arrogant to believe that plants have life. Descartes was too arrogant to believe that atoms couldn’t be broken down. Hume was too arrogant to believe in the existence of anything we can not see. Non-Darwinians are too arrogant to believe in evolution. Darwinians are too arrogant to disbelieve in evolution. Present day rationalists are too arrogant to believe in the existence of a soul, or an intelligent designer of everything in the universe. Present day scientists are too arrogant to believe in anything that doesn’t show up in existing man-made measurement devices. And on and on and on.

The point is, we think we know. At every point in history, we thought we knew. And this, the present, is also a point in our history. That’s the part we always forgot.

And that is why when someone asks me how I believe in such “backdated, flawed” theories i.e Islamic beliefs (and that too, as a conscious decision) – I can’t expect them to understand what they’re too arrogant to understand. Yes, I believe in divine entities, higher dimensions, eternal consequences, an intelligent designer, and much more. I believe in a bigger reality. And I’m not ashamed of it.

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[Reference: Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, by Eliezer Yudkowsky]

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