Bring Me More of The Errors of Ricky Gervais!

If we take something like any fiction, any holy book, and destroyed it, in a thousand years’ time that wouldn’t come back just as it was. Whereas if we took every science book and every fact and destroyed them all, in a thousand years they’d all be back, because all the same tests would be the same result.
(Ricky Gervais)

There are, I think, at least two major errors here. Firstly, there seems to be a belief that ‘science‘ as such is somehow synonymous with material facts as such. Secondly an assumption that religious texts are works of the creative imagination alone, like a Bruckner Symphony or a William Blake painting, and have no rooted basis in any form of reality. Neither of these lines of argument survive any form of close interrogation.

The Gervais hypothesis here is that a civilisational collapse will have no impact on the material structure of the universe and that, therefore, tests carried out before and after such a collapse will necessarily have identical results. This is almost certainly true. Science, however, does not begin with facts or with tests. Science begins with scientists. Which is to say nature tells us nothing in and of itself. At best it can be said to answer the questions which we ask it. Therefore what scientists decide to ask represents the crucial starting point. And that depends upon what they believe, what kind of society they inhabit, what ethics are enforced and so on and so forth.

It is then not only unlikely but practically impossible that any society starting from year zero would reproduce Western science because the inhabitants of such a society would ask different questions for different motives and using different tools. The material universe would remain to be discovered in the ways it has been discovered but there is no compelling reason to suppose that such a discovery would occur.

To take one example, arabic numerals. Modern science would be inconceivable in many ways without the number zero. This measures a sum of zero units but in nature there is no sum of zero units. That is, the figure 0 is a philosophical construct not a material fact, it does not exist in the material universe only in the minds of humans. Mr Gervais assumes that within a thousand years of year zero (you see what I mean about the usefulness of the digit 0) science will have been able to reproduce in the future what it has done in the past. History, however, demonstrates that advanced civilisations can arise and develop for millennia without ever coming up with an equivalent for zero and thus limiting their ability to develop.

More than that, many scientific and technical developments have been the result of accident or emerged from the exigencies of particular situations like war. Again it is passing unlikely that every single one of these will be reproduced. As previously noted scientists precede science and thus their hypotheses precede their investigations. Indeed test results do not explain themselves either, so hypotheses follow investigations as well and none of these are based upon fact alone but upon an explanatory framework to account for the facts discovered. What scientists of an hypothetical future might think is an imponderable but it is certain that the lens through which they view the world will be significantly different from that of 21st century academically trained Western scientists and therefore their textbooks will be significantly different too. Always assuming that they develop language, writing, reading and printing in ways similar to ours which, after all, they might not do.

The supposition that religious texts are purely the products of creative human imagination is also eminently contestable. Adherents of them would argue that religious truth is discovered not invented. Certainly the method of discovery is different from the scientific method but then the object to be discovered, spiritual not material, is also different so there is no obvious reason why the same approach to it should be taken.

The Abrahamic religions would, for example, assert that the method of discovery was divine revelation. Atheists might counter that since their is no God there can be no revelation by such a being but that, of course, means accepting their (essentially unprovable) premise before we can accept their conclusion. Even if we leave the special case of revelation to one side the use of reason alone applied to the philosophical questions of origin and meaning can produce the hypothesis of an uncaused First Cause. It is not, certainly, a necessary product of reasoning, other hypotheses can be advanced, but it is highly probable that given the narrow range of options available to answer these questions, how and why is there something rather than nothing? does life have purpose and meaning? that during the course of the first thousand years after Year Zero some thinkers will come up with some form of Deism or theism and produce works which if they do not resemble the Bible or Quran will resemble Classical Greek or Indian philosophy.

In short, we cannot predict what a post-apocalyptic society would look like but we can suppose that the people who inhabit it will behave in ways dictated by the human reality of their surroundings, shared beliefs, culture, imminent dangers and so on. Abstract reasoning applied to abstract questions may produce similar results in religion and philosophy to our own time but concrete investigation and analysis will depend less on the facts available to be investigated than on the needs and ways of thinking of the investigators. If these are, as they are likely to be, radically different from those of our current epoch then the science produced will also be radically different notwithstanding the repeatability of scientific tests. The questions we ask are the indispensable preliminary to the answers we get and who knows what questions those who inherit our shattered globe will ask?

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page

My *other* blog is Catholic Scot

The painting is St Mark the Evangelist from a French Renaissance Book of Hours


7 thoughts on “Bring Me More of The Errors of Ricky Gervais!

Add yours

  1. Agreed.

    If nothing else, ‘starting over’ and expecting an exact duplicate of Moby Dick or the Pentateuch after sufficient time had elapsed would – I suspect – require restarting the process with exactly the same personalities, circumstances, and subsequent events. I’m no mathematician, but I’m pretty sure the probability of that happening is near or at zero.

    As it is, one of the few constants in this universe is change.

    What I call natural law – ethical principles written into this reality’s source code – don’t change, either. What does, must, change as our circumstances change is how we *apply* these universal principles. The alternative is trying to live with rules we made up that worked – more or less well – when we were dealing with a different current reality.

    Natural law helps explain why so many – all, that I know of – religions/faiths teach approximately the same rules for behavior. That doesn’t mean, I think, that ‘they’re all the same.’ Rather, they all have endured at least in part by providing guidance for living in the real world.

    An interesting look at expectations and assumptions. Thank you!


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