I cannot believe in absolute truths. It goes against my character. Although I try as much as I can to stand by my principles, my mind is always open to new theories, interpretations and to new evidence. Hence my close affiliation with the scientific method.
If there really is one absolute truth out there, it is that the scientific method Works. With a capital W. The results it produces are certainly not open to the same luxurious claim – the method used to find these claims, however, always has, does and will work.
In fact, brushing aside the technicalities of experimental sciences for one second, everyone can engage in the scientific method! Try this:
Establish a negative hypothesis. It tends to describe existing (or what seem to be existing) conditions – a banal, sensationalist example could be: “John is not going out with Jane”. You take this to be the assumption that pervades the whole test. You assume that statement to be true, and now you test it with evidence. For example, you might find that: “John took Jane out to lunch on Friday” and “John took Jane on a romantic camping trip last weekend”. You estimate the probability of the event happening under the conditions of “John is not going out with Jane”. Since it is pretty unlikely that John would not be going out with Jane _and_ take her to a romantic camping trip, you decide that the negative hypothesis is false! You therefore accept an alternative one which could explain the evidence, for example: “John _is_ going out with Jane”.
The point is to be sceptic by absolute default. The null hypothesis test described above is the paragon of scepticism. You tend to assume existing conditions. 500 years ago, a negative hypothesis could have been “The Earth is not spherical”. Since the evidence collected couldn’t possibly fit in with the hypothesis, you accept an alternative hypothesis, for example: “The Earth is spherical”. At all times you cling to already established assumptions, but you are ready to discard them as soon as evidence arrives.
This is very important, and underlies much of the humanist and atheist philosophies.
There’s nothing wrong with scepticism. There’s a lot wrong with not being sceptic. It’s one thing to be gullible – I’m pretty gullible, I’ll look when someone plays the stupid “You’ve got a stain on your shirt” joke on me. But when someone makes a bold assertion, then my scepticism engages automatically, no forewarning.
If someone were to approach me today and tell me “The alignment of Saturn with Jupiter means that you will run into financial trouble” and tomorrow I realise my paycheck is late, I wouldn’t start drawing up solar system charts to track my stock portfolios. It would be meaningless, because under the condition “Astrology does not mean a thing in the world”, me running into financial shortcomings is pretty damn likely. This kind of claim, a trademark of astrology and other pseudosciences, is what I call ‘associating soda cans with rabbits’.
A soda can is not evidence of rabbits, or viceversa. You cannot imply the existence of one from the other because they’re completely irrelevant from each other. If someone told you “Soda cans! Therefore, rabbits”, I hope that you would just keep walking, maybe drop a penny into the jar. But as incredible as it sounds, that fallacious argument is constantly used all over. The scientific method is one which enables you to discern the causality and correlation between two or more different things, and whether one thing means another.
The scientific method also has immediate practical benefits other than engaging you in honest truth seeking (if you really need any more benefits). It activates your prefrontal cortex, as Dr. Kawashima might say. It turns your brain on, gives it exercise. If you simply accept everything you’re spoon-fed on the 6 o’clock news, your brain isn’t getting much exercise. If you think twice about each item of news – context, history, who benefits in delivering it in a particular way, etc. then you start to use your gray matter.
The scientific method does not mean flip-flopping or fence-sitting. Quite the contrary. At some point, once you prove or disprove a negative hypothesis, you then continue your existence assuming your conclusion until further evidence turns up. There’s no flip-flopping involved – in fact, if you wanted to be 100% non-hypocritical, then you would have to live with assumptions you picked up originally, and I can only shudder to imagine what the world would be like today if we lived with 500 year old or even just 50 year old assumptions about the world we live in.
So challenge pre-conceived notions. Question statements. Examine context. Establish negative hypotheses – engage in the scientific method. Not only is it the only way to real truth but the scientific mentality, curiously enough, is inextricably linked to the preservation of your civil liberties.