Monday, January 03, 2011

Charles Darwin and The Perimeter of Ignorance

Neil deGrasse Tyson uses the phrase "The Perimeter of Ignorance" to describe when people "appeal to a higher power only when staring into the ocean of their own ignorance."

Recently, I finally finished reading The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin. As most people know, Darwin served as a naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle during its journey of some five years, most of which was spent in South America and the South Pacific.

It was while he was in northern Chile that Darwin writes of an encounter with people who set the bar really low for invoking their own perimeter of ignorance:

"My geological examination of the country generally created a good deal of surprise amongst the Chilenos: it was long before they could be convinced that I was not hunting for mines. This was sometimes troublesome: I found the most ready way of explaining my employment, was to ask them how it was that they themselves were not curious concerning earthquakes and volcanos? - why some springs were hot and others cold? - why there were mountains in Chile, and not a hill in La Plata? These bare questions at once satisfied and silenced the greater number; some, however (like a few in England who are a century behindhand), thought that all such inquiries were useless and impious; and that it was quite sufficient that God had thus made the mountains."

Of course, religious belief in and of itself need not act as a barrier to exploration and scientific inquiry. The numbers of religious believers who have participated in such endeavors should leave no doubt about that.

That being said, for a subset of religious believers, it would probably be accurate to say that scientific inquiries really are "useless." After all, if you believe that a collection of texts such as the Bible or the Quran contain God's commandments and that one's primary concern in life is abiding by those commandments, then there really is no point in sending probes to Mars or Saturn's moon Titan, or studying the Earth's ocean floors, to name a few. Anything that doesn't comport with one's literal interpretation of a religious text will either be twisted to fit one's Young Earth Creationist timeline or explained away as a misinterpretation of the data.

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