some thoughts on the utility of bunyips

I was reading Worms’s post about belief, “The answer is a question”. And I started writing a really long comment, and then thought it was a bit rude to take up so much space on her blog for my own musings. So I’m putting them here.
I’ve had a rant previously about my love of science, and my horror of people who shun knowledge. And if you’ve read much of my blog, you’ll know I’m a physicist. I’m not a particularly good one, but as a PhD trained physicist, and having done research since then as well, I do have a working knowledge of how science is done as opposed to the findings of science that are taught at school and at undergrad level in uni.
At the core of science is un-belief. Because at core, science IS questioning. And if you just believe, then you won’t question. And if you don’t question, you won’t learn. (And if scientists didn’t question, you wouldn’t have semiconductors and everything that came from that, to name just one example.)
I wasn’t brought up with any religion, and despite several people trying to convert me to various beliefs (including telling me, kindly, and in a sad voice, that I was going to go to hell) I’ve never seen any evidence to inspire belief of that nature. That doesn’t mean I haven’t at times wanted to ‘believe’ – to abdicate responsibility, to blame someone for my misfortunes, to thank someone for my joys.
So, as an atheist and a scientist, what is the value of belief to me?
Well, one common view of an atheist on religious belief is that it’s a way of controlling people. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing – sometimes people need a strong irrational reason not to do something if a rational reason won’t stop them. For a couple of years my kids wouldn’t go near the dam for fear the bunyip would eat them. (If you’re thinking “put a fence around it”, go visit a farm – this isn’t a backyard pool we’re talking about.) Maybe Moses’s tribe had a high fraction of people with shellfish allergies (I have read the bible, cover to cover). Bunyips and abominations can help keep us safe.
But eventually one of my kids said he couldn’t find evidence of a bunyip. I’ll admit that was a proud-mum-day, when my four year old first used the word evidence. Now he’s a teenager who tells me there is no evidence that taking his phone away improves his behaviour and that I’m irrational for doing so. That’s not so great, and a dose of brimstone and hellfire at an early age is looking like a missed opportunity.
And I’m not going to pretend that I personally don’t have any irrational beliefs – although I do try to let them go when I come across evidence that disproves them. (No theory is scientific unless it can be disproved.) Fortunately, so far my belief in chicken soup as a cure for flu has only been strengthened by both my own experiments and the medical literature on the placebo effect.
And that sort of belief, a belief that brings you happiness or makes life better in some way, is also of value.
There’s a bit about belief in Pratchett’s Hogfather, where Death says something like: humans need to believe in the little lies, like the Hogfather (Santa) so that they can believe in the big lies like justice and mercy. Maybe I should have taught my kids to believe in Santa Claus as well as the bunyip – maybe then they wouldn’t be such little shits. I must check the literature to see if anyone has done a study to correlate early childhood beliefs with shittiness of teenagerhood.
So, if religion or any other belief system can make the world a better place, by making people better people, I guess that’s a good thing.
Tomorrow is the winter solstice. I think I’ll light a bonfire to make sure the sun rises again, and sacrifice a chicken to make some soup.


Filed under musings, prose, rants

6 responses to “some thoughts on the utility of bunyips

  1. Great blog! Such a lovely mix of humour, cynacism, reality and good hard-edged science. As I commented to Hobbo, I think we all are prone to believing things that suit us at one time or another. Believing friends will do the right thing by us. Believing a long time hero isn’t a criminal just because they’re a long time hero. Believing we are right because our own world view supports that. It’s so bloody hard to question everything… especially our own narrative. I really try. It’s exhausting and confusing and … well it’s like not having ground to walk on. But I hope it’s worth it. I am having chemo at the moment. My dependence on science is a life string. But as a non scientist, as much as I revere and respect the tenants of science you speak of, I don’t actually understand the science. At least, not down to the core. So I must believe in the people as much as with any other subject. And that feels… dodgy. Luckily, my husband (and good people like yourself) keep me faithful.

    • Thank you Worms, I hope you weren’t offended or annoyed at me using a post of yours as a jumping off point for another rant.
      There are good reasons to not question everything. Even if it doesn’t drive you crazy or leave you paranoid, the cognitive load is too high.
      Society, technology, economics… it’s all too complex for each individual to understand. There is no option but to have faith. Probably especially in medicine.
      One of the things we do in science is use the simplest model that works to understand the situation. We use Newtonian mechanics to describe a car’s motion. A relativistic model might be more precise, but not enough to be worth the added complexity. We shift to a relativistic model when the Newtonian model no longer gives a precise enough result.
      Maybe life is like that in general – we start with a simple model “this person means what they say” and only replace it when it turns out to be inaccurate. I think I tend to do that. And am inevitably disappointed at times. Somewhere these is a happy medium between wide-eyed idiocy and outright paranoia. 😀 Not sure where though.
      Good luck with the chemo, I would pray for you if I wasn’t an atheist.

  2. kate that s just great
    no wait what
    um yeah
    why not

  3. M

    i suspect the shittiness of teenagerhood (nearly wrote teen anger hood, which also works) transcends cultures, ages, religions. (mine are 20 and 22 now, and the older one is actually human.)

Comments? Feedback?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s