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Certainty • Posted: Jul 15, 2008 23:55:35Comments WelcomeVote CoolPhotoblogsPurchase a PrintShare

If you've ever played the party game Telephone, you have some notion of the problems inherent to getting news via secondary sources. In a nutshell such news is unreliable, certainty highly suspect.

If you have no familiarity with that game, what happens is participants gather in a circle. One person begins by whispering a secret into the ear of the person sitting next to him or her. That person then turns and whispers what they've heard into the next person's ear, and so on around the circle. The last person then states out loud for the entire group what he or she thinks they have heard. A secret like "Tom and Mary are pregnant" might end up as "Tamale's are praying" or far worse. The end product very often bears little resemblance to the initial utterance.

If one were to ask what is the source of all the uncertainty added in to news from secondary sources, the answer would have to be humans. The problem is certainly not inherent to the information being conveyed. The problem is in the mode of transmission, the reprocessing by humans of the original information. Humans f*** it up every single time. Take humans out of the picture and you might get closer to the truth of the matter, something closer to reliably certain.

The stark difference between science and religion is that organized religion is based almost entirely on secondary sources. True, prayer, meditation, and inspiration can be a direct source of insight. But that insight cannot be reliably reproduced by succeeding individuals. It must be retold, re-explained. And it is the process of retelling that undermines the reliable certainty of the original insight. Science, on the other hand, takes the phenomenal world to be the source of certainty. Insight derived from observation and experimentation is not deemed to be true unless it can be reliably reproduced, rediscovered, or re-derived by succeeding individuals. It's as if in the game Telephone the whispered secret has been replaced by markings on a rock and the rock has then been passed around the circle. Each participant has equal access to exactly the same data. Differences of interpretation can still occur, but by consensus a tentative truth can be held simultaneously by most of the group until such time as a better theory of interpretation is put forward that more fully accounts for the data observed.

All scientific truths are held to be true within described bounds of uncertainty, within bounds of what can be reliably known with reasonable certainty. Religions on the other hand proclaim things to be true with no attempt to describe the reliable limits of their certainty. Any possible doubt must be overcome by faith because the basis for such beliefs have no reproducible primary source accessible to all. Faith does not erase uncertainty. It merely denies any exists.

An unretouched, unadulterated, unstaged photograph is not a primary source of information, but it comes a whole lot closer than most stories conveyed in words or movies made in Hollywood. The scale of nature compared to the puny inconsequence of a single human, contrasted with the stark power of human ingenuity and collective action, power so great it can literally slice through mountains, such certainty can be summarily and reliably witnessed in a single unadulterated photograph. And no amount of faith to overcome doubt is necessary.

Wednesday, February 6th, 2008