The benefits of believing against the evidence

I had a brief exchange of opinions in a Facebook thread of skeptik.ee today, nothing interesting really, but this reminded me of something that occurred to me a couple of months ago, when I read two books on Lucretius’ De rerum natura. Among the many virtues of Lucretius great poem is the fact that it explains the constitution of the physical world very closely to our current scientific knowledge of “how the things are.” For instance, Lucretius posits that the world consists of infinite void that is filled by infinite number of invisible and indivisible particles (or atoms) that swerve around randomly, without anyone to guide them. Atoms are eternal, all the change that we perceive is due to the constant and never-ending rearranging of those indivisible particles. Thus everything is temporal and ephemeral, yet nothing never disappears – nil fieri ex nihilo, in nihilum nil posse reverti. Since atoms are eternal, they were never created – and therefore the world has no beginning and no end, both temporally as well as spatially.

Much of this conforms nicely with what we nowadays know to be true. We are able to detect atoms and even “see” them today. We can measure the time it takes for a neutrino to travel from Gran Sasso to Geneva. We can confidently state that all the matter is made of swerving particles, and we’re pretty positive about the fact that nobody ever “created” them. However, when Lucretius wrote his poem in the 1st century BC, not a single one of those claims could be tested – or demonstrated to be true in any other way. It was all pure speculation, and at the time pretty outrageous sort of speculation. After all, it ran directly counter to what everyone could perceive about matter, time, space and life in general.

De rerum natura only narrowly escaped oblivion by being discovered by a renaissance book-collector Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. Several people have made a point that the rediscovery and subsequent progressive spreading of the book by successive copying was a major factor behind the world becoming modern. Lucretius’ poem was reportedly an inspiration to countless scientists and philosophers, from Montaigne to Isaac Newton, who were instrumental in devising the world-view that we nowadays hold self-apparent – but which at their own time was anything but. So, it is certainly true that being a skeptic will save one the trouble of believing a whole lot of balooney – but now and then it may prevent you from believing what is actually true.

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