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Learning Skeptically

By Chang-li Yui
I often find that when a topic should be easy to understand, most people think it is difficult. When a topic should be difficult, most people think they know all the answers.

Fundamental physics deals with exceedingly simple subjects. Take the hydrogen atom, the simplest atom one can have:

A single electron running around a single proton. Because it is simple, modern quantum field theory can predict some of its properties with fantastic accuracy. It is simple to learn how it is done.

In a graduate physics program, you would learn quantum field theory and be able to produce the results. Although the calculation looks long if you’ve had only high school algebra, every step leading to the final result is trivially understandable. But how many people would think it is easy?

When new acquaintances at parties find out I am a physics professor, they laugh and say something like, “Well, I never did well in math!” They are not embarrassed, as they would be were the subject politics or religion. This implies that physics is hard. Well, how about politics? It involves culture, history, economics, psychology and more. Yet almost all people think they have the solutions to political problems, even though they might at times concede they don’t know all the facts.

When it comes to religion, practically everyone – even those who may not be able to learn to solve the simplest algebraic equations – has a direct line to God or Allah or Buddha. They all know the intentions of the master of the universe, down to which football team He supports. They have absolutely correct answers to all religious questions. To me, religion should be the most difficult subject conceivable. We live on a speck of dust, yet try to comprehend the mystery behind a vast universe.

My guess is that when a problem is so hard, anyone’s answer is as good as anyone else’s. That is why difficult problems appear so easy. That does not explain why a particular answer exists (such as “kill all the Xs, and then all the world’s troubles will go away”), or why those who devise the answer are so sure it is correct. I think it is because we receive these answers almost unconsciously from our environment, before we are mature enough to ask questions.

I’ll illustrate with a little history. In the mid-17th century, China changed from the Ming to the Qing Dynasty. Dynasty changes were always a big upheaval. Lots of people died, for all kinds of grand reasons. But I am not going to tell you about grand reasons. I am going to tell you about a change in hairstyles.

During the Ming Dynasty men grew their hair long. The Qing Dynasty’s ruler ordered men to shave their foreheads and braid the rest of their hair behind. The rule was very strict: Either shave your forehead or lose your head. And lose their heads many did willingly. This was about ancestral tradition, something the Chinese will die for. Three hundred years later, the Qing Dynasty came to an end. By then, many refused to cut their pigtails because now pigtails were an ancestral tradition. This is the power of tradition. No question is asked; no reason is needed.

We are fed beliefs from the environment into which we are born. Without them we cannot possibly function. But automatic, unconscious acceptance of beliefs can mislead us to think that these beliefs are eternal and unquestionably true. Therefore, we have to learn that our environment, cultural or physical, has not always been, and will not always be, as we see it today.

Einstein’s theory of space and time was so shocking because we thought we knew everything about it since childhood. We thought continents had always been in their present locations. Abstract painting was rejected at first, because it did not look “real.” Almost every new religion experienced oppression in its infancy, but most turned around to suppress other new ones.

One of the crucial duties of a teacher is to help students examine their ideas and beliefs: Where did they come from, what was their basis, are they still relevant, do they do harm?

Teachers do not ask you to abandon your beliefs. They don’t know everything or have every answer. But they have learned that a healthy dose of skepticism, toward ourselves, will make our minds more nimble. It will help us all get along better in this shrinking world.

Teaching skepticism can be a hazardous task. Ask Socrates, who died for it. Teachers fare slightly better in our time. Still they may face grumpy students, angry parents or threatening school boards. It is a tribute to the human spirit that these threats have not deterred people from choosing the teaching profession. Next time you hear something from your teacher that counters your beliefs, be thankful that someone is still willing to risk challenging you.

Remember, though, not to be paralyzed by self-examination. Our knowledge is necessarily incomplete; we may not be right. But in life, we must act. The point is that we must always be ready to admit that we don’t have all the truth, especially when an action could cause more damage.

Self-reflection sometimes has surprising results. An old monk once said, “Thirty years ago I looked at mountain as mountain, water as water. Later I looked at mountain not as mountain, water not as water. Now again I look at mountain as mountain, water as water.” You may, after deep self-examination, come to an affirmation of your beliefs. Like the old monk, you have reached a more mature state of affirmation. You have a firmer grip of what you believe, and you understand other points of view better because you were there once.

Chang-li Yiu is professor emeritus of mathematics and physics. This essay previously appeared in The Mast.

Photo top: Chang-li Yiu, professor emeritus of mathematics and physics, believes the key to knowledge is being ready to admit that we don’t have all the truth.