2001 : WHAT QUESTIONS HAVE DISAPPEARED?

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Writer and Television Producer; Author, Remembering Our Childhood: How Memory Betrays Us
How many angels can dance on the point of a pin?

This question is no longer asked, not because the question has been answered (although I happen to believe the answer is e to the i pi) but because the search for knowledge about the spiritual world has shifted focus as a result of science and maths cornering all the physical and numerical answers. Along with "Did Adam have a navel?" and "Did Jesus' mother give birth parthenogenetically?", this question is no longer asked by anyone of reasonable intelligence. Those who would in the past have searched for scientific support for their spiritual ideas have finally been persuaded that this is a demeaning use for human brainpower and that by moving questions about the reality of spiritual and religious ideas into the same category as questions about mind (as opposed to brain) they will retain the respect of unbelievers and actually get nearer to an understanding of the sources of their preoccupations.

As an addendum, although I wasn't asked I would like also to answer the question "What questions should disappear and why?"

The one question that should disappear as soon as possible ­ and to a certain extent scientists are to blame for the fact that it is still asked ­ is: What is the explanation for astrology/UFOs/clairvoyance/telepathy/any other 'paranormal' phenomenon you care to name?

This question is still asked because scientists and science educators have failed to get over to the public the fact that there is only one method of explaining phenomena ­ the scientific method. Therefore, anything that people are puzzled by that has not been explained either doesn't exist or there isn't yet enough evidence to prove that it does. But still I get the impression that for believers in these phenomena there are two types of explanatory system ­ science and nonscience (you can pronounce the latter 'nonsense' if you like). When you try to argue with these people by pointing out that there isn't sufficient repeatable evidence even to begin to attempt an explanation in scientific terms, they just say that this particular phenomenon doesn't require that degree of stringency. When the evidence is strong enough to puzzle scientists as well as nonscientists, they'll begin to devise explanations ­ scientific explanations.

There's a good example of how this works currently with the interest taken in St John's wort as a possible treatment for depression. Once there was enough consistent evidence to suggest that there might be an effect, clinical trials were planned and are now under way. Interestingly, an indication that there might be a genuine effect comes from a substantial body of information suggesting that there are adverse drug interactions between St John's wort and immunosuppressive drugs taken by transplant patients. Once an 'alternative' remedy actually causes harm as well as having alleged benefits, it's claimed effects are more likely to be genuine. One argument against most of the quack remedies around, such as homoeopathy, is that they are entirely safe (although this is seen as a recommendation, by the gullible.)

The demand that phenomena that are not explainable in scientific terms should be accepted on the basis of some other explanation similar to the argument you might care to use with your bank manager that there is more than one type of arithmetic. Using his conventional accounting methods he might think your account is overdrawn but you would argue that, although the evidence isn't as strong as his method might require, you believe you still have lots of money in your account and therefore will continue writing cheques. (As like as not, this belief in a positive balance in your account will be based on some erroneous assumption ­ for example, that you still have a lot of blank cheques left in your chequebook.)

KARL SABBAGH is a television producer who has turned to writing. Among his television programs are "Skyscraper" ­ a four-hour series about the design and construction of a New York skyscraper; "Race for the Top" ­ a documentary about the hunt for top quark; and "21st Century Jet" ­ a five part series following Boeing's new 777 airliner from computer design to entry into passenger service.He is the author of six books including Skyscraper, 21st Century Jet, and A Rum Affair .