Importance of reading and information dissemination

[from an email posted collectively to some friends on 15 Sep 2016]
In one of my previous emails I said “Information dissemination leads to greater understanding and awareness.”

It’s hard to argue against such a platitude; now I want to say “Reading can help to remove ignorance and expand the intellectual horizon.”

Still, the option is open to everyone: read or disregard; delete it if the content is something offensive to you.

Whatever we want to believe, we hanker for truth but, unfortunately, the truth or falsehood of a belief is not always verifiable. This assertion seems sensible, and is true of course for anyone who is not irrational.

But when a belief or a physical object can be tested as true or false, or as to whether it is indeed the substance it is alleged to be, should we avoid putting it to the test and recoil from facing the truth? Well, for truth-seekers the answer would be a resounding no. However, there are people who are afraid of facing the truth, and for this group the answer may come from a diametrically opposite position. And this brings us to a story that appeared in a local English newspaper some years ago.

Displayed in a new Chinatown temple in Singapore was supposedly a relic, a tooth of Buddha. From a photograph of this tooth, several experts in the field of dentistry had evaluated the size and shape of the tooth and then expressed the opinion that it was not a human tooth. One of them allegedly said: “It is so easy to see that it isn’t a human tooth because a human tooth and an animal tooth are so different that one can use the analogy of an apple and a pear to compare them.” If it is not a human tooth, then it is only logical to say that it cannot be a tooth of Buddha.

Whether the tooth was a tooth of Buddha is not a metaphysical question but one that can be settled empirically, as the tooth is a real, physical object and can be subjected to physical verification by experts in the field of dentistry. It can be expertly verified as to whether it came from a human being or whether it is not a human tooth at all; verification confirming it as a human tooth would undoubtedly add credibility to the claim that it belonged to Buddha. This question is totally on a different plane from the question: Is there a God/god? The latter question, needless to say, is a metaphysical one, thus beyond verification or falsification.

Venerable Shi Fazhao, the abbot of the temple, was reported to have said: “They can say all they want. I don’t care what they say. If you believe it’s real, then it’s real.”

Everyone can say what they want – this no doubt may be a truism in the world of fantasy – but in the real world people are expected to talk or act rationally, with reason or logic. You can tell a 3-year old kid that you have a dragon in your backyard visible only to you and not to others, but do not expect an adult to believe you, if you are dead earnest about it.

If one is not interested in distinguishing between what can be taken as truth and what is clearly a falsehood, then one can be seen as acting apathetically, ignorantly, dishonestly [or with less than honesty], irrationally or stupidly.

When comments poured in from the public following publication of the Buddha tooth story, one comment from an individual read: “After all, what is divine is not scientific and what is scientific is not divine.” This statement is nothing more than saying that science deals with the physical world, and is a reflection of how muddled some people can be over the issue at hand. The issue or question in contention is clearly not one about divinity. It is merely a matter of establishing whether the tooth is a human tooth or an animal tooth.

This relic seems to have something akin to the so-called Shroud of Turin – believed to be the cloth that covered Jesus when he was placed in his tomb and that his image was recorded on its fibers at or near the time of his proclaimed resurrection – which turned out to be a hoax when three laboratories, using radiocarbon dating experiments, placed the origin of the fabric as somewhere from 1260 to 1390 AD.

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