Pluto, Eris, Haumea, Makemake and Ceres: not this time gods and goddesses of ancient mythologies, but rather dwarf planets in our own solar system. What makes them interesting is the chaos they've brought over the past five years to many older and more staid minds. (Space.com has an article about it here.)
As astronomers considered that Eris, Haumea, Makemake, and Ceres are astronomically equivalent (in terms of type) with Pluto, it became increasingly obvious that it would be impossible to continue regarding Pluto as a planet without admitting those other objects as planets also. But admitting those objects, would mean admitting likely thousands of similar, yet-undiscovered objects as planets. The latter option is unacceptable on its face, since grade-school kids would never be able to memorize the names of Earth's siblings, and since Styrofoam-crafted models of the solar system would become dexterously unattainable to third-grade fingers.
So Pluto was demoted from being a planet. Now there are eight planets in our solar system.
But such a change cannot be! The truth taught us as children cannot be shaken! That reaction, expressed by so many in different ways, was also mine---emotionally at least---even though I didn't state it out loud.
Six years hence, just about everyone is over the issue. We all realize that whether a thing is called a planet or not is simply conventional. Refining the definition of “planet” to work in light of new considerations is a practical step giving man no more authority than he had when he first decided Ceres was just the largest of objects in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
But there are a couple of lessons worth learning from the experience.
First: The fact that some things are defined by convention says absolutely nothing about whether everything is defined by convention.
People learn inductively. That is, repetition is a basic building block for belief. If a cat’s meow is followed by rain, it may mean nothing. But if the cat meows again, and it rains again, then we start to believe that every time the cat meows, it’s going to rain. From hence come both silly superstitions and practical daily life.
Along those same lines, people induce relativism. Pluto is a planet, then it is not. White shoes are not acceptable after Labor Day, then they are. Similar cases begin to add up. Neither was right or wrong intrinsically. Conventions just changed. What is acceptable or unacceptable is relative to convention, or culture---a fair induction as far as it goes.
But then people begin to conflate other examples with those. Blacks can’t drink from white fountains, then they can. Public executions are a whanging-good time for the whole family, then they’re not. But those examples, even superficially, are not the same as the first ones. In both of these cases, there is something in the latter state which morally condemns the previous state. It’s not just different that blacks can drink from any water fountain now; it’s better. That moral improvement is not the case with wearing white shoes after Labor Day.
That being the case, the induction that since some things are relative to convention, everything must be conventional, is false. And that falsity is a fact we can recognize and explain. The absoluteness of reality and the corresponding dependence of our truth claims on that reality are unchanged by convention, regardless of our inductively motivated rhetorical mistakes.
And second: Conserving inconsequential conventions can detract from efforts to conserve what really matters.
We like familiar things, and many familiar things are conventional, often traditional. We like certain styles of music, dress, and appearance. We like certain dates to be observed. (Aside: personally, I’m flabbergasted that we argue about whether to observe President’s Day or MLK Day as a holiday while consistently observing Labor Day, which is actually a substitute for International Workers’ Day, or, as I like to refer to it, Socialistichisky Day.)
Back to the second point. If believers focus on keeping certain haircuts in style, certain musical styles in worship services, iPads and iPhones out of Bible study, or any of a thousand other things, then we dilute the clarity with which we speak when we talk about conserving the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, or the sufficiency of Scripture, and so on.
It certainly is not the case that no issues other than basic doctrine are important. But it is the case that we must measure the worth and impact of every step we take away from the center of the march to conserve what is most important.
The gist: Let them tug Pluto in and out of planet-hood. We accept those changes (with a little psychological trauma) and welcome the progress that may come with them. We know that such conventional changes have no more bearing on absolute truth than an inert Greek Pluto has the power to strike at God’s throne or the possibility to remove Him from it. Indeed, the truth is still there, because God is still there.
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I hate to admit it, but I think I simply agree with you. Nicely said,
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