Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Big Questions: How Do We Really Know Stuff?

A couple weeks ago, as my inquisitive daughter and I were driving along a North Carolina highway, we began talking about how amazing it was for humans to land a laboratory the size of a washing machine on a comet only 2.5 miles wide, orbiting the sun at a brisk 84,000 mph and 300 million miles from Earth. The discussion turned to the knowledge the engineers and scientists must collectively have known in order to pull off such a tremendous feat. How did they gain the necessary knowledge? The discussion soon drifted to the Big Bang Theory (not the sitcom) and an admission by my daughter that she didn’t enjoy thinking about cosmology because she couldn't comprehend the concept of infinity. She told me she knew the universe was expanding at the speed of light, and has been for over 14 billion years, but didn’t know what space it was expanding into! “There had to be something beyond the edge of the expanding universe,” she said. That’s when I switched to my fatherly, teaching voice and said, “It’s perfectly fine to not know the answer and simply say, I don’t know.”

Artist Display of Philae Lander

All of us ponder the big questions at some point in our lives. What existed before the universe? How did we get here? Are there multiple universes? What is beyond our own expanding universe? In order to answer these and other big questions about our existence we must develop a mechanism to confidently gain accurate, objective knowledge. Generally, there are two ways that we, as individuals, go about our quest to seek knowledge that satisfies our deepest questions. The first is to adopt an already existing narrow ideology, which claims to know all the answers to the big questions. The second is to spend the bulk of our lives painstakingly learning past knowledge and demanding empirical and rationally obtained evidence of those facts before personally accepting them as likely truth or knowledge. Only then can one continue discovering new facts through rigorous, disciplined, proven methods which build upon past knowledge.

"I want to believe as many true things and as few false things as possible."
- Matt Dillahunty

Unfortunately, most people obtain at least some of their knowledge from religion. Religion moves sneakily between reality when convenient and magic when it must. It makes absolute claims based upon human fantasies of eternal life, an omnipotent, protective father figure, and a universe which is centered on the human species. It will use established science when it’s in line with their claims, condemn science as evil when it’s not, and manufacture false truths as necessary to support its teachings. It plays to human desire and fear, discourages questioning and curiosity, and demands absolute adherence of its followers. It is void of any genuine self-correcting measures. In the end, all religions rely on faith, a belief without evidence, to get buy-in to their product. It is no wonder faith as a virtue is pushed so aggressively by clergy and used as a source of pride in nearly every religion. Unproven knowledge is simple to obtain, but how do we discover what is real in our cosmos?

“Faith is the excuse people give for believing something when they don't have evidence.” - Matt Dillahunty

Science is the best mechanism we have for obtaining objective facts. It is not easy, fast, convenient, or even correct all the time, but it has allowed humans to send man to the moon, roving laboratories to Mars, develop effective vaccines, build the Boeing 777, find and exploit the invisible electromagnetic spectrum, discover ultrasound and radar, invent the device you are reading this from, and the list goes on and on! This is all possible because of the scientific method, which encourages opposing ideas, honest peer review, but most importantly demands a preponderance of evidence based upon repeatable and predictable outcomes. When a scientist makes a claim of truth or knowledge, he/she will submit it to scientists all over the world and challenge them to discredit the findings and attempt to duplicate and verify the supporting evidence. The proud scientist who finds errors in another’s claims not only moves mankind closer to actual knowledge, but also deserves a promotion!

Danger! Red Flag! ^^

Unlike religion, science never dismisses the possibility that it could be wrong or partially wrong about its claims. Albert Einstein famously modified Sir Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity by finding a more precise definition and calculation thus improving the theory. A scientific theory summarizes a hypothesis or group of hypotheses that have been supported with repeated testing. If enough evidence accumulates to support a hypothesis, it moves to the next step—known as a theory—in the scientific method and becomes accepted as a valid explanation of a phenomenon. Scientific theories can become more precise or even change based upon new reliable evidence. Religious apologists often parrot their minders by declaring scientific claims such as evolution is “just a theory,” but their brand of God is absolute fact based on blind faith.

Perhaps the biggest question of all for most people at some point in their lives is whether there is a creator or god who controls the cosmos. I submit the only honest answer to that question is an emphatic “We don’t know!” No religion has so far produced testable, empirical, and predictable evidence to rigorous scientific standards that would fit into any scientific model or theory that relies on actual knowledge. If a religion produced such evidence, successfully passed the scientific review process, and contributed to science in a meaningful way, it would cease to be a faith and would be called science! Even then, it would likely only be a possibility depending on the quality and quantity of the evidence. Personally, I think it is valid to establish the concept of a creator as a remote possibility, but with no reliable evidence suggesting one thus far (the bible is as reliable for proving God’s existence as a Harry Potter novel is as evidence for wizards), it would be dishonest to take seriously and move to the scientific theory category. For anybody to claim one of man’s religions or scriptures as fact without the scientific process validating its claims is, to me, not only harmful to humans in the short term, but clearly dangerous to scientific efforts required to solve mankind's most pressing problems.


  1. I fixed the pictures that failed to show on the first publication, so now it makes more sense.

    1. Hello Kurt, this was a clear and convincing article. I recently ran into your name while surfing the web. With a bit of checking, it became obvious you're the same Kurt I knew many years ago. You knew me as another person during your early childhood, teens, and the beginning of your Air Force career. Many years ago I came to qrips as to whom I was born as and what I should have been born as. It's been a very long journey for my true identity. I apologize for being somewhat cryptic but I don't know if you want me to elaborate on our past relationship or remain distant since our relationship ended during the first Gulf War in 1991. If you choose to write me, my e-mail is kathybolton@roadrunner.com. I wish you well.--Kathleen Bolton, United States Army Airborne.