(How do you know what you know, answer the holocaust deniers, and decide who’s right on global warming? ANS: You can’t - absolutely.)

Origin of Idea

It came to me at a recent meeting of the Thinking Man’s Club. I leaned across the sofa and said to the Grand Poo Paa, “It’s all a matter of faith. You just have to pick one side or another and have faith that they are right.” He laughed and replied something. But I didn’t understand because everybody, including Kris the nice young woman at the other end of the sofa, the person who prompted my comment, was trying to be heard over everybody else.

The meeting was about food. After feeding us fantastic home-cooked lasagna prepared strictly with organic ingredients, Kris lectured about the dangers of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). In particular she warned about a plot by Monsanto to use the US Patent system to control our food supply.

My problem wasn’t so much with what she was saying (although some of her rhetorical methods were suspect). It was her appeal to science. I didn’t like being drawn into yet another argument where both sides cite “scientific evidence” to support their positions. Despite my certainty (at the time) on such issues as global warming, evolution, etc, I have never been happy with my answers to the blank-faced assurance of those who say it isn’t so. I resisted being seduced into a new realm of uncertainty.

That’s when it struck me that maybe nobody really knows anything - not absolutely for sure. Maybe all knowledge (except for what's inside our own heads) is a matter of faith, even scientific knowledge. Maybe uncertainty is faith based.

Rhetorical Device

How would that work?

Here is a rhetorical device.

Assume that our knowledge of stuff occurs on a certainty scale - from the “I’m really sure” at one end to “I’m pretty confused” at the other end.

Starting at the silly end of the scale (necessary, because it is a rhetorical device), I am really sure that it snowed the other night in Mount Holly. I touched the white stuff, walked in it, felt it fall wet and cold down my collar.

I have faith that it snowed.

What, you ask, does faith have to do with it? Well, how do I know that I didn’t manufactured the experience, or that someone didn’t manufacture it for me in a Matrix-style universe? There is no test. That’s why, for me, believing it snowed is a matter of faith. It follows from believing that the universe is basically sane. It is my secular way of agreeing with Descartes who said that, “God would not deceive me.”, or, Einstein who said, “God does not play dice with the universe.” It seems more practical to believe in an objective universe based on rational rules than a subjective universe that has been manufactured (by me or somebody else) where anything is possible.

(I still believe in my subjective reality - just not in yours.)

Moving down the certainty scale, I am also pretty sure it snowed in Charlotte that same night. I saw the pictures on TV and in the newspaper. Again, how do I know? The experience was not direct. It was based on reports, which could be lies, part of a grand conspiracy. As before, I have faith in a practical and sane universe. Only a crazy universe would go to the trouble to trick me about snow in Charlotte. It doesn’t make sense.

Travelling further down the certainty scale we come to a place where craziness does seem possible. This is where some people ask, did the holocaust really happen; did men really walk on the moon? Is the earth really 5 or 6 billion years old (and not 5 or 6 thousand years)? Did Dick Cheney’s agents fly those planes into the World Trade Center? Is Barak Obama a sleeper agent for a vast Muslim conspiracy? Is evolution real?

I happen to believe that the holocaust did happen, that men did walk on the moon, etc. How do I know? At this point on the scale, there seems to be the possibility of introducing evidence into arguments. Both sides can cite “facts” to prove their positions.

For me it is still a matter of faith - not faith in evidence (which as David Hume suggests can never be sufficient), but in shared objective experience. The body of shared objective experience (objective, because it is available to everybody) seems to favor some conclusions and not others. Except for the small core of deniers, “everybody knows” that the holocaust happened, that men walked on the moon, that Mohamed Atta and his gang flew those planes into the World Trade Center. We have seen the pictures and read the articles. In my sane universe, if something seems too weird or unlikely to be true it probably isn’t - even if there is evidence to “prove” it.

Of course, there are always exceptions and qualifications.

Before the recent economic collapse, everybody “knew” that Lehman Brothers would be around for a long time, that Citibank was a good bet, and that house prices would continue to climb. These shared experiences were misleading. Therefore, I restrict my faith to shared experiences that stand the test of time. Like the scientific theories discussed next, the conclusions drawn from shared experiences are provisional - not to be immediately trusted. How long does it take for trust to happen? Ten or twenty years, never? I don’t know. As Nassim Taleb says, not everything is confined under a neat bell curve. Black swans can happen. But nobody knows when. Sorry.

(One of the tenets of my secular faith is that you can only know so much.)

Conventional wisdom also has problems with phenomena that fall outside the scope of our hunter-gatherer nervous systems. Consider the two remaining questions from the previous list - about the age of the universe and the reality of evolution. These issues cannot be resolved by appealing to shared public experience. We have no direct experience of age outside our own lifetimes. Although evolution happens all around us, we don’t see it. Even our shared experiences of the “rising” and “setting” of the sun would lead us to believe that the sun circles the earth. Until you see a tall ship emerge, top mast first, over the horizon, you would be perfectly justified in concluding that the earth is flat.

This is where science comes in. Science is formalized shared experience - experience that follows the rules of the scientific method. Science lets us construct theories to answer questions that lie outside our direct experience - where everyday common sense cannot go.

Scientific theories depend on experimental evidence for verification. The theories make predictions which are tested in verifiable, repeatable experiments. That constitutes scientific proof. However, scientific proof is provisional. Sometimes new experiences happen that cast doubt on existing theories. Therefore, like the conclusions of shared everyday experiences, the conclusions of scientific theories are tentative and provisional. The main difference is that the provisional nature of science is built into the system. Nobody expects absolutes.

But, also, like the conclusions of shared experience, not all theories are equal. The more a scientific theory endures the attacks and criticisms that are part of the process, the more credible it becomes. Long-standing scientific theories are hardly ever thrown out completely. For example Einstein’s theories of relativity did not disprove previous theories, but expand on them to cover new classes of phenomena. Newton’s and Galileo’s equations still work after Einstein. Einstein’s equations just work in more places.

Returning to the two issues cited on the certainty scale, both the theories of evolution and the age of the universe have been around a long time. Although change and scientific disagreement have nibbled around the edges of these theories, the core conclusions remain untouched - forming the basis for all modern life science and geology.

(You don’t necessarily believe me? Good. That’s the point.)

Where does that leave faith? If a sane universe favors objective shared experience (with the exceptions and caveats noted), then that same universe favors science, which is formalized shared experience. Faith in a sane universe requires faith in science. In a Matrix-style subjective universe, the hero can will himself to fly, to walk on water. Anything is possible. Not in a sane universe.

Finally, we arrive at the other end of certainty scale, where “unproven” scientific theories are found. Although not an expert, I’d guess that Kris’ Monsanto conspiracy theory resides here - plus theories that explain dark matter, dark energy, the causes of autism, etc.

How do I know? I don’t. But faith in a sane universe leads to me doubt theories that haven’t been beat up long enough. How long is that? Again, I don’t know.

Unfortunately, writing this piece has also suggested to me that theories about human contribution to global warming might also reside at the unproven end of the scale. Al Gore said peer-reviewed scientific articles agree that humans have contributed to global warming. However, I have also read other reports claiming that peer-reviewed articles say the opposite thing. Both sides cite evidence to prove their points. So, I don’t know.

Note 7/3/09 - I've updated my thinking on global warming. See Getting Ready for the Great Climate Change Debate.

Summary Claims

In conclusion…

  1. There exists two realities.
  2. There is an interior subjective reality inside our individual heads. The existence of this reality is a matter of personal fact.
  3. There is an external objective reality, outside our individual heads. The existence of this reality is a matter of faith.
  4. The truth of our internal reality is whatever we want it to be.
  5. The truth of our objective reality is limited by our common shared experiences. Objective reality must operate according to shared rules, not the rules of individuals. If something seems too weird or unlikely to be true, it probably isn’t true. The experiences of the majority trump the experiences (or the evidence) of the minority.
  6. By this definition, objective reality (the external universe) is sane.
  7. Subjective reality is generally neither sane nor insane. It’s ‘a’sane. (However public expressions of subjective reality can be regarded as insane.)
  8. Conclusions based on experience are provisional. Experiences can change or can be inadequate (due to the limitations of our hunter-gatherer nervous systems).
  9. With the caveats noted, the most reliable conclusions are likely to be those based on the most enduring experiences.
  10. The scientific method is a formalized means of stating and validating objective experiences.
  11. The most reliable scientific theories, like the most reliable conclusions drawn from shared everyday experiences are likely to be those that have endured the longest.


In order not to disrupt the narrative flow along my rhetorical device, I have lumped this stuff here (assuming that there are any frequently asked questions)…

What Is God’s Place in a Sane Universe? (Who Manages the Matrix)?

In a sane, faith-based universe, God is not a problem - so long as He obeys His own rules. No miracles, virgin births, etc. Sorry.

What About Scientific Weirdness (Nonlocality, Relativity, etc)?

Science has allowed some serious weirdness to creep in around the edges of the sane universe. Maybe these are God’s Little Jokes. Maybe God does play dice with the universe. Here are some examples:

  • Quantum stuff is both wave and particle and neither here nor there until you look at it.
  • When you look at entangled quantum stuff, the effect is instantly registered - even if the stuff is on opposite sides of the galaxy,
  • Relativity says (and proofs show) that the faster you go the heavier you get, the thinner you become, and the slower your clock runs.

Is There Objective Verification of Subjective Reality?

Yes. According to Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, you can’t exceed the speed of light. However that only applies to the viewpoint of an objective observer. From your own subjective point-of-view you can exceed speed of light. That’s because relative to an objective observer your clock slows down the faster you go. If you travel faster than a certain speed (relative to an observer) and use your own clock to time the trip, your calculated (not measured) speed will exceed the speed of light. See Ennui Pidawee’s video for more.

Can You Win an Objective Argument With Ann Coulter or Rush Limbaugh?

No. These folks don’t do objective arguments. They combine subjective and objective tools to defend subjective positions. They use emotion and intimidation (and maybe sex in the case of Coulter - or Limbaugh?) and pseudo logic. If you believe in a sane universe, you’ll stay away from such people.

What About UFO’s?

The shared objective experience of UFOs seems true. There are photographs, verified reports. The “unidentified” part of the conclusions from these experiences also seems true. Beyond that? Who knows.

What About Angels, Ghosts?

According to something I read, most Americans believe in angels and ghosts. Does this belief constitute a shared reality - either subjective or objective. No. The reports of the belief constitute a shared objective reality, not the belief. Do similar reports of internal states make the internal states objectively real? I don’t think so - such a reality would conflict with the requirements of sane universe.

What About Dreams?

Everybody reports having dreams. Do dreams constitute a shared objective reality? The reports do, so do the physical measurements (REM, brain waves, etc.) that coincide with the dreams. But the dreams themselves are not shared objective reality. They are private and subjective - definitely neither insane nor sane, simply ‘a’ sane.

What About Esse Est Percipi?

Bishop Berkeley, the 17th century Irish philosopher said “Esse est percipi” - to be is to perceived. His point was that you could only be sure about sensations and ideas - e.g., what goes on in your body and head. Samuel John said, “I refute it thus” and kicked a rock. Who is right? The good Bishop I think. The rest is faith.

What About Trees Falling in Forests?

There is the old saw (hah hah) that says, "If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” Some attribute the statement to the Bishop above. The reality of distant falling trees is like snow in Charlotte - you have to believe if you have faith in a practical and sane universe. Anything else would be crazy.

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