In the past few years I’ve encountered a continuing frustration with how mankind hinders itself in its own thought processes. I’m doing it too. I can’t see the forest for the trees, none of us can really. Not completely anyway, but some of us are better at it than others and when we look to the great thinkers of mankind’s past and present, perhaps we can get a glimpse how we too can rise above our own ignorance not only in the great questions of the universe that boggle humanity, but in common every day minutiae. If we so choose to crawl metaphorically out of the muck.
This is theoretical physicist and world renowned educator of the 20th century Richard Feynman, talking about the scientific method. This whole video is extraordinary, even though this is rudimentary from his perspective. It’s something we laypersons so take for granted and abuse horrendously.
When I’m arguing with Believers from my stance as an atheist, I am appalled and amazed at just how ignorant millions of us are as individuals and a species when it comes to how to properly think rationally. In fact, some people are taught by their elders NOT to think rationally because doing so can lead one to deny or defy the culturally ingrained belief systems that are traditionally acceptable in spite of the irrational scenic routes people must mentally take to accept them.
I’m told that because I can’t disprove their god, I must therefore accept the possibility it does exist, and behave as if it does. The Believer cannot fathom any other conclusion, even though this is NOT rational thinking. It’s the exact opposite of rational thinking, and if you were to take the time to observe the Richard Feynman video above, you’d see that this great thinker actually agrees with me on something.
Feynman begins this way: “In general we look for a new law by the following process. First, we guess it..” at this point he gets some nervous laughter from his students. “Well don’t laugh that’s really true. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see if this is right.. we see what it would imply, and then we compare those computations and results to nature.”
So first we make up a rule. Usually based on recent observation, study, experience, but sometimes we just pull something out of our ass. Whatever the guess is. We then test it, to see if the guess can be correct. Then we look over the data that the experiment gave us and compare it to what we already know. The results are not always conclusive, but they lead us to a better level of understanding than when we were just pulling shit out of our ass guessing. At least now we have actual data to compare to nature.
Notice we’re not comparing this data to a book or what some other guy claims without data. We compare it to nature. We compare it to previous experiments that resulted in data. Data that can usually be replicated if someone were to perform the experiment themselves. In fact there’s a bunch of scientists of various fields of study whose job is to replicate other people’s experiments and see whether or not they get the same exact findings or different findings, cuz that can be revealing too.
Feynman goes on to say, “If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It doesn’t make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It doesn’t make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is, if it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.”
This is why I can’t abide religion any longer. All any belief system is, is a series of unproved or unprovable guesses. Does the laying of hands heal people with the power of a god? No. Does prayer work consistently? No. Does blood sacrifice have any magical powers whatsoever? No. Can a wafer be turned into the flesh of a god or can wine magically transubstantiate into blood? No. Claim after claim after claim has repeatedly been proven wrong. Well, you can’t use science on theology. That too is a religious claim that has been proven wrong. You can treat any claim as a guess, and then see if there’s some way to make experiments to confirm that guess.
Feynman goes on to explain that there ARE limits to this scientific method. It’s far from foolproof. You can prove a theory wrong, but you can’t prove it right. And oftentimes the guess is so vague as to be frustratingly unprovable. You can’t prove it wrong but you can’t prove it right, and therein remains and endless debate of whether or not that means the guess is valid at all. Can we dismiss the guess entirely if we can’t prove it wrong? No. Can we dismiss the guess entirely cuz we can’t prove it right? Of course not. You can never prove a guess one hundred percent right.
Feynman uses Newton’s laws of gravity as an example in the above video. For decades if not centuries, people assumed Newton’s observations and guesses were right because from our vantage point on Earth there was no reason to question them. Other scientists observed Newton’s data, they walked the same steps Newton walked and came to similar conclusions. However, relatively recently to Feynman’s lecture, some mathematicians and astrophysicists had discovered discrepancies between Newton’s calculations of Mercury and what it was actually doing long after Newton’s death. His predictions and calculations were close, but not perfect, so Newton was eventually proven wrong.
He was mostly right-ish, but later proven wrong. Certainly he nailed how gravity works ON EARTH, but without other vantage points as reference, he was limited in his scope and capabilities. We can’t blame Newton for being wrong. He was as right as he could be centuries ago, but we have since proven better ways of looking at the universe, and some of those calculations helped us get to the moon and back, and helped us send Voyager probes out to the edges of our solar system and rovers to Mars.
But then Feynman gets to a sticking point that when I heard it the other night, it made my blood run cold. It’s what led me to write this very blog post. He talks about “likely.” Whether or not any guess sounds more or less likely than other possibilities. We are to address the most likely guesses first and then only after we’ve proven those wrong should we take seriously other, seemingly less likely guesses.
Here I been arguing with Believers about how they can’t prove their claims about god as right, and I don’t have to prove their claims as wrong cuz they ain’t MY claims. The claims are THEIRS and the fact they can’t prove their own claims right is evidence enough for me that they’re not right. Not even right-ish, but the real question we should be asking ourselves is what’s more likely?
“So my antagonist asked me ‘well can prove prove flying saucers are impossible?’ and said no i can’t, it’s just very unlikely.” Feynman then says the opposing view is that it’s very UNscientific to dismiss something as unlikely. That if you can’t prove something IMpossible, then it must be acceptably possible. Notice all the double and triple negatives that these thought processes dance around. It’s far more elegant to say only if you can prove something as likely should we accept it as likely. However, Feynman would quickly dismiss this as well, because it is impossible to prove any guess as one hundred percent possible. Nothing is certain in this universe, not even the concept that nothing is certain. That’s just the way it is.
“It is scientific to say what is more likely or less likely.”
It’s NOT scientific to speak in absolutes. Or rather, if one is speaking scientifically, you don’t interpret statements as absolutes. I may say “an apple will always fall from a tree and hit the ground,” but someone could nitpick me to death and say what if some other object is put in the way of the apple? What if it lands on a picnic table and never reaches the ground? Well of course there’s exceptions to any rule but generally speaking if an object falls from a tree it’s going to head towards the Earth. Most of the time. Probably. It’s more likely. Scientific, rational minds understand as a given that there’s always a doubt in any theory no matter how consistent the guesses are proved in experimentation and observation. Newton’s metaphorical apple may always fall from the tree, but that still doesn’t mean his laws of gravity are an absolute. And that has been demonstrated. However, what’s more or less likely in a given scenario?
“I mean from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the result of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence rather than the unknown rational effort of extra-terrestrial intelligence.”
We can prove the existence of irrational terrestrial intelligence. We can see that exists. We can’t prove the existence of the unknown. We cannot find rational extra-terrestrial intelligence. Now, perhaps we’re not looking in the right place. Maybe they actively hide themselves from us. Maybe they’re right under our noses and we’re somehow incapable of sensing them in any way that we currently have at our disposal. If we had some evidence that indicates those as more likely possibilities than what we CAN prove exists, that’d be one thing. However, it’s far more likely that what causes something is what we CAN perceive causing it. There’s no reason to believe in the unknown, if the known is already there and provable. Likewise, the reports of gods or other unproved agents like angels or demons are far more likely to be the delusions of irrational terrestrial intelligence than actual non-terrestrial intelligence. Same goes for Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monsters or unicorns or dragons or nazi hell creatures from the hollow Earth or leprechauns or dopplegangers or any number of other unproved beasts of the fancy of humanity. We could be wrong, but what’s more likely? What CAN we prove to be more right than what we can’t prove at all? Many Believers go through their lives refusing to reconcile what they are told in their belief system’s dogma from ancient ignorant texts with actual every day observations of the actual world around them.
Which brings me to another word. Reconcile.
I wanted to end today with words from another great thinker of our times: Neil Tyson. He tells a story of his youth, how a peer of his questioned how a black man could waste his time on astrophysics, when his great intellect could be better suited to sorting out problems here on Earth that deal culturally with other black people like himself. Tyson struggled with this for many years. His story is very compelling and I offer it to you now for your own education. The key here is that when a person sees evidence that is so compelling and obvious, it invites one to challenge their assumptions about people and life in general. What causes the northern lights? Are they dangerous? If an explosion of plasma happens on the sun, will it bring danger to Earth? No. Why not? Because we’ve observed these phenomena and with observation and experimentation we can learn more about them and whether they pose a danger or are just a dazzling light show.
When a black man is invited to a television station and asked to educate the masses on these findings, what does that mean to you if you believe all black people are somehow less capable than you of understanding this reality we share? How about a woman who has studied these same things. Would she be unable to fathom such things because of her sex? What about a gay man? What about an atheist? What about anyone who is different from what you personally find to be safe and comforting?
What’s more or less likely? That stereotyping can lead to prejudice, or that anyone who differs from you is not to be trusted? We need to learn more about each other to understand how we can trust some people who strive to better themselves and their society, but sometimes we can’t trust other people. We need to learn more about the world and the universe in which we live. Most importantly, we need to challenge every day, every previous guess that others have made before us. We can’t assume any of them are one hundred percent likely. We need to reconcile the new data we discover with the old world in which we live.
Likely. Reconcile. Doubt.
Thanks for reading.