The Uncertainty Principle.
“All I know is that I know nothing” – Socrates
Science has achieved some absolutely amazing advances and will continue to produce ever more amazing and (hopefully not literally) earth shattering advancements over the next millennia.
It is difficult to grasp how much advancement the has occurred in just a little over 200 years, particularly when compared to the 10,000 years that preceded it. For example, it was only a little over 200 years ago in the late 1700s, that early geologists observing rock formations realised that they indicated a world of immense age. They began to contemplate a world of perhaps of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of years, rather than the six thousand years described in the Christian Bible.
And what early geologists did for the age of the planet, Darwin only did for the age of life, just over 150 years ago, when in 1860 he published his theory of evolution, which demonstrated that all of the countless different species of life itself could arise through natural selection, but that this slow process would take incalculable amounts of time.
Now, through a range of new scientific methods, we know the world to be over four billion years old and residing in a universe that is believed be little over 13 billion years old.
Similarly, in medicine, the 1830s saw the emergence of an understanding the role of pathogens in the cause of disease. It surprises many that something that seems so obvious today took nearly a generation of scholarly debate before it was finally accepted as fact. Similarly recent and life changing was the discovery of the first antibiotic in the 1930s and the subsequent eradication of a whole range of diseases from the public consciousness.
I remember as a young soldier visiting one of the forts built on Australia’s Mornington Peninsula, during the late 1800s and reading through the log of soldier deaths. That such a thing even existed, puzzled me, but I understanding dawned on me as I continued reading. Wheras my regiment experienced at most one or two peacetime deaths each year, 100 years previously, fit, young healthy soldiers, such as myself were routinely dying from infections and diseases, such as the flu and accidents that would have not been fatal had they occurred even fifty years ago. In a matter of decades, the simple invention of antibiotics had revolutionised the way that people lived and died.
The success of science is ubiquitous and its revolutions have become commodities. We know that the light switch will turn on the light, that the car will start and that the latest entertainment will be available for private consumption on the latest, most sophisticated storage media that scientists have been able to devise and that it will be able to be experienced in a similarly technologically astounding manner. We wait excitedly for the next development and dream of what life will be like in another 100 years.
Science is the most successful tool that humanity has created for discovering knowledge. But despite the certainties of science and what it can tell us about our existence and our universe, the disturbing truth is that Socrates, living nearly 2,400 years ago, was fundamentally correct when he said that “All I know is that I know nothing”. Since then, nothing has changed!
In other words, despite the certainly and the revelations of science, everything is predicated on a particular understanding of the universe. But given the nature of scientific discovery and scientific revolution, this understanding might not even be true. Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that this universe is not even real.
For example, it could be very well the case that the universe in which you are existing is merely a simulation and that you are in fact the resident of a highly technologically advanced species (who may not even be human), engaged in a high tech role playing game. This of course raises the question of whether the original universe is in fact the original universe, or merely a simulation itself. A potentially infinite hierarchy of simulated universes could exist.
Or it could be that you are in fact god and that the entirety of existence is your own sentience and through it you create and inhabit an infinite variety of universes and lives, seeking the answer to your own existential crisis.
Now, if one resides in what has been popularly denoted as the “reality based universe”, than these sorts of speculations would seem like an irrelevant distraction and certainly something to be dealt with once the appropriate time arrives (ie death).
But irrespective of what those in the reality based universe might like to think of such speculation, the reality of this universe is that the majority of the earth’s population engages in such speculation on a daily basis through the form of religious and spiritual exploration, belief and practice. In many cases, these speculations form the foundational basis for an individual’s sense of identity, meaning and purpose.
Socrates: Except for god, the first person to realise that he truly knew nothing.
In discussing religion, spirituality and the big “meaning of life” questions, such as “is the world a computer simulation”, we are in fact discussing something called “metaphysics”. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that deals with the fundamental nature of the universe. The word metaphysics is derived from two Greek words: “meta” means beyond, or after and physics refers to the physical. So, metaphysics is essentially dealing with those questions that lie beyond the grasp of physics and therefore beyond the grasp of science.
When discussing metaphysics, one is by definition not discussing things that can be demonstrated scientifically. If we were, these questions would instead fall under the domain of physics as a science. What is methaphysics is continually shifting, as areas that were outside science, such as the nature of the heavens can now be examined scientifically using new technologies. Other questions, such as what happened before our universe came into existence or why there is something, rather than nothing, are unlikely to ever be explored using the scientific method.
It is important that we bear this in mind, when engaged in these types of discussions, because there is among people an irrational desire to put their metaphysical understanding to the forefront and to discount all of the other perspectives. When these understandings also include religious beliefs, the slide into persecution of the other seems almost inevitable.
The truth is that while many religions make a range of claims that don’t fall under the umbrella of metaphysics, for example when they attempt to tackle moral questions, or provide laws by which god is assumed to want us to live, each religious tradition lies on the sandy foundation of a particular set of metaphysical assumptions.
For example, within the monotheistic tradition of the Christian faith, there is the assumption that there is a single god who is the creator of the universe, and who possesses a range of traits, such as being omniscient, omnipotent and infinitely good. Furthermore, many of the followers of these traditions believe that upon death, they will move on to a coherent afterlife in either heaven, or hell, where they will be either blessed with eternal bliss, or cursed with eternal torment. Furthermore, many also believe that the world will end within their lifetimes in an apocalyptic battle between the forces of good and evil, with the associated occurrences of rapture and the appearance of the antichrist.
Each of these claims is unverifiable by science, but of more concern, they are in direct contradiction of the metaphysical assumptions of other traditions. For example, many Hindus believe in a potentially infinite number of deities and that rather than moving onto a single eternal existence, they will be reincarnated into another life, the circumstances of which will be determined by the karma that they have accrued in this one. The ultimate goal is to obtain “moksha”, or release from the continual cycle of births and deaths, and the achievement of ultimate enlightenment.
To add to the confusion, one doesn’t even need to adhere to a religion in order to bring a range of metaphysical claims to the table. For example, many atheists hold the position that not only is there no god of any sort, but there is also nothing that could be described as “supernatural” and nothing that cannot ultimately be explained by rational scientific inquiry. While this might appear to be a denial of the metaphysical, it is in fact an assertion of yet another unique unscientifically demonstrable set of metaphysical assumptions.
So with so many competing metaphysical claims, surely there must be a correct answer somewhere? Surely we can determine the truth, or the likelihood of truth through honest enquiry, hard work and a bit of common sense?
Unfortunately, the answer here, is a simple, “no”. Ultimately, because each of these religious traditions hinges on purely metaphysical claims, there can be no way of asserting whether one is true and the others false. One set of metaphysical beliefs is just as compatible with the real world as another and we shouldn’t necessarily expect the world to look any different in a universe where the Hindu metaphysical assumptions were correct, versus one where the Christian ones were. There is simply no way of establishing a particular truth claim regarding each.
Icecream: Like the wrong flavour and someone will try to kill you for it…
Ultimately, in arguing for one over another, we are simply arguing for our preference, or what makes sense to us, rather than a particular objective reality that we can point to. We might as well be arguing flavours of ice cream.
Many religious traditions claim to have evidence that they can point to as certain evidence that they hold can “prove”, their metaphysical claims are true. Of course, from a scientific perspective none of this evidence, such as the existence of miracles, has ever been demonstrated. For example, while there are many cases of people with cancer being cured by their respective deities, we know from medical case studies that about one in every 60000 persons with this disease will spontaneously go into remission. With the number of remissions on offer, there will be many cases in which prayer was involved, but also many in which it wasn’t. As such, this can hardly be considered evidence for a particular metaphysical position.
Interestingly enough, even if genuine scientifically established miracles occurred on a regular basis, these still couldn’t be considered proof of a particular set of metaphysical claims. This can be seen when religious persons respond to claims of miraculous occurrences in a competing faith. In many cases, the claim is accepted, but instead attributed to the devil, or evil spirits, or influences. In other words, the event is accepted, but rather than cause the rejection their own worldview, it is instead incorporated into an expanded metaphysical understanding, that there exists evil beings, which perform miracles in order to turn people from the correct path.
Even if the whole world was miraculously cured of cancer overnight, it wouldn’t necessarily even represent a “supernatural event”, although every religion would claim it as evidence of their own particular deity’s existence. Perhaps the event was triggered by super advances aliens, who decided to cure earth of cancer, without telling us, for their own purposes?
The truth is that we could never know the answer with any certainty and for many the possibility of super advanced aliens would be much more probable than an omniscient, omnipotent god and infinitely good God, who had finally gotten around to ridding the world of cancer. When they’d wonder will He/She/It, get around to getting rid of a disease that aflicts the third world, rather than rich people? Malaria anyone?
While it might seem a bit farfetched and irrelevant to speculate on highly improbable events, such as curing the world of cancer, many people do attempt to bring either science, or pseudo-science to the table to either try to prove their metaphysics correct, or more often to defend it from the encroachment of true rational thought.
As an example of this, we can look at the “evidence”, put forward by so-called “creation scientists”, who argue that the world is only six to ten thousand years old and this proves that their god is right and that the others are wrong. While it seems to me that this is most obviously an example of metaphysical belief trumping the reality based universe, it also ignores the fact that the scientifically demonstrated age of the universe is independent of metaphysical claims. Fundamentalist Christianity, with its very young earth, could still be true, even in a universe in which everything appeared incredibly old. It might be that God just has a weird sense of humour, or was testing us for his own purposes.
But, the fact that science has established that the world is in fact billions of years old no more disproves (in a strict sense) Christianity than it somehow proves Hinduism. Of course, Christianity is not the only religious tradition to say that the world is very young. The existence of a young earth could support Islam, or any one of the thousands of ancient and native traditions that purport a young earth. Indeed, what many don’t realise is that if the evidence had turned out to show that the universe was young, rather than old, this would have not concerned atheists in the least. They would have accepted it and adopted this fact into their belief structure, realising that there is no particular reason why the universe should be old, rather than new.
If nothing can ever be certain on a metaphysical level, then it holds that to claim otherwise is to be effectively engaged in an act of deception. More to the point, given the sheer number of competing metaphysical claims available to choose from, the odds are that yours isn’t anywhere near correct. While it might be the case that some belief systems contain more correct elements than others, there is no way to ever achieve any certainty.
The problem is that we live in a world in which most people crave certainty of some sort, and in which a seemingly infinite array of gurus are prepared to claim that they have the “Answers” and that everyone else should abide by their answers, irrespective of whether they make sense to them or not. Most obviously, this occurs in the well established religious traditions, where believing what makes sense to one’s self is held to be an intolerable offence against God. Rather persecution, ostracisation, and the threat of eternal damnation is bought to bear, in order to coerce people to “believe” in a particular set of metaphysical claims, rather than another.
These are clearly a violation of the Ethical Principle. If one was Acting with Empathy, one would realise that the only ethical option is to allow full freedom of expression and practice with respect to the different competing metaphysical claims, so long as they don’t harm others.
For this reason, the Uncertainty Principle is the foundation upon which all of the other Principles are erected. In light of Socrates’ wisdom, it is vital that our religious, spiritual and political leaders hold the freedom of religious and spiritual expression and practice above their own dogmatic concerns and quest for earthly power.
Ultimately, the sooner that we as a species learn this particular lesson, the sooner we will be able to move beyond our self destructive nature and grow into a species that can achieve all of our quite amazing and brilliant potential.