You Don’t Know Jack


Science tells us the capital”T” Truth. We don’t think it, we don’t believe it, we don’t suspect it. We know it because science is repeatable, it’s systematic and we can verify everything science says through empirical methods. We’re smart, us scientific people, we aren’t a bunch of creation scientists or fortune tellers or primitive Amazonian tribesmen toiling in ignorance.  We don’t make assumptions, we test and we test and we destroy ignorance wherever we find it. We are not slaves to prejudice, we seek to know the world as it objectively is. We believe what is empirically true and thus avoid faith, avoid superstition.

Or do we? I’ve recently been talking with a few fellow bloggers of vaguely philosophical bent and I can’t help thinking the position demonstrated (straw-manned?) above goes too far. I thought and thought I’m beginning to wonder if faith isn’t unavoidable. I initially rebelled at this because, at its base, faith really sucks.

Faith has no limitations. If I don’t use reason to cudgel my faith into shape there’s nothing to stop me believing that I’m a divinely chosen cucumber with the sacred duty to eat toenail clippings. Faith cannot be reasoned with, it can be overcome only with force. If I believe in God X and his command to kill all of Population Y, and Population Y believes in God Z who says to kill me, there is no way to negotiate. Faith is not sensitive to reality, it is not adaptive, it does not improve. The best weapons we have for controlling the chaos and madness of faith are philosophy and the sub-species of philosophy we call empirical science. The question then becomes this, can we get to philosophy or science without faith?

To answer these questions, we need to define terms. Empiricism is a theory stating that knowledge comes solely or primarily from sensory experience. In other words, we see things, smell things, touch things and zap things with electricity to reveal their nature. This is how the entire scientific method works. No empiricism, no science. Second is objectivity. When someone says a fact or observation is the objective truth, they are saying that the world exists independent of us. In other words, if you accept objective reality you believe that a rock is still a rock even if there are no people around to call it a rock. Neither objectivity nor empiricism seem at all radical to us, but that could just be a consequence of the culture – it could be normal to us in the same sense that witch doctors were normal to our ancestors.

The first, basic assumption an empiricist must make is that our senses tell us the truth. If my eyes lie to me, what is the point of graphing data points on a piece of paper? If my ears deceive me, how could I catalog bird calls or tune a violin? Seeing is believing and all those associated cliches. Unfortunately, we know for certain that our senses do lie. We know that if we rub our hands quickly over a tennis racket it will create the illusion of a velvety texture, among a host of other tactile illusions. We know that we can trick the eye into perceiving motion where there is none. We can trick our minds into inventing expected colors, rather than those which actually exist. We can discover and overcome these illusions by the use of our other senses – after all, they are illusions exactly because we know they do not represent Truth. It’s far from obvious, however, that we can suss out all, or even most, other illusions in the same way.

And the problems run deeper. How do we know our empirical observations are measuring the states of objective reality (if objective reality exists, which it may not) and not the mechanisms by which we perceive? When scientists say things like “the universe seems to be made from math” is it not possible (likely?) that they are actually describing the lens of our perception rather than the object under observation? Is it even possible to disentangle the former from the latter?

This doesn’t even get into the assumptions of causality, without which science is useless. Causality is the belief that every action has a cause, that things do not begin moving or change course for no reason. Without a cause and effect relationship, any empirical experiment is a waste of time. When we calculate the velocity of a comet, for example, we take into account present velocities, gravitational effects and drag. We control for these factors because they act upon the comet in causal, predictable ways. We do not take into account the wrath of Zeus or the magical incantations of Druid priests because those things are non-causal and cannot be measured empirically.

In our practical, day to day lives, causality works marvelously well. We calculate the energy stored in the chemical bonds of gasoline, take into account vehicle weight, thermal efficiency and frictional losses and tell you that your car will get 30 miles per gallon but won’t suddenly sprout pumpkins. We calculate the forces acting on steel or wood and predict that the chair you’re currently sitting upon will support your weight but won’t dissolve your skin. We can run causality back billions of years. Our solar system exists because a long time ago several other stars exploded and created the heavy elements necessary to make an earth. Our galaxy exists because gravity works in predictable ways and the motions of the Milky Way are the casual consequences of that gravity. However, all this wonderful causality breaks down in at least two places I know of – the Big Bang and the quantum scale.

We don’t know what happened before the Big Bang because, physics tells us, time has no meaning before the Big Bang and if there’s no time, there’s no causality. We don’t know what caused the Big Bang because the answer seems to be “nothing caused the Big Bang, it just happened.” Information is obliterated before the Big Bang. Entropy suddenly ceases to exist before the Big Bang. The beginning of every single thing we see, touch, ponder and eat comes from the Big Bang and the Big Bang happened for no reason at all. It is, by definition, beyond the grasp of empiricism and yet it is the source of every single thing an empiricist can examine.

Quantum theory screws with causality in the sense that quantum particles move, entangle and disappear with apparently no causal reason. However, more interestingly, quantum theory also pours sand into the fine gears of objectivity. One of the biggest mind-screws I’ve ever seen is the Quantum Observer Effect.

In short, the Quantum Observer Effect empirically demonstrated that, at least with quantum particles, the world does not exist independently from ourselves. When I look at an electron, I collapse it into a particle with one location and one trajectory. I, in other words, make it real and I make it causal. When I don’t look at the electron, I make it into a probability wave, a sort of mushy statistical blurr where it exists everywhere at once. Objectivity breaks with quantum theory, a rock with no people around to observe it is not a rock, it’s a statistical fuzz.


So what does all this mean? We believe our senses because we don’t have a choice. We choose to believe we are measuring reality in our empirical frameworks, but we have no way of proving we’re not simply recording the ways our brains function. We don’t even have a way to prove we aren’t in a Matrix environment. We could just as easily be computer programs or spirits or dreaming or a random collection of quantum fluctuations. We accept empiricism in spite of the fact that we know empiricism breaks down when explaining our ultimate origins. We know it’s not the capital T Truth.

In short, we are empiricists because empiricism is a useful fiction and we don’t have anything better. We are limited and lost and it’s very likely we don’t have the capacity to know capital T Truth, if such a thing even exists. We can choose to believe our senses, but we must do so from faith. We can choose to believe in objective reality, but we must do so from faith. With this in mind, it is perhaps better to drop our pretensions of superiority and admit that we fundamentally don’t know shit.



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