"Science gives us a tool to work out whether what we experience is real and what we are told is true." If we take this statement as a whole it can be interpreted in many ways. In order to help conceptualize the issues, we could fall back upon two of the foremost philosophers of their age Aristotle and Plato who respectively had a common goal to find the truth behind what their world was comprised of. The means by which they intended to achieve this aim were both quite different:
(“Aristotle believed that everything in the world could be understood through careful observation. He believed that knowledge could only be obtained through experience. Aristotle also supported the idea that the earth was constantly changing. The changes that take place are too small to observe so they can are only noticed over a period of time. Based upon his beliefs Aristotle proposed to find the truth by watching all that was around him. He recognized that everything was constantly changing and that the truth could only be obtained through careful observation of these changes and learning how and why they occur.
In contrast to Aristotle’s’ beliefs, Plato believes that the world is constant and true. Each creation, each object on earth is a mathematical figure all working toward the perfect form, which is the mathematical line. Plato also believed that knowledge is only obtained through reflection and reason. He embraces the four virtues of courage, wisdom, temperance, and justices. Plato proposed to find the truth by questioning the intelligent and those with authority. He would say that the truth could be found in the able, those who were exceptional like himself have all the answers.”)
If we take the careful observational approach of Aristotle, the slow but endless changing nature of all objects in and around earth could be observed, but to what end? How would Aristotle ever have observed the movement of the stars and galaxy’s away from each other without the benefit of modern scientific instruments such as radio telescope arrays and deep space telescopes in high orbits above the earth? Would he have concluded incorrectly that the earth was at the centre of the known universe?
What of Plato’s beliefs? A constant world in which all objects are working towards the perfect form, with knowledge only to be found in the questioning of the intelligent and those in authority. Who in our age would think that the world and the universe is constant, let alone believe that asking those in authority would provide proof of anything? Many people today have no trust in society’s leaders and figures of authority. Would you ask the Prime Minister of England to explain the relatively simple nature of Plate Tectonics (the theory that the earth’s major land-masses move around the surface of the planet and are the cause of earthquakes and numerous other natural phenomena)? In the first instance no of course not, and more to the point would you believe him; again of no course not!
What we could also conclude is that in their time both great thinkers were on the right wavelength, Aristotle with regards to the ever-changing nature of the universe and everything within it. Plato with his ideas that every object is working towards the perfect mathematical form (perhaps he had conceived an early draft of the Grand Unified Theory?)
Jumping forwards to the current millennium, in the world of high-energy particle physics, as recently as this year (2013) scientists have used vast man made devices to all but prove the existence of one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe. A particular type particle first envisaged by Professor Peter Higgs (amongst others) back in the previous century has needed 50 plus years of slow methodical observation and invention of larger and larger particle accelerators culminating in the building at huge expense of the large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland, along with huge instruments to detect the smallest traces of proof that the Higgs boson actually existed for a few milliseconds before decaying almost as rapidly it was created.
In this instance an enormous amount of effort and money has been expended throughout the scientific community over the last 50 years in the search for this elusive particle; it should be noted that the search could easily have ended with the conclusion that the particle did not exist or possibly that we did not have the means to detect it. In either case the scientists involved in the search had enough belief in the theory to pursue the cause relentlessly for many decades. During the last few years of the search some scientists were even relishing the idea that the particle might not exist, allowing for whole new avenues of theoretical physics and the standard model. The obvious benefit being the opportunity to rethink our basic understanding of sub-atomic physics and produce new theories to be explored and postulated.
As we now know both Aristotle and Plato’s beliefs had many merits in their time and yet in the modern age despite some flaws, certain facets of their ideas still hold true and are practiced regularly the world over.
Many renowned scientists throughout history have done exactly as Plato suggested they have taken the time to reflect and reason their way to expanding our understanding of almost everything around us from the smallest of sub-atomic particles to the unimaginable reaches of the known universe. They have proposed theories and pushed the limits of scientific knowledge to unprecedented levels in every era, and then in some cases relied upon their successors to try and prove or disprove them.
However, in the area of cosmology the astronomer royal Sir Martin Rees has published a title – “Before the Beginning - Our Universe and Others” in which he prescribes a theory which relies heavily upon theoretical physics and advanced theoretical mathematics to describe the concept of multiple universes all existing at the same time and effectively adjacent to one another! In these many universes the primary constants that control the fundamental nature of “our” universe (i.e. those that we believe have given rise to the earth’s special conditions allowing humans to evolve and survive) may have slightly differing values such that “life” if it has evolved at all, could be very different to our own and possibly unrecognizable. Indeed, as one would expect nothing at all could be inside many of the alternate universes, as even the galaxies and stars themselves may have failed to materialize due to the conditions for their creation not having been met.
So, we could easily envisage that we may never prove or disprove such a theory; after all it’s not every day that someone or more likely something from an adjacent universe pops into existence and presents itself to say “Hello”. Does that make this theory any less valid or important? Should people then believe or not believe in such a theorem and what if anything can we conclude from such “wild ideas”? Since scientific endeavors are often based on exploring the unknown, thus by default, shouldn’t every idea be considered and none should be beyond merit and worthy of attention.
Finally let us discuss whether we can believe what we are told or not as the case maybe. During the course of history the dominant “truth” with regards to human existence, our origins and to the world around us has been perpetuated by those in authority thru the medium of Religion and in many if not most cases the use of brute force. Many religions expect the faithful to blindly prescribe to a belief system that has little or no evidence to back up its many claims (the “Immaculate Conception” and the creation of the Universe and everything in it by “God” in a period of 6 days to name but two).
We can only imagine the strength of conviction and the stranglehold that religious leaders had over minds of the population, those factors enabled the rulers to build huge monuments not only to themselves but to the numerous gods of the time such as those found in the Nile Delta, or rainforests and mountains of South America.
In a world without present day levels of communications and ease of access to all of our current knowledge through a wide range of media channels most people would only have had the figures of Authority and Religious leaders to rely upon for everything that they know or more likely needed to know. In all of man’s history on earth evidence exists that people have been brainwashed to believe in deities and the like, and if brainwashing didn’t work the use of force usually did the trick. Obviously when a person’s survival depends upon agreeing to “believe” then there is no choice and life becomes very simple if somewhat harsh.
We must question what is happening in the modern era, where all of our accumulated knowledge is so readily available for anyone to see and investigate, to then form their own conclusions regarding the “truth”? Why do the world’s major religions still exist and in some cases continue to expand the hold over populations, the answer in fact has not changed despite the progress of time and the depth of our knowledge. As always it the few that are controlling the many through vague and ambiguous use of religious texts to maintain the order and their positions of privilege, these methods are not restricted to belief based societies. Many a dictatorship of a secular state has used the some basic principles of restricting information and freedom of thought to control the populous for their benefit.
As a counterpoint to the long held version of the “truth”, science is readily providing convincing evidence to the contrary; almost always by the basic principles of “questioning, observing, and hypothesizing about what we see or at least think we can see”. Certain groups and individuals are defending their beliefs using the notion of “intelligent design” the idea that this universe that we know cannot have come about randomly in amongst many others and therefore we must be part of a bigger picture in which control is being exorcised by someone or something with a purpose, although obviously we don’t know what that purpose is of course.
The openly anti-religious attitudes and ideas of prominent thinkers of our generation such as Professor Richard Dawkins should be leading the majority of the world’s independent people to the conclusion that “no” we can’t tell the difference between the real and the unreal or that we should always believe what we are told.
We must therefore have the right to question everything and we have the freedom of thought that has allowed us come to our own conclusions, be they right or wrong; that surely is the object of science and the tool that it has provided to us.
SHU, F. H. (1982) USA:
REES M. (1998) Before the Beginning - Our Universe and Others USA: Helix books
Dawkins R. (2006) New ed The Blind Watchmaker and The God Delusion London: Penguin Books;
The Intelligent Design and Evolution Awareness (IDEA) Centre [accessed 8/11/13)