What We Know and What We Believe

For most of us, who don’t have direct access to experimental evidence, there’s not much difference between what we know for sure and what we believe. Please reread the first sentence. I am not being a Doubting Thomas or a cynic. I’m just asserting an obvious fact. Only a few people, scientists and lab technicians, have direct access to experimental evidence. Only they can test a hypothesis, control the inputs, and measure the results. When the results are valid, interesting, can be replicated and pass peer reviews, then and only then can we read them and form our own opinions about the results. Our opinions are based on our beliefs: our belief that the tests were rigorously controlled and statistically significant, the results were replicated independently, the peer reviews were objective and the hypothesis is consistent with our other beliefs.

Most of us may say that we know something for sure, but what we are really saying is that we believe that something to be true.

I’m not even saying that science is a religion because that would be a disservice to both science and religion. Both have their own domains and rules of validity. Not many of us possess the time or the resources to verify hypotheses about objective reality. If all of us had to verify scientifically whether the ground beneath our feet is solid (which it is not), we never would have descended from the trees of our local savannah a million or so years ago.

I am saying most of us don’t have direct access to objective reality, which makes what scientists do exceedingly important to us.

Even the things we believe that don’t correspond to objective reality can be very important to us. There are “provable” fictions we believe that organize and synchronize us, that make multitudes of us coherent over space and time, and that provide us social identities that outlive any individual member.

Fictions give rise to religions, nation-states, armies, corporations, tribes, families and mobs. Organizations based on fictions can be temporary or can last thousands of years. They can comprise two or more people, or billions.

One of the fictions important to me is the fiction of the soul or spirit. Today, I wrote a poem about the relationship between body and spirit.

The Spirit and the Body

Raanana, January 6, 2018

The spirit and the body live symbiotically,

Though neither needs the other,

They both enrich each other.

The body imagines the spirit

Upon which the spirit incorporates the body

With its traits of goodness and beauty

And they grow by consuming each other,

Though neither is lessened in doing so.

The spirit sees all things, but not the individual,

The body sees only the particular and not the allthing.

The spirit can see forever, but knows not the time of day,

The body knows this moment, but not what was or what will.

Together, they are God and the universe.

Because of them, there are acts of God

And the day-to-day happenings of the world.

Mike Stone

Raanana, Israel

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2 Comments

Filed under & Philosophy, Dilemmas, Essays, Dilemmas, & Philosophy, Prose, Uncategorized

2 responses to “What We Know and What We Believe

  1. I love the poem! Especially the part where you compared body and spirit to the universe and God. It clicked; it made me think “of course it is!”

    As an aside, I would argue against your position in the preceding post, saying that science is not a religion. While in many senses, it is in fact the antithesis of religion, it has one all-important similarity: Science, like other religions, instills a way of life upon its followers – its believers.

    It is simply that the way of life a devout believer in science follows is the absolute opposite of the way of life most religions impose: Whereas most religions demand that their followers *believe without question*, Science demands that we *question without belief*.

    • Thanks for your comment, Assaf. Maybe I didn’t make this clear in my post, but I wasn’t talking about professional scientists who have direct access to measurements of the physical world and can perform stringently controlled experiments based on well-formulated hypotheses. I was talking about people like you and me, who are firm believers in science, the scientific method, and the results, evidence, theories, and conjectures of science, but have no direct access to measurements, aren’t trained to engage in controlled experimentation, or formulate reasonable hypotheses. We put our trust in scientists (rightly so IMHO), whereas the devoutly religious person puts his/her belief in the representatives and writings of organized religion.

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