Why We Need Science, not Philosophy #8

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Kristina Wyman's picture
Dr. Fred Bauer

Look at your watch. What time is it? Before you do anything else, get a pen and sheet of paper, and write down the time. Do it before you do anything else. This is an experiment. But, if you don’t take the time to follow the instructions, be honest and admit it to yourself that you’re not following them.

Admitting to the truth is an essential part of this experiment. It’s about honesty, which is a crucial virtue for anyone seriously trying to learn the truth about us humans and this universe in which we live.

Honesty, however, is hard for all of us when we’re faced with facts that prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that Descartes was right about representationalism, the second most important discovery of modern times. He was followed by Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Kant, James, Einstein and other modern thinkers who were also right to i)surrender their common-sense conviction that we directly experience the physical world and ii)to admit that, if there is a physical world independent of us, we can only infer what it is like by using our subjective sensations to construct an inner model of that physical world. To the degree that our inner model represents what exists outside of our mind, we can learn about objective reality. But only indirectly.

By inference. By guessing, really. And—if we are right—one of the most obviously true inferences is that there are other people like ourselves, and that they do not always agree with us (or with each other!) about objective reality. Especially about answers to two of the most important questions well-educated people must confront: First, does God exist? Second, do we have immortal souls destined to live for all eternity?

Alright, step two of the experiment. Look at your watch again. Is it still the same time as when you previously looked at it? Or is it obvious that some time has passed? Can you prove it, though? If someone claimed that time doesn’t exist? Can you prove that time exists? Can you prove that you are at least a few minutes older than you were before?

While you are reflecting on what must at first seem like silly questions, consider what I’ll call “a common deceptive dodge.” It is a tactic used by people who decide that it is simply too difficult for them to accept the iron-clad logic that proves Descartes and all those others were right to resign themselves to the truth of representationalism, the second most important scientific discovery of modern times.

Here is an example of that common deceptive dodge. We all grow up thinking that we can see the sun. Of course, it looks different when we look at it at different times. Sometimes it’s reddish, other times blindingly white, other times a soft peach color. But if we accept modern theories about light, about the correlation between light’s frequencies and the colors we see, it follows logically that, if the sun itself isn’t changing its color, the changing colors we see are, as Einstein et al claimed, sensible effects produced in us, whether i)in ‘the theater of our brain’ as David Myers claims, or ii)in our immaterial minds, as Kant et al claim.

In either case, however, just as we cannot see God or souls, we cannot see the unchanging-colored sun itself. Or the moon. Or other people. Or their thoughts. The changing colors we see are in us. Which is why, when Einstein wanted to pin down the huge difference between himself and the quantum theorist, Nils Bohr, he asked “Does the moon exist only when we look at it?” (Have your physics profs explained it?)

Oh, yes, the deceptive dodge. It was used back in August of 2013 by Phil Plait, an astronomer who writes for the Slate blog. He used it to claim that we see the sun, even though we have to wait eight minutes for the sunlight to reach us and create retinal images of the sun that is 93 million miles from earth. Here is his dodge: “... when you look at the stars you are seeing them as they once were. Light travels rapidly—as far as we know, it’s the fastest thing in the Universe—but it’s not infinitely fast. Traveling at 186,000 miles per second, it takes light more than eight minutes to get from the closest star to Earth; you can think of it as seeing the Sun as it was eight minutes ago. The nearest known star to the Sun is the Alpha Centauri triple-star system, and light takes more than four years to get from there to here.”

There it is. We don’t see the sun which, right this instant, is what it is. BUT neither can we see the sun AS IT WAS IN THE PAST, because there is no sun “as it was in the past.” Yes, there are images in us as they are at the moments we are seeing them! But the only sun that exists is the one that exists now. And now. And now..., ad infinitum.

Look again at your watch. Do you know it takes a fraction of a second for the light to reflect from it to your eyes? Are you seeing your watch “as it was a fraction of a second ago?” Or...

Do you see? (To be continued)

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