This was the question a friend put to me not long ago, after a lengthy discussion on the relative merits of homeopathy versus antibiotics and of germ-theory versus the sin-theory of disease. He mostly agreed with me on those topics, but he was less certain about subduction versus the mabul as a reason for our puzzle-piece continents, or about the ancient origins of man.
I had grown tired and a bit irritated by the constant barrage of nonsense fed to him by apologists of various stripes and repeated to me verbatim but, as often happens, my polite but clumsy attempts at changing the topic were repeatedly thwarted. Unsure of his case but unaware just how flimsy it really was, I was challenged to refute a wide range of nonsense, ranging from mysterious energies – with flux densities no-one ever bothered to measure or calculate, I note with surprise – to egregious assaults on the most basic physical laws and rules of logic. With arguments as brittle as a bad mood under direct sunlight, appeals to authority were ultimately the cement that held everything together.
See those stars? They have souls, and those souls are what we call angels. Don’t believe me? Aryeh Kaplan said so himself! Think you know better than Kaplan? Don’t you know he was the pre-eminent physicist after Einstein, only getting sidetracked by his immense love for torah? Never mind that nobody seems to know which institution granted him his master’s degree, or that he is completely unknown in the literature. He apparently has many persuasive hagiographers willing and able to fool those looking to be fooled. (I wonder whether those angels can communicate faster than the speed of light, or do they wait years and years for the call-and-response sequence mentioned in the liturgy, due to the immense distances between the stars.)
And, another argument goes, Chazal were certainly right about the strict demarcation between life and non-life, domem and the other orders of existence, things that have a soul and things that don’t. Doesn’t this show something about the ultimate wisdom and divine origin of our tradition? When I mention that I don’t believe this clear demarcation exists, the ultimate trump card is pulled: Slifkin! He knows everything there is to know about botany and zoology and he clearly says this dividing line exists, I’m told. How can I argue with that? (Well, does he mention this little inconvenient thing called a virus?)
And this goes on and on, until we finally hit on the crux of the matter: how do we know what is true? How do we decide which claims to believe? It is a fantastically important question. If there is significant disagreement on the answer to this question all further discussion is futile.
“What do you propose?” I counter.
“Common sense, of course,” is the reply.
The first problem with this is that common sense is painfully uncommon, and lots of nonsense is common in its place, as is common knowledge. Even were this not so, common sense is a very unreliable indicator of truth. Common sense is nothing more than common experience and intuition; the former is unreliable, the latter is a notorious liar.
Common sense tells me that time is absolute and particles don’t have dual identities – a lie. Common sense tells me humans are designed – if by an incompetent and bungling designer who puts an open trachea right next to the esophagus so that we often choke to death; saddles us with an appendix which is more trouble than it’s worth; and places a waste-disposal plant right in the middle of a playground – but designed nevertheless. This, too, is a lie.
Common sense tells me that heavier objects fall faster and mass cannot be created and the sky is a dome and air can’t freeze and diamonds and carbon are different elements and fire is also an element and horizontal gene transfer is impossible and no animal can see in the dark and… what else, and that God hates me and my mother loves me. Lies, lies, and more lies. (Okay, that very last one is actually true. I think.) Common sense is frequently deceiving, and using it to distinguish truth from falsehood is sure to mislead.
The other option is careful study of each and every subject. This isn’t very practical at all, and besides, eventually you come to a claim that is impossible to verify for yourself, and then you’re left with the question you started with: which claim do you believe?
The real answer to this question is surprisingly straightforward. So much so that it is a wonder it took humanity many thousands of years of thinking and blind groping in the dark to hit upon it. Now that we did, our knowledge has advanced exponentially in such a short while compared to the totality of our species’ history that the result is truly mindboggling.
And the answer is this: you only know a claim to be true if it makes predictions that can be falsified, and if, after repeated observations, it continues to hold up. The more observations a claim of that kind explains, the stronger we suspect it to be true. If it happens to explain a very wide variety of phenomena and is also the most parsimonious observation, we might call this a scientific theory. This is the only real way we, constricted by our puny brains as we are, can tell truth from falsehood and a genuine explanation from gobbledygook.
Take the theory of gravity for example. It explains falling objects and swinging pendulums and orbiting planets. It explains oceanic tides and predicts the acceleration you need to get into orbit. It is continuously tested and observed and has never been falsified. We claim it to be a true fact. We do not claim it to be true because an authority told us so, not even a very smart authority. Sure, we might initially learn about it from an authority, but the crucial point remains this: how does that authority claim to know it? Does it explain any observation that, if we find this observation to be wrong, would falsify the theory? Einstein never insisted he must be believed because, well, he is the next Einstein. Einstein’s theories made bold predictions and explained the heretofore unexplained. He showed how other theories leave unanswered and unanswerable questions, and how his explanation works with every known observation. We can easily conceive of an observation that will falsify his theories. We now know it to be true (mostly).
Contrast this with the theory of God. It is certainly possible that God causes swinging pendulums and falling objects. But if we observe an object falling up the stairs, would this falsify our theory? Or can we claim just as well that the same God causes things to fall up as well as down? In that case, God isn’t really an explanation at all, for it can be used to explain the observation and also its exact opposite. It predicts nothing at all. It is certainly possible that god is the explanation for the longevity of the Jewish nation, but god is also the explanation for the genocide during the holocaust. Common sense doesn’t preclude this from the realm of possibility; perhaps God is schizophrenic or has an anger-management problem. But if a theory works well for any observation at all then it isn’t really an explanation to begin with. It is a mere chimera, a magician’s trick to help you overcome the uneasy feeling of not knowing something you want to know.
Such an all-encompassing claim keeps getting smaller and smaller, as soon as the people who recognize it for what it is find better explanations. In the past, god was used to explain disease and lightning and earthquakes. Now it is germs and electricity and plate tectonics. It is the incredible shrinking God, soon shrinking into laughable insignificance. Sure, some things still defy current explanation. The big bang! But God in this sense is a mere stopgap measure that doesn’t really explain anything, used by small minds who will never figure out the true reason behind the phenomenon in question. God keeps getting squeezed into tighter and tighter spots by desperate people in order to plug the ever decreasing holes in our collective knowledge, just so their brain-juice doesn’t leak out. God, we must surmise, is a… tampon?
We don’t reject any claim just because it doesn’t make sense to us, and we do not accept it just because it does or just on the basis of an authority who told us so. We accept something as true when it can be falsified in principle but hasn’t been so far, when it explains something other theories cannot, when the thing it explains, if found to be false, would then falsify our original claim. Anything else and we are left with no good way to judge its truth or falsehood, and we might as well dismiss it as someone’s sweet dreams or overactive imagination.
Claiming to know something to be true without any way to prove or disprove it does violence to our intelligence and makes a mockery of our logical faculties, and I will simply laugh upon hearing it, and sometimes even shake my head in mild disbelief at the incredible depth of human folly. And so should you.Printable Version