This week, Canada’s Governor General caused a stir because he touched the Queen of England during her visit to his country. He was only trying to ensure that the 91-year-old monarch did not take a tumble while descending a set of carpeted stairs, but still…there are certain things that are not done!
The episode brought to mind the ending of the 1956 film, The King and I, which is about how to show deep respect.
Isn’t it obvious that the more consequential an opinion is, the more careful we should be about forming it? Yet one of the mysteries of human behavior is that we often do the opposite.
When I lost my belief in God, the near-universal reaction from my Christian friends was to sweep a hand at the marvelous world around us and say, “Where did all this come from, then?” For them, God was the only possible explanation.
Among scientists, the hypothesis that our universe was born from a larger multiverse has steadily been gaining credence. There are several ways this could be true. As one possibility, the Big Bang could have been a quantum fluctuation in another universe, which in turn could have been born in the same way from its parent, stretching back forever. With this model, the multiverse is like an eternal froth of bubble universes. There are other models, too. I recommend Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos if you’re curious.
As an answer to “Where did all this come from, then?” the multiverse model may seem to be on equal footing with “God did it.” By definition, we cannot reach out and touch other universes to prove they (and therefore a multiverse) exist, much less can we prove that our universe arose from the multiverse by some natural process.
It’s true that we can neither prove that God did it, nor that the multiverse and the laws of physics did it. But as I outlined last time, just because competing explanations are uncertain does not mean they are on equal footing.
Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:
- A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
- A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
- The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.
Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?
A friend once earnestly invited me to his very fundamentalist church. I was a Christian at the time but, according to his church, I was not the right kind of Christian and was destined for hell. He said to me, “With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to come check it out?”
He had a point, but I declined.
The Internet can leave the truth-seeker feeling pretty hopeless. For every website that says one thing, you can find another that says the opposite. How can you find the truth in over a billion websites of he-said/she-said?
The last three posts in this series suggested some ideas, but now I offer what I believe is the most important and reliable test:
It has been fun to speculate for the last three posts about the near future, when reliable, unobtrusive lie detectors will be everywhere in our society. However, the sad truth is that most people do not care about the truth.
Throw whatever technology you want into the mix, and we’re still human beings, with most of us bearing emotional wounds whose reopening we want to prevent at all costs.