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The Guess Worker



  • In the search for truth, the best we can do is speculate.
  • Through speculation we form ideas about the universe around us.
  • Some of our ideas are more likely to correspond to reality than others.
  • Before we can decide which ideas are the most likely to be true we need to understand how the human mind works.

It is frustrating that we'll never know whether we know the truth.

We'll never know for certain how the universe was formed and we'll never be absolutely sure how life arose on earth. To many people it might seem obvious that we'll never know these things, but what perhaps is more surprising is that we'll never even know the truth about things which we take for granted as being true. For example, we'll never know for certain that galaxies exist. Nor that even the earth exists. For all we know, there may be no such animal as a horse. The Battle of Hastings may never have been fought and there may never have been a man called Napoleon. In fact, there is very little we can say that we know for sure. The problem is we weren't born with omniscience but, on the contrary, in ignorance and virtually everything we think we know we have had to learn using our senses. And there is no way of knowing - for certain - whether the information our brains receive from our senses is true.

The best we can ever do, in the search for truth, is speculate. Even though we can never know much with absolute certainty, at least through speculation we might discover more than we knew before.

Back to basics

Speculate, then, is what I'm going to do in these articles. But I am not interested in using poetry nor jargon, nor in being obscure, nor in dazzling people with my brilliance in putting words together. I want to be clear and to be understood, and more than anything, I want to seek the truth.

To start with, I want to outline where I stand in my beliefs. I believe the scientific method is the best available means for finding the truth. This assertion, however, has some problems. The most obvious of these is - what exactly is the scientific method? More of that topic in another article, perhaps. But other problems are more fundamental - why do I believe what I believe? And - if I believe in something, what validity does my belief have?

To answer these questions we have to go right back to the basics. The first assumption must be - I know I know nothing. That's a safe bet for a first assumption because if I later find out that I really do know something I can always add it to my clean slate. From here we can progress to Descartes' "I think therefore I am."  Actually, Descartes got this a bit wrong. He didn't realise that thinking and consciousness are two separate functions of the mind. We can be conscious that we think, just as we can be conscious of pain. The important thing is consciousness, not thinking. Descartes should have said "I am conscious, therefore I am." But despite the wrong detail, in principle he was correct. The one thing any of us can be absolutely sure of is that we exist. And we know we exist because we are conscious.

The curious thing about this truth is that it is absolutely certain - everyone knows that he or she exists - and yet it can never be proved by experiment. I simply know that I am - for me it is undeniable that this fact is true. In contrast, even the most conclusive result to a scientific experiment can merely show that a hypothesis is "very probable".

Nothing apart from conscious experiences is certain

So, I know I exist. What else can I know for sure? Unfortunately, not much else. We know we have various kinds of experiences: from the senses (for example vision), the emotions, and our thoughts, and we have an impression of existing in something we call "time". We can't know that these experiences are true, but we do know that we experience them. That's about all we can be absolutely certain of. Descartes went on to use his basic truth I think therefore I am to "prove" that God exists. Even if we assume that Descartes' reasoning was flawless, how do we know that reasoning itself is the tool by which we can find truth? Well, we can't. The best we can do is to investigate what reasoning is - that is, to examine how reason works in the brain - and attempt to estimate how the results of reasoning fit in with what we understand as being reality.

Nothing outside our consciousness experience, then, is absolutely certain. Everything else could possibly be a dream or a computer program, as in that great film The Matrix. For all I know, everyone apart from me could be a figment of my imagination. Perhaps there is no reality outside of me at all. Anything is possible and no one can ever prove definitively that even the strangest theories about the universe are not true. Perhaps the earth is really being carried on the back of a giant turtle. It's possible.

What makes me believe what I believe?

But it doesn't seem very likely. Here is what I believe. (I'll use the word "believe" for "consider probable" from now on.) I believe there is a real universe out there. I believe that this universe has many corresponding features to the images and experiences which are projected in my head. I believe, though, the real universe doesn't look much like what I see in my head - in fact, it doesn't look like anything at all, because vision (and all the other senses) are creations of the consciousness. What there is out there is energy, radiation, matter, and at least four dimensions including time. Outside of our consciousnesses there are no such things as sound, colour, taste and texture. Such experiences provide us with information about the outside world - about energy and matter, and about dangers and opportunities. Even though the experiences have no similarity to what is there in reality, there is a correlation with reality. I believe there must be, because if consciousness gave us totally false information, we couldn't survive.

I believe that humans are animals and are a product of evolution. There is nothing in human behaviour or thinking which cannot be explained in biological terms. Consciousness is not a spiritual phenomenon but is a physical one, and is a feature which developed in evolution for survival. I believe that there is only one reality outside our consciousnesses and that the truth is independent of what humans think.

Now, I have just listed some of the things I believe in. My point is: why do I believe that my opinion on these topics is more likely to be true than other opinions? If nothing apart from conscious experience is certain, on what basis can I claim that some ideas are more likely than others? Are all ideas equally probable? If that were true, then there would be no point in speculating on anything. But all ideas are clearly not equally probable - at least, this is what we all intuitively believe. How, then, can we decide which ideas are true and which are not? I believe that to answer this question we need to understand how and why humans form ideas. We need to understand the relationship is between our ideas and the reality of the outside universe. We need to understand human psychology.

So, in the next few articles I want to speculate about the human mind - the key, I believe, to unlocking more ideas about the truth. I want to begin with the topic of consciousness - that apparently inexplicable phenomenon which is our entire existence.

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