Prove It

This is part 6 of my series on doubt. You can see the whole series here.

What would you say if I asked you to prove you are awake? If you're like most people I've offered this challenge, you'd probably pinch yourself and tell me you felt it. It's a fair response, but what if I said you could have dreamed both the pinch and the corresponding sensation?

Where would you go from there; that we're talking? You can dream a conversation. Some people get clever and say my independent perspective is how they know they aren't dreaming, but how do they know I perceive anything? How do they know I'm not just part of the dream? What can I do that someone in a dream could not?

For that matter, how can you prove that you've ever been awake? What if every "dream" in your life so far was simply something imagined inside an ongoing dream. How can you prove your life is real and not a dream?

How can you prove you aren't a brain in a jar, hooked up to a machine that projects the illusion of a world through your nerves? How would you know the difference between a real world and a brain-in-a-jar world?

Or, how do you know that you're not just part of a computer program? Some scientists say our Universe has aspects of a simulation when viewed in high detail.


I've yet to meet anyone who can prove that they are awake, or they aren't a brain-in-a-jar, or we aren't all part of a computer program. I've asked philosophers, scientists, poets, and musicians. Sooner or later, everyone gives up.


I bring this all up in a series about doubt because we have to admit that if we don't have some level of doubt about what we know, we probably place too much confidence in our knowledge.

Think about it. I've heard more than one skeptic quip that you can't validate the Bible using the Bible because that's circular reasoning. But what do skeptics use to validate the fact that their eyes, ears, nose, mouth and skin tell them information about a real Universe? If you guessed they use their eyes, ears, nose, mouth, and skin, give yourself a prize.

Even Empiricism (the philosophy that says all knowledge is derived from physical evidence gathered through our senses) is based on circular reasoning–our senses prove our senses. Empiricists only believe that which they can verify with evidence, but they don't have any non-sensory way to verify that evidence is valid–other than its usefulness in the reality they perceive.

Which is to say an evidence-based approach to belief has shown itself to be really useful in making predictions about how the Universe works. The ability to make such predictions is where science and medicine come from, and antibiotics and cell phones come from this approach.

Ultimately though, this line of thinking can't verify those cell phones really exist. The idea behind Empiricism is the philosophy which makes the fewest assumptions about the world is best–but even that's an assumption.

Given all that uncertainty, you'd be forgiven for thinking there's no way to choose what beliefs are best. If proving ideas is impossible, then we can believe whatever we want, right? Not so fast–all things being equal, we can judge the effectiveness of beliefs. Here's what I mean.

Pretty much every philosophy out there assumes we're all real, and that our senses tell us about a Universe that exists. Solipsism and existential nihilism don't, but if you Google them you'll find they aren't very interesting ways to live. There's a whole avenue of inquiry called epistemology that concerns itself with how we can justify knowledge, and through it I've learned that people who think a lot about thinking admit that we make weak, but necessary assumptions to have knowledge about the world. The most common assumption across philosophies is some variant of "reality exists." Once we make that assumption, things get easier.

"We believe in nothing, Lebowski."

"We believe in nothing, Lebowski."

Science really kicks ass in reality. That's the driving force behind this series. Science has worked so well, for so long, that traditional religious ideas about our world and any god that made it seem primitive and ineffective. I've yet to see any of the world's faiths pray people to other worlds, but Drake's rocket equation put boots on the Moon many times.

Science also shows tremendous power in creating unity of knowledge, and we have to admit that religion doesn't. Most religions are based on some kind of divine revelation, and revelations are really hard to test–everyone claims that what God told them is correct. This means the world is not only full of different religions, but that religions tend to splinter into many sects with different understandings of sacred texts and revelatory insights. It's hard to see this from within a religious tradition, but once you're standing on the outside it's quite an impediment to belief.

I bring all this up because we're shifting gears in our doubt conversation. My firsts posts were about dealing with the feelings and fears people face when they are confused about God. The next posts pushed back against a couple of common objections to faith raised by prominent secularists. Now, we're going to actually talk about reasons I've gone back to faith–why I am a person who believes in God and follows Jesus. And in order to do that, we have to first admit that there are really hard limits on evidence and knowledge. Before we proceed, I want to lay down the disclaimer that all beliefs are based on assumptions, including mine. This insight means we have to hold our ideas somewhat loosely, and admit new insights and evidence can change them. None of my beliefs are final, and they are very much a work in progress–just like the knowledge held by all mankind.

By now, you should be pretty convinced that I believe that science is the best means for uncovering facts about reality. Next time, I'll tell you how a night of drinks and karaoke made me doubt that the scientific picture of reality and the human experience was complete.