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Shining Light on Reality

December 3, 2018

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We are bombarded with information on a daily basis.  It is often said we live in the information age, but we also live in the misinformation age. How do we decide what qualifies as knowledge and what qualifies as nonsense?

Maybe there are no wrong or right answers but just opinions. Those promoting a multiplist epistemology suggest there are multiple points of view, multiple beliefs that are not necessarily better or worse than other beliefs (Kuhn 2001). This notion is fallacious. There are facts and opinions, right and wrong answers.

There is a reality that extends beyond personal comforts and opinions (Mitchell and Jolley 2010). Virtually everyone agrees that reality exists. Even if there is no objective reality, we have no choice but to accept the “idea of reality” (some have suggested an approximation of reality), as it is necessary for everyday living and understanding the world.

Scientific thinkers, philosophers, and theologians promote different views of reality. Scientific thinkers and philosophers may share common ideas (at times), while those adhering to supernatural explanations perpetuate claims that drastically deviate from the rules, principles, theories, and foundations that support naturalism.

A naturalistic worldview asserts nature is all there is; all actions are in the domain of nature. Even those who claim belief in entities beyond nature often act as if they subscribe to a naturalistic worldview; they look to science and technology often. It is only on occasion that the answer they wish for is outside of nature.

It is often stated that supernatural actions are beyond human comprehension. Belief in these actions, although they are lacking in evidence and according to the rules that govern nature they are highly unlikely, are faith based (belief in absence of evidence).

It is irrational to spend excessive time thinking about actions that can’t be comprehended. Is it ideal to conceptualize any element of reality as incomprehensible? A scientific perspective stresses the need for comprehension; an inability to comprehend isn’t a virtue in science.

Supernatural belief may offer some psychological and sociological benefits to some people; these beliefs may provide meaning, comfort, and purpose in their lives. These beliefs do not lead to observational consistencies, predictions, descriptions, converging evidence, model coherence, or explanations of the physical world. However, science consists of the criteria needed for a useful depiction of reality. Modern science is based on the belief there is a real external world whose characteristics are independent of human perception. A materialistic viewpoint, and its accompanying notion of scientific realism, is essential for comprehending reality.

My students and colleagues will probably tell you I am fond of the phrase “preponderance of evidence.” This phrase refers to the weight of evidence and is attained once converging evidence emerges. Converging evidence is evidence from different lines of research that meet at a specific point(s). Theories and conceptual definitions in science adhere to the principle of converging evidence.

Consider the following statement from Michael Shermer: “If the universe and Earth are only about ten thousand years old, then the modern sciences of cosmology, astronomy, physics, chemistry, geology, paleontology, paleoanthropology, and early human history are all invalid” (Shermer 1997,143). Supernatural portrayals of reality lack convergence of this magnitude, are illogical, lack empirical support, and in fact often thrive on creating confusion and improbable events. Only science provides the reliable, valid output needed if one is serious about determining what is real.

Empirical information in the context of science is rooted in systematic empiricism. Observation is necessary in acquiring scientific knowledge, but unstructured observation of the natural world does not lead to an increased understanding of the world.

As one famous thought experiment suggests, “Write down every observation you make from the time you get up in the morning to the time you go to bed on a given day. When you finish, you will have a great number of facts, but you will not have a greater understanding of the world” (Stanovich and Stanovich 2003, 12).

Systematic Empiricism is systematic because it is structured in a way that allows us to learn more precisely about the world. After careful systematic observations, some relationships and explanations are supported while others are rejected. Systematic empiricism involves direct and indirect observations. The type of observations, such as those made in everyday life, lack precision and are severely limited. Scientific and technological advances allow a wide range of observations at different levels (examining small and large magnitude phenomena) and enhance our understanding of how the universe works. Extending these observations, scientists propose general descriptions, relationships, and explanations of the universe; indeed, “We could observe end-less pieces of data, adding to the content of science, but our observations would be of limited use without general principles to structure them” (Myers and Hansen 2002, 10). To reiterate, general principles of science, including theories, conceptualizations, operationalizations, and model structuring, play important roles in detecting reality. Connectivity among these variables provide a strong structure for the concept (mental representation) of reality.

Scientific thinking encompasses different components. The cognitive mechanisms underpinning scientific thinking are applicable in a range of contexts, including a conceptualization of reality.

A useful structure of reality is one derived from a scientific materialistic perspective. There’s no need to refer to entities extending beyond nature when talking about a natural world. Supernatural intervention would be an action that falls in the realm of naturalistic explanation if it occurred in a materialistic world.

Supernatural (magical, miraculous, superstitious, etc.) indicates beyond nature, phenomena outside of the constraints of nature. Lisa Randall (physicist and member of National Academy of Sciences) asserts that for scientific thinkers, “material mechanistic elements underlie the description of reality. The associated physical correlates are essential to any phenomenon in the world. Even if not sufficient to explain everything, they are required” (Randall 2012, 55).

It is puzzling when one claims to be a scientific thinker but also claims to believe that supernatural entities influence natural phenomena. The key problem with this line of thinking is addressing the unsolvable issue of deciding at what point the supernatural intervenes.

Do scientific models, descriptions, predictions, and explanations reflect reality, or do they demonstrate supernatural intervention? The clearest view of reality is the one seen through the lens of science.

References

Kuhn, D. 2001. How do people know. American Psychological Society 12(1): 1–8.

Mitchell, M.L., and J.M. Jolley. 2010. Research Design Explained 7th Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Myers, A., and C. Hansen. 2002. Experimental Psychology. Pacific Grove, CA: Wadsworth.

Randall, L. 2012. Knocking on Heaven’s Door: How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. New York, NY: Ecco.

Shermer, M. 1997. Why People Believe Weird Things. New York: W.H. Freeman.

Stanovich, P., and K. Stanovich. 2003. Using Research and Reason in Education: How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions. National Institute of Literacy.

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