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How Would We Know?

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Richard S. R.
How Would We Know?

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Are we living in a computer simulation like The Matrix? How would we know?

Why is there something rather than nothing? How would we know?

Was the entire world created 5 minutes ago, including each of us with all our memories intact? How would we know?

In Edwin Abbott’s Flatland, 2-dimensional beings living on a flat surface understand length and width but have no concept of height. Are we 3-dimensional beings oblivious to a 4th spatial dimension? How would we know?

Did a supreme intelligence create the Universe 13.77 billion years ago, give it a little shove to get it started, then walk away to let it wind down on its own? HWWK?

What if, every time somebody made a decision, the universe split into two separate timelines, identical but for the decision going one way on one timeline and the other way in the other one? HWWK?

Gravitational measurements indicate that the Universe is about 5% what we think of as normal matter and energy, 30% dark matter, and 65% dark energy. Are we physically occupying the same space with dark-matter people, passing effortlessly thru them without noticing, because their equivalent of protons, electrons, and neutrons have no way of interacting electromagnetically with ours? HWWK?

Notice that these questions are qualitatively different from ones like “What was family life like for our ancestors 200,000 years ago?” (past), “Is my perception of red the same as yours?” (present), or “Will I ever be able to self-levitate?” (future). Those are cases where we can at least imagine a line of inquiry, such as the one about “Is there a Contra-Earth in our exact same orbit, only on the far side of the Sun, where we can never see it?”. The answer to that was “Let’s invent space flight and go look.” (We did, and there isn’t.)

But for all those “HWWK?” questions, we wouldn’t even have a clue where to start looking. This drives some people nuts.

Face it: We human beings are natural prey animals. No fangs. No claws. No armor. No fur. No poison. Crappy camouflage. Slow runners. Poor swimmers. Can’t fly. And, to top it all off, soppily devoted to our offspring, who remain helpless and useless for years after birth. (Contrast that with colts or fawns struggling to their feet within minutes of being born.)

Our only evolutionary advantage is our big honkin’ brains, which let us understand how the world around us works — and gives us language to share that knowledge with our fellow humans — so we can survive, thrive, and reproduce.

But the pathological consequence of this is that some humans just can’t stand uncertainty. They have an itch that must be scratched. They need to know! They must have The Answer!

This is how religion was invented. “What causes the lightning? I’m afraid.” “There, there, Zeus is just angry at Hera again. It’ll go away.” Just because this was complete, utter, totally made-up bullshit didn’t matter, since it had been delivered in tones of calm assurance. The itch had been scratched. That person knew, and thus was to be trusted and believed.

What religions of the future will be born out of people claiming to know the answers to all the unanswerable questions listed above? How would we know?

This will be a virtual meeting conducted via Zoom. A link will be sent out at noon on the day of the event to people who’ve RSVPed.

Madison Skeptics
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