Keeping an open mind

This week I had a “discussion” with an ardent, antagonistic, hyper-vocal atheist.  I’m often comparing notes with people with worldviews very different from my own.  It helps me learn: what’s the point in only ever talking with people who think exactly like oneself, and who never challenge one to really evaluate what one believes?

In this case, though, it would be overstating things to call it a “discussion”: it’s hard to call it that when one person’s doing all the talking.  Loudly, aggressively and peppered with profanity (I’m told that’s a sign of a weakly held position or conviction … just sayin’).  I’m thinking his fervor comes from a bad Irish Catholic upbringing when Protestants and Catholics were doing everything they could to give Christianity a bad name.  Another version of a toxic religious experience masquerading as something divine, but really only confusing and repelling those who suffer under it.  I’ve got one of my own.

Like me, he’s a scientist.  But he’s completely against the whole God-thing.  He even attended an Atheist’s Conference in Australia a couple years ago.  He and I have often “compared notes,” and despite it being more of a monologue than a dialogue, I still value the interaction.

One question that comes up repeatedly in our conversations is how can I as a scientist continue to believe.  I can only answer back: “how can an honest scientist not leave open the option to believe?

Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that science proves theism, let alone Christianity.

I am saying, though, that you can’t rule it out.  The data just aren’t there to let you do that.  We’re so limited in our ability to perceive and comprehend things that it’s completely arrogant or self-deluded to say otherwise.  I’ve blogged before about how we’re so limited in our sensory abilities: we perceive only a small fraction of the complete spectrum of light, sounds, tastes, and smells around us.  Our brains have such a limited capacity for memory and comprehension.  Our grasp on time is brief and fragile.  A couple weeks ago I compared our situation to two bacteria debating on whether or not humans exist.  From their limited perspective, there’s no definitive proof in our favor.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel the least bit threatened by their uncertainty on the question.

In our discussion, I shared an analogy that, for me, best makes the point that none of us can be so confident in dismissing things beyond our senses.  I’ve used it before … I hope long-time readers won’t mind me dusting it off again.

It’s a thought-experiment.  A bit of a strange one actually, but some of the best advances in science have come out of thought-experiments.  Einstein’s Theory of Relativity came from a thought-experiment involving a ride on a train.  You may have heard of “Schrödinger’s cat” and how that showed Erwin something important about quantum mechanics.

This thought-experiment involves a world without the third dimension.  Beings in this world can move around in the left – right dimension and the forward-backward dimension, but the up – down dimension just doesn’t exist in their experience.  Their world — we’ll call it Flatland — is like living entirely within a sheet of paper.  Like one of those brain-teasers which present you with a maze that you have to navigate from one end to the other without lifting the pencil off the sheet of paper … you can only trace your path in those two dimensions of left – right and forward – backward.  It isn’t simply that Flatlanders are able to look up but are merely incapable of jumping off the page.  Instead, the up-direction doesn’t even exist for them (nor does the down-direction).

It all sounds bizarre, but it’s useful just the same: as you’ll see in a moment, you and I actually live in a different kind of Flatland.

Flatlanders go about their daily business, completely oblivious of anything in that third (vertical) dimension, until I decide one day to stick my finger through their two-dimensional world.  All of a sudden, I pop into their existence looking like a circle (the only part of my finger that intersects with their flat universe) that grows and shrinks in diameter as I move my finger around.  Then I pull my finger away and just as suddenly disappear from their existence.  I repeat that a few times in different parts of their world, amusing myself by watching them frantically try to comprehend how I pop in and out of existence all over the place.

Then I try something which really blows their minds.  I extend three fingers into Flatland.  Now they observe three different circles suddenly popping into their existence simultaneously.  Each is completely separate, and yet they somehow know that those three circles are part of one being (which they therefore call a trinity).

The point in this strange analogy is that those Flatlanders in their two-dimensional world just can’t possibly comprehend much of what you and I can do routinely in our three-dimensional world (three and a half if you want to include time … I count time as half a dimension because we can only move forward in it, not backwards).  And yet physicists tell us that there are many more dimensions in our own universe.  As I noted a few weeks ago, some with brains much bigger than mine predict at least 10 dimensions, and others talk about as many as 26 dimensions.  Imagine the possibilities for any Being that could operate in any of those other dimensions!

I’m sure some find this kind of talk so mind-boggling that they just dismiss it.  “How can there possibly be ten dimensions, let alone twenty six?”  One way to try to answer this is by describing the other dimensions as being squashed down in size, or curling in on themselves, to incomprehensible proportions.  You might find it easier to visualize this by imagining the left – right dimension and the East – West dimension from two different perspectives.

When you’re standing at an intersection and giving someone directions to the next town, those two separate dimensions are both real and relevant.  You can tell that person to go four kilometers to the left, or to go four kilometers to the west, and both instructions will be meaningful to that person and will take them to their destination.

But if you now take a few steps back until you’re standing on the rings of Saturn, looking down on earth from 1.5 billion kilometers away, and tell that person to go four light-years to the left or four light-years to the west, you’re now talking about two completely different destinations.  Four light-years to the left will take them to Alpha Centauri (the star system nearest to us in our galaxy). But four light-years to the west will have them circling the earth about a billion times: at the end of their trip it would look like they never moved at all.  From that perspective, the East – West dimension has curled in on itself around the Earth’s axis, and it’s no longer a meaningful dimension when you’re talking about distances measured in light-years.

Okay.  Time to put away this talk of light years and multiple dimensions and Flatlanders, and return to my “discussion” with my friend.

In the end, you can’t have any certainty standing with Friedrich Nietzsche declaring “God is dead.”  You can choose to believe one way or the other, but don’t deceive yourself by saying “there’s absolutely no proof.”  As a good scientist with an open mind, I can’t rule out the possibility.

On top of that, I know people who have a personal experience that is real and convincing to them.

Some describe dramatic encounters: at one point in time, they’re fully committed to a certain life-style or world-view, and overnight they’re a completely different person, and they attribute that change to a personal encounter.  What do I do with that?  I can’t dismiss them as “flakey” (a term that my atheist friend threw around quite a bit during our “discussion”) simply because I don’t want to believe their story.

Others describe an experience which is much less dramatic but no less real to them.

Few of them fit the standard stereotype of being intellectually weak or emotionally needy.  Some of them are actually pretty smart and stable people.

Not everyone experiences those kinds of encounters.  I haven’t myself.  But unless I arrogantly declare all those other people as liars or deluded, I have to accept that there’s more to reality than the little sliver on which I’ve got a handle.  My own encounters have been a lot more subtle.  More like gentle nudges to do or say something against my nature. The “still small voice” that Elijah “heard” in a particularly meditative moment.  An agreement I find with other seekers of all faiths.  An inner feeling that resonates with truth.  My atheist friend just dismisses that as “warm fuzzies.”  I think it’s more like the perception an amoeba in my pond might have about the possibility that “there might be humans out there.

I’m still feeling my away around on this question.

But I’m keeping an open mind.

Let me know what you think …


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8 thoughts on “Keeping an open mind

  1. Hi Luke, If I reply to your emails do you get my replies! Glen

    On Friday, July 22, 2016, Reaching into Platos Cave wrote:

    > lukejjanssen posted: “This week I had a “discussion” with an ardent, > antagonistic, hyper-vocal atheist. I’m often comparing notes with people > with worldviews very different from my own. It helps me learn: what’s the > point in only ever talking with people who think exactly li” >


    • Is this a riddle … “If a tree falls in the forest and nobody’s there to hear it …”?
      I haven’t seen any emails from you. You can be sure I’d reply if you did. Try messaging through FaceBook if there are any problems.


  2. I agree that there’s a lot that we don’t know or likely can’t even comprehend at this point. As a scientist myself, it’s impossible not to acknowledge the enormous dearth of knowledge that we have, even as we embrace and expand the realm of human knowledge to the extent that we can. And I also don’t think, like your friend seems to, that the idea of there being a god or gods or some other such thing is an insult to science or human discovery. But!

    But I do think that rejecting the existence of god or gods is quite reasonable even given our limitations, and I don’t consider this rejection arrogant or presumptuous. The reason involves 3 sets. First, I consider the set of things that could be postulated to exist in the absence of known physical laws. It takes little effort to see that this set is infinite… there is by definition no limit on the things I could add to this set. Next, I consider the set of things that can be shown to exist or be possible by natural law. This set is not infinite. It may be very large, but there is a limit to the things that can exist, given our physical laws and knowledge. This set permits things to be added that have not yet been observed, but they would have to be constrained by our physical knowledge, so speculations outside of the realm of observable fact would not be permitted. Finally, I consider the set of things that do exist. This set is, unfortunately, impossible to fully populate because we do not yet know all of the things that exist. We do not know if the things that exist are finite or infinite. At the very least, it seems highly unlikely to me that this set is as large as the first set, even if it were infinite.

    So now, let me just take a single element of set 1. Because set 1 is infinite and set 2 is finite, the chances that any random element of set 1 will be a member of set 2 is vanishingly small. Of course, this is why we harp on “burden of proof”… if something is simply asserted without proof, the chances that it falls into set 2 are practically zero. So if someone asserts that there is a god, but cannot show that it exists, then I have no reason to think that I need be concerned with it. Indeed, it would be strange for me to think that I should be concerned with it because then I’d have to open myself to the possibility of literally an infinite number of things.

    Now, the theist argues that whether or not an element of set 1 is also an element of set 2 is not the question. The question is, does it fall into set 3? Unfortunately, because we do not even know if set 3 is finite or infinite, this question is not something we can even begin to quantify. The likelihood of an object falling into set 3 could literally be anything from 0 to 1. As such, it’s not a very helpful question to ask. Furthermore, if the element does not fall into set 2, then I argue it’s fairly irrelevant if it falls into set 3. That is, until we can show that elements of set 3 are also elements of set 2, it is not generally possible to base decisions or draw conclusions or make predictions based on that element. Indeed, there are very, very, very few things exist in set 3 that do not exist in set 2 and, so far, pretty much all things that we initially discovered to be in set 3 only were eventually also placed into set 2 as we gained more knowledge of it. Thus, it seems to be a common property of set 3 objects that they eventually also become set 2 objects when discovered and subjected to scrutiny. Thus, if I am presented with an element that is claimed to be a part of set 3 but no effort is made to explain how to also make it a part of set 2, I am likely to doubt whether or not it IS actually a member of set 3.

    I dunno if that’s clear as mud or not, but this is the basis for why I think it’s a very rational and non-presumptuous position to reject unsubstantiated claims of gods. Indeed, accepting such claims seems more presumptuous to me, based on this logic. And I am one of those people who had “intense” and “life-changing” experiences with “god” which I later recognized as purely physiological and psychological. Do I know for sure that a god or gods do not exist? Certainly not. Just because a random member of set 1 has a vanishing chance of being an element of set 2 does not at all mean that no element of set 1 is an element of set 2. Quite the contrary! However, unless I have reason to think otherwise, it seems to me to be always the most reasonable option to ignore any possible existence of gods until they are shown to exist.


    • Thanks for interacting with this post. You raise some interesting points. It shouldn’t be surprising, though, if I say I don’t agree with everything. Logic tends to fall apart when one invokes concepts that are “infinite.” For example, if you take the numbers from one to infinity, and then drop out all the odd numbers, leaving only the even numbers, is that set of only even numbers half as big as the original set which included even and odd numbers? Even that sub-set of infinite numbers is itself infinite!?
      Getting back to your comment, I’d challenge whether your set 2 is indeed only finite: even considering the set of all possible rocks/pebbles, these can … in theory … range in size to the infinitely big, and having an infinite number of colors (not just those of the rainbow, but any wavelength in the electromagnetic spectrum), and be composed of an infinite combination of elements (the periodic table is itself open-ended, and you can combine those infinite number of elements in an infinite number of ways). I could go on, but I hope you get the point: we can’t use logic to talk about the infinite, nor use concepts of infinite to talk logic.
      Logic and infinite concepts are still valid. It’s just that they may not work well together. I’ve blogged many times before about other examples of perfectly good ideas or theories being completely incompatible … the particle theory and wave theory of light … Quantum Mechanics (addressing the incredibly small) vs Newtonian Mechanics (addressing the incredibly big) … Darwinism (evolution at the small level) vs whatever explains evolution at the big level (we don’t know what that is yet).
      Finally, about your final statement about “the most reasonable option,” some of the greatest discoveries were made when humans looked for something when there was no evidence to suggest it existed. Columbus sailing across the Atlantic. The invention of the concept of the square root of a negative number. General Relativity and the prediction of Black Holes. Asking that special someone in grade nine to go out on a date. Volunteers stepping into a humanitarian crisis hoping to bring some relief. Sometimes it pays to step out in faith.


  3. On the contrary, rocks cannot be any possible size in theory. There are well-established limits to what size such things can be before they become something other than rocks due to gravitational compression. Further, Columbus did not sail across the Atlantic looking for something that there was no evidence for; rather he was looking for India (a place well known) and ran into something else by accident. Nor was General Relativity proposed without ample evidence that it existed, nor were black holes predicted without evidence. Indeed both of these things were postulated because of the evidence from previous theory and observation. And volunteers intervening in a humanitarian crisis are not doing so without reason to think that they could make some sort of a difference. I can’t vouch for your special someone in grade nine though! 😉

    That’s not to say that I think there’s never a reason to have faith in anything. Just that it’s not illogical or presumptuous to reject a faith in something that has no evidence. One can choose to be open to that possibility, but it is not necessary for one to be in order to be consistent in one’s thinking.


  4. Thanks, G. I’ll concede that you got me on some of those points. I was aiming for the basic point that some in the past stepped out in faith and discovered something fantastic. As always, analogies have a tendency of failing. But I’ll still stick with that point. Unless definitive proof can be found on the matter of whether we’re alone in this universe, all any of us can do is believe one way or the other other.
    Again, thanks for interacting on this.


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