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Humans have sought to explain reality since of the dawn of our species. Our thirst for the answers of the unknown is the driving force behind all innovations and advancements. When answers could not be found, we developed religion to fill in the gaps. Over time, we proposed the scientific method to measure the material world and interpret it through an empirical lens. In modern times, both spirituality and science are believed to be polar opposites with one being "faith" and the other being "realistic." Today, I want to challenge both perspectives to answer the life-long question: what is real and how real is real?
The Religion Paradox
Religion has been integrated into the very fabric of society for thousands of years, providing humanity with the answers to questions that were beyond our comprehension:
- "Where did life come from?"
- "What created the universe?"
- "What is my purpose?"
One may argue that religion, in fact, provides humanity with no true "answers" and is merely based on a hunch or a creative guess. However, what is important to remember is that religion answers some questions that simply can neither be tested nor measured, existing beyond the boundaries of modern science. As a result, it is impossible to lay claim that any religion is more or less accurate than another, just as one cannot state with absolute certainty that religion is wrong altogether. To deem all religions are invalid is intellectually irresponsible, as one cannot prove nor disprove their claims; however, this is not to say that everything in every religion is accurate, and, thus, we should question the beliefs to discover our own truths.
According to Google, a paradox is "a statement or proposition that, despite sound (or apparently sound) reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory." If we look at religion as a whole, and not any one in particular, we can suggest that there are many statements and conclusions that exist despite logical explanations provided by science.
For instance, let us look at one of the most popular beliefs in religion: a higher power created the universe, and, therefore, as a result of that event, human beings. Now, this statement provides humanity with the answer to how the universe was created, and, because it exists outside of the realm of science, cannot be deemed entirely inaccurate. However, this statement runs itself into a contradiction, because if the higher being created the universe, something must have created that higher being, and, therefore, that something would have been indirectly responsible for creating the universe and not the higher being themselves. Most religions claim that the higher being was always present, but one can argue that this is impossible as nothing in the universe can exist without coming from something else. And if something did create the higher power, who or what created it, and so on? This statement also does not explain specifically how the universe was created and through what means, leaving us with more questions than actual answers.
Another example is the concept of free-will, as most religions believe that this, too, was created through the higher power. However, as most people know, those very same religions claim that the higher power has a plan for every individual. One can then argue that free-will is an illusion if the master plan already governs all behaviors, attitudes, and experiences. Therefore, every action, thought, and event would have been already planned, and, thus, the concept of free-will begins to break apart. Coincidentally enough, this is known as the free-will paradox or the argument from free-will, such that omniscience (the ability for a being/deity to be all-knowing) and free-will cannot exist simultaneously and are, therefore, contradictory.
Moses ben Maimon, also known as Rambam, was an 11th century Jewish philosopher, physician, and astronomer in Egypt who developed the following argument that sparked the debate about free-will and an omniscient deity: "Does God know or does He not know that a certain individual will be good or bad? If thou sayest 'He knows,' then it necessarily follows that the man is compelled to act as God knew beforehand how he would act, otherwise God's knowledge would be imperfect…" (The Eight Chapters of Maimonides on Ethics, Joseph I. Gorfinkle, p. 99-100, 1966). His argument can be better understood through the following example:
- God knows that the human will make choice "A," which they claim to have made freely.
- It is now necessary that the human will make choice "A"
- If it is now necessary that they make choice "A," then it cannot be otherwise, as it was predestined.
- If the human cannot act otherwise, then there is no free-will to act.
- Therefore, if the human does act, they will not be doing so freely.
Based on the above argument, one can see how the claim that God is all-knowing, while simultaneously giving human beings free-will is contradictory and, therefore, impossible.
Although not directly related to this topic, it can also be assumed that God, who is omniscient and master designer of the universe, created the Devil himself, knowing that he would deceive him. This is also contradictory because God, therefore, who is thought to be all-loving and inherently 'good,' single-handedly manufactured all the evils in the world through his own enemy, Lucifer. One argument against this idea is that Lucifer defied God with his free-will; however, we now know that God cannot be all-knowing for free-will to truly exist. Thus, is God all-knowing and we are merely acting upon predestiny, or is he not all-knowing and we are truly using our free-will to make decisions? If it's the latter, one can argue, how did he know how to make the universe then?
Because religion attempts to answer questions about the tangible world with intangible ideas, it can be assumed that its claims are unverifiable, and, thus, inadequate. Furthermore, if we further analyze these statements, we can see that they are a paradox because they provide humanity with answers, but lack the logic and reasoning required to avoid running into a contradiction.
So, if religion is a paradox, such that it attempts to provide mankind with the answers to questions that lay outside of the realm of science while simultaneously creating more questions than actual conclusions, does this mean that it is inaccurate when compared to the logic of science?
The Science Paradox
The scientific method is an empirical method of knowledge acquisition that involves careful observation, formulating hypotheses, and conducting experiments to answer realistic questions. It is argued that the method was originally developed by Aristotle, but Sir Francis Bacon is credited as the official inventor, who proposed the idea in his book Novum Organum (1620). If one follows this method properly, it can be assumed that personal bias, cognitive assumptions, and experimental error can be reduced, such that they do not soil the evidence.
Because science is based on measurements and empirical reasoning, mathematics are required, allowing the human mind to interpret and quantify scientific evidence. One key concept of math is that it provides things with an understandable value, allowing us to interpret their meaning. Although historians cannot identify precisely when math was created, the Egyptians and Babylonians are considered to be the first to use arithmetic, algebra, and geometry in 3000 BC. However, the systematic study of mathematics began with the Pythagoreans, the Ancient Greeks, in 6th century BC.
If science provides humanity with the answers to questions that religion fails to adequately explain, one may consider it to be "real" and, thus, not a paradox as it is based upon logic and mathematical reasoning. However, what is important to remember is that human beings created the rules and principles of mathematics, and thus their value as well; for example, an individual cannot have a bucket of 1, but they can have 1 bucket. The human mind also understands that 1+1=2 and not 5 because of this value we have given each character and the rules we have put into place to lead us to this conclusion.
Furthermore, everything in math has an opposite because the human brain understands better when it can compare two things against each other; we say that 1+1=2, and, thus, 2-1 must equal 1. This is easy to understand because the the values are small enough to be comprehensible; we can have two buckets, take away one, and have one remaining. However, the very purpose of mathematics (to measure, quantify, and provide value to things) begins to fail when discussing incomprehensible values, such as the size of the universe, the amount of planets and stars, how many atoms are in our bodies, or how small an electron is. The human brain cannot understand these concepts, and, so, mathematics loses its ability to provide value, but maintains its quantifiability. In an attempt to create this lost value, scientists turn millions of kilometers into light years or millions of atoms into Planks, yet these, too, are difficult to imagine. As Lucy would say, "we have codified our existence to bring it down to a human size to make it comprehensible; we've created a scale so that we can forget it's unfathomable scale" (Film: Lucy, 2014).
If math can provide valued answers to realistic question with statistical or numerical representations, how does it answer questions about the unquantifiable? The short answer is, it doesn't. For instance, let's re-examine our religious perspective with the following question: "what created the universe?" Humans can estimate through mathematical analysis that roughly 13.7 billion years ago the universe expanded from the Big Bang. We can look back far enough to see the background radiation of the universe, use the Hadron Collider to see how particles collide to form new matter, or develop mathematical formulas to explain the event, but none of these provide us with an adequate enough answer to the original question; all we know the result of that event and nothing about the event itself. The truth is, it is impossible to truly know what created the universe because there was no light at that very beginning nanosecond of creation to show us what happened. Furthermore, if we propose the idea that because mathematics is a human construction how can we be certain any of our estimates are correct, especially if the only way to verify them is through more mathematical analysis? Therefore, we can only use excessive analysis to determine that our theories are probable and not proof.
I took a research class in university where the professor made it very clear that the word "proof" was to never be used in literature because nothing can be officially "proven" or "disproven." We can develop causational or correlational theories on phenomena, however, we cannot determine with a hundred percent accuracy that every time we conduct research the outcome will always be a direct result of our manipulation. There are too many variables to determine anything with absolute certainty, and, thus, it is important to realize that science is based upon a logical estimation and never absolute fact.
One can claim that mathematics must be real and accurate because it has allowed us to put rockets in space, send the Voyager 1 and 2 beyond the solar system, create medicines, and develop satellites, the radio, television, and cell phones, etc. However, it is important to understand human beings can create things using mathematics because both the object and the theory are human constructions, and, therefore, go hand-in-hand. Our technology works because it uses a system that we've created to make them work; a computer does not care if it uses ones and zeros or fives and sixes so long as both groups have the same value and instruction, which we provide it with. Therefore, the ones and zeros cannot exist on their own, as they require value to be transformed into instruction by the creator: humans.
When math fails to be accurate is when it attempts to measure things beyond human comprehension because it was created through the limits of the human mind. For example, quantum mechanics, a very complex division of physics, is so complicated because the human mind simply cannot understand how particles could teleport from one place to another, or exist as both a wave and a particle, or pop in and out of existence in a sort-of quantum foam, or be in two places at the same time, etc. These claims seem senseless and illogical, yet mathematics claims that they are true phenomenon that happen around us each and every day.
As seen, science fails to answer important questions about the immaterial universe, such as:
- "What is consciousness?"
- "What is my purpose?"
- "What happens after death?"
- "What are thoughts?"
- "What is 'self?'"
Now, just because we cannot quantify or measure consciousness or thoughts, for instance, does that mean they do not exist despite us experiencing them each and every day? The obvious answer is that just because something is immeasurable, does not mean it does not exist. However, if mathematics is the language of universal laws, a logical assumption would be that all things within that universe should be quantifiable if they are bound by the same laws. Reality, however, is not logical.
Thus, if science can only provide humankind with an empirical understanding of the universe, yet concepts within that universe exist that are not measurable with current mathematical principle and law, it fails at truly answering the question despite its apparent reasoning. If there are too many variables to ever claim something to be "proven," then how can we be sure that our measurement of those variables is correct in the first place? Furthermore, because mathematics is the foundation of scientific analysis and understanding, yet was created through the limitations of the what the human mind can comprehend, it fails at truly providing value and understanding to the incomprehensible. As stated above, when mathematics leaves the realm of value and becomes strictly based upon quantifiability, weird phenomenon begin to occur, such as in quantum mechanics, and our logical understanding begins to lose its sensible reasoning and the very nature of science becomes paradoxical.
The Reality Paradox
Up to this point, we have suggested that both religion and science attempt to provide humanity with answers to the unknown, but that the very answers themselves can be ran into contradictions that defeat their primary reasoning. Science may be considered to be "more accurate" than religion because it is more based in reality and answers questions about the material world than can drive technological, medical, social, etc. advancement. Meanwhile, religion, in its own rite, can provide answers to questions about unquantifiable or immaterial things that lay outside the realm of science, such as consciousness. However, what is important to note is that both religion and science exist within the same minds that created them in the first place, and, thus, how can one chose which is more accurate if they are both based on the same human perspective?
We must also consider that reality itself is a fabrication of the human mind. For instance, when photons from the sun hit against a blade of grass, all wavelengths of the visible light spectrum are absorbed by the molecules in the plant, except for green, and, as that green wavelengths hit our eyes, they send information to the brain where it is interpreted and transformed into an understandable experience: the grass is green. However, color on its own does not exist without a brain to interpret it, for it is simply wavelengths leaving the plant's molecules. Our brains see thousands of colors, shapes, and objects every second of every day, and, therefore, we believe that color is real because we are told that it is by our minds. A butterfly or bumblebee, however, see colors that the human mind could never comprehend, such as ultraviolet or polarized light, which does not mean they are not real, but that they are inconceivable to the human brain. Therefore, our perspective of reality is merely a construction of how our brains are able to perceive that reality and has nothing to do with the reality itself.
At birth, babies are "blind" as their underdeveloped brains do not have the ability to understand and recall objects, shapes, and colors that they have not stored as visual memory. However, as children develop and mature, the brain begins to connect shades with colors and shadows with shapes until it can recall the memory so quickly that it feels instantaneous. Think about it, you don't see total darkness in between objects or settings just as you don't hear silence in between sounds. Everything molds together because our memories tell us what we are experiencing before we are even aware of it.
The same is true for sound; a tree falls in the forest and the force of the atoms of the trunks smashing against the ground causes disruption in the molecules in the air, causing these sound waves to hit our eardrum, three ossicle bones, and cochlea, before being transmitted through the vestibulocochlear nerve to the brain for interpretation based on memories of hearing trees before and transforms it into an understandable experience; a tree has fallen. However, if there is no brain to hear the tree fall, the tree does not make a sound when it falls, not by choice, but because there is nothing around to hear it. One can argue that the particles will still collide between the tree and the ground, but sound is an experience, not a tangible material; this does not mean that sound does not exist, but that it only exists when someone can experience it.
We know that human memory is not concrete and changes throughout our lives. The brain stores memories that have more emotional experiences in stronger connections and those without strong relationships to our lives in weaker connections, which is why you can remember your first vacation better than your first meal of the day. Our brains have developed a way to categorize memories based on level of significance to our lives and survival, which is why remembering how to walk, run, eat, drink, sense, etc. is more solidified than how to do algebra.
However, psychology says that because memory is imperfect, our brains can misinterpret things or recall them incorrectly, such as when you place your phone down and swear you put it in a certain place but really it was somewhere else despite you having no memory of putting it there or when you recall a funny moment and accidentally mix up when it happened or who it happened with. This lack of impermanence is not necessarily a bad thing, but it can make one wonder if they can even trust their own memories. Every time you recall a memory, you lose a small portion of it, and your brain attempts to compensate by voiding that piece altogether or making something up that seems somewhat rational.
The brain is highly neuroplastic, meaning that its connections are changing every second of every day; you will not be the same person by the end of this article as you were at the beginning. Therefore, our perspective, too, is always changing even if the reality stays the same. This is why that quote by Wayne Der is so powerful: "if you change the way you look at things, the things you look at will change."
Considering that all the above statements are true, one can begin to see that even your own mind cannot be trusted as it produces your experiences and fabricates your reality for you. Therefore, we can now pose an intriguing, but somewhat terrifying question: if we cannot trust our brains to tell us what is real and what is not, then how do we know if we are not simply a construct of our own minds?
The only way we can prove we exist is through the perspectives of other people. If you and I were studying in the library and no one else was around, then the only two people on this planet that can prove we exist at that moment are each other. Everyone else can only guess if we exist or not, but because they cannot perceive us, they cannot be certain. Sure, I can hear myself, feel myself, perhaps even smell myself, but who is to say that it is not a product of my own mind? If you were to lose all of your senses, how could you prove that you or reality exist at all?
If you want to take it a step further, one may argue that not even those around us can prove we exist because they, too, may be a fabrication of our own minds. Perhaps when you ask your friend if they are real, they only respond "yes" because your brain wants them to do so in fear of being lonely or rejected. On the other hand, perhaps everything is a simulation, like a game of Sims, and mathematics is merely the discovery of the computations that make up this virtual universe.
Imagine a car driving down a race track in a loop at 60km/hr; the car appears to be normal and present. Now, let's pretend that the car begins to speed up infinitely, accelerating every time it passes by you. Eventually, it would travel so quickly that the light wouldn't even be able to hit it fast enough for your brain to sense it, and it would cease to exist.
Now pretend that this exact same situation is happening, but time (not the car) is slowing down infinitely. Eventually, time would slow down to such a point that the light wouldn't hit your eyes because it wouldn't be moving, and again the car would cease to exist. Therefore, the only proof that you had of its existence in the first place was your own perception. If you came to me the same day and told me about this car, I would have no real understanding of the car, for only you can because it was your reality in which you experienced the car.
Thus, the only proof we ever have that something exists is through the perception of the object in time. If time moves too quickly, there is not object; if it moves too slowly, there is no object. Time is what gives life legitimacy, yet our perception of it is limited by our human comprehension. Without time, we do not exist, yet with time, we cannot prove that we exist.
What's important to realize is that the universe, regardless of who or what created it, is not only the home of planet Earth, but the manufacturer of all planets and stars. Therefore, if humans are created by the materials of the Earth, and the Earth by the universe, then human beings are, essentially, the universe experiencing itself (mind = blown).
In conclusion, if religion attempts to provide us with answers to questions that science cannot, and both science and religion are creations of the human mind, the producer of reality, how can we be certain that the very questions and answers exist at all? Therefore, reality becomes its own paradox, as it seems logical for it to exist, yet lacks proof that it is even real in the first place.
Now I ask you one final question: how real is real?