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In Chang Tzu’s Butterfly Dream he confronts us with a timeless question: how do we know that anything is real? Western philosophy has also traveled down this garden path of inquiry. In answer to this dilemma philosopher René Descartes posits “cogito ergo sum” or “I think therefore I am”.

Philosophers describe an “axiom” as the starting point for all reasoning. We use an axiom to describe those truths declared as self evident. Yet how many axioms can there truly be?

I propose that there is only one statement anyone can hold as 100% true: “I am here now”.

How so? (1) There must be an “I” to have uttered a thought or made a statement. I may be in a computer simulation or in a dream but regardless “I am”. (2) The only time in which we can express any thought is now. And (3) wherever “here” is, surely I am there right now.

But how do we get from “I am here now” to evaluating the validity of any other truth claim?

With some smaller degree of certainty we accept that information we absorb through our senses is true. We do this even though we know for a fact that it is not true. We have all seen mirages and illusions that demonstrate the fragility of our senses. Yet, to go on living we must accept with some degree of confidence that our senses do not deceive us. We confirm what we experience by comparing it with others but any response they give us we also absorb through our senses.

Only once we’ve reached this base line can we extrapolate basic mathematics. First we identify a series of governing geometric principles that appear axiomatically true. For example the axiomatic postulates for Euclid’s geometry are:

“Let the following be postulated”:

  1. “To draw a straight line from any point to any point.”
  2. “To produce [extend] a finite straight line continuously in a straight line.”
  3. “To describe a circle with any centre and distance [radius].”
  4. “That all right angles are equal to one another.”
  5. The parallel postulate: “That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.”

Any 2D object on a plane begins with those axioms. We deviate from that with non-euclidean geometry. For example: draw two parallel line at 90 degrees to the equator and they will meet at the north pole. Though this is a fun fact it is a discussion for another time.

From those axioms we can make the following claim: there cannot exist a triangle with 4 sides. That statement relies on the existence of logic. We can logically derive the impossibility of a 4 sided triangle from Euclid’s axioms.

There cannot exist a triangle with 4 sides. Is there any other statement you could make as true as that one? Yet it too relies on a set of axioms built upon the fundamental principle that reality is real. And that too hinges on the correctness of the only truly true statement: “I am here now”.

To what degree of certain can we be confident about other things?

Take the claim that our physical world is composed of atoms. We cannot hold that to the same degree of certainty as we do our 4 sided triangle. What of biological claims? We say that the fossil record clearly shows the transition between simple life and complex life. This must be held with an even lower degree of certainty than the world of atoms.

“When I let go of this ball it will move towards the ground.” One could be so confident about the truth of that statement that they would be willing to give almost any odds in a bet that it wouldn’t happen. Yet it too could not be said with the same degree of confidence we have when denying 4 sided triangles.

All this is not to say that we cannot trust empirically derived truths. But it does mean that we must grade our level of certainty about everything.

People have a tendency to dismiss ideas, concepts and even facts if they disagree with preconceptions. Yet those preconceptions are not treated with the same truth scrutiny as new ideas they are willing to dismiss. Preconceptions are ingrained in our psyche.

A classic example is modern vs alternative medicine. When we say that a particular medicine is proven to work, we have a high degree of certainty. Our confidence sits somewhere between the 4 sided triangle and the statement “I am confident that the break pedal on my car works and will cause it to stop”.

The nature of science is inherently self critical. As a result scientist will freely agree that they cannot attest to the 100% effectiveness of any one piece of medicine. Nor can they attest that any one fact is 100% true.

This lack of confidence is not an opportunity for confident proponents of non-medicine to peddle alternatives. Nor is this a carte blanche for the effectiveness of doctors. Medicine is a stochastic approach to solving health problems. This trial-and-error is driven entirely by the lack of complete confidence in any form of diagnostics.

For this reason it is worthwhile listening to the conspiracy theorists and the science deniers. “Consider” is a weighted term which does not imply “believe what they say is true”. We should not even consider someone a sage if they turned out to be correct about some issue.

Suppose it is the consensus of scientists that the sun revolves around the earth. Now you come along and say that the earth revolves around the sun. Such a claim would not be valid even though it is right. The reason why a claim is valid is as important as the claim itself. Believing on intuition is not enough reason to believe in anything. If you suppose a hypothesis could be true, create a theory that explains the current observable evidence and makes a prediction that can be tested.

In fact that is exactly how we proved that the earth goes around the sun. Copernicus did this in his book “De revolutionibus orbium coelestium” (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres). In it he detailed his observations and theories about heliocentricism. After it’s publication he went away to collect data that would validate his theory.

Scientists have often been flat out wrong as well as just “off” by some degree. From miasma to geocentricism history is full of abject failures that explained the evidence of the time but failed to predict anything useful.

Even in recent time the dangers of lead and asbestos were worthy of advocating because of scientific consensus that they harmless. Such problems present a rather obvious conclusion: scientific consensus is not a trump card argument that a particular view is true. This does not mean that a controversial idea is automatically equal with those that agree with the consensus view. Scientific consensus is a heavy weight placed on the opposite side of a scale. To oppose it the burden of evidence shifts heavily in favour of the existing view.

Telling someone that GMOs are perfectly safe because “scientists agree that they are safe” is not a valid argument. How does the safety of GMOs measure in validity to the deadliness of lead? How can we be sure data hasn’t be falsified, that the mechanisms for possible bad effects could be greater than expected or that no testing has been done for effects over a modern human lifetime?

Why are we so quick to dismiss caution simply because it comes from the types who typically clash with the effectiveness of science? Should our evidence not stand on its own? Disproving conspiracy theories should not be about bashing people over the head for disagreeing. It should instead focus on making the science more accessible to the kinds of people who might be interested in it.

Consider the countless Orwellian conspiracy theories about government spying programs. Not 12 months ago people would have found it absurd that western democracies were conducting mass surveillance on all their citizens. Yet new evidence shows that it is happening. Were conspiracy theorists dismissed because their ideas about government surveillance had poor evidence or were they dismissed simply because they were conspiracy theorists?

The great thing about the scientific method is that if anyone wants to look at the evidence they can. Scientific papers publish their methods for the world to consume. Scientific consumers expect these results to be reproducible.

I remember the first time someone told me about gravity. That two objects dropped at the same time always hit the ground at the same time regardless of weight differences between them. As a kid I simply did not believe that statement to be true. The magic of science allowed me not only to observe the experiment but for me to repeat it over and over until I was satisfied.

Our confidence in science is not believing some dogma. Our confidence is that scientific results have consistently proven to be repeatable. And all of that confidence comes with a great asterisk. It looms over every truth claim that we make. We must compare it with the degree of certainty that you are not in fact a butterfly dreaming of being human.

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