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The Big Questions - Seminar One, The Search for Truth
We are embarking on a journey of discovery.
My purpose is to attempt an answer to the three Big Questions:
Where did we come from? (What is the origin of
existence and the universe?)
Why are we here? (What is the purpose of existence and what gives life meaning?)
Where are we going? (What is the future of the species, and of the individual soul?)
My method is to use my intellect to examine much that we know about how the universe works, and what our place in the universe is.
When I talk about what we know, or when I call some piece of data a fact, I’m proceeding from the point of view that nothing in the universe is absolutely true, and I’m then making a distinction between what is merely believed to be true (without some supporting data) or what simply might be true, on one hand, and what has a high order of probability of being true, on the other hand.
When I say that something has a high order of probability of being true, what I mean is that to the best of our understanding and knowledge, at this time, the statement of fact is more likely to be verified than contradicted, through observational tests and closely examined predictions of outcomes. An example of this kind of "fact" and its "high order of probability of being true" is the statement that all men are mortal. It may be that all men are not mortal, and that an immortal person will be born tomorrow, but based on all the data we have, the high order of probability is that each new human being born will be mortal. Thus, for the purposes of our discussion here, I would accept the statement "all men are mortal" to be a fact, which is to say that it has a high order of probability of being true.
Now, I know that there may always be people who won't or can't accept even this use of the word "fact", or the word "true". If you happen to be such a reader, and if you just can't get past this point, then I advise you to stop reading right now. It's not my intention to cause distress to anyone who might read this series of seminars, and it's not my practice to try to convince anyone of my point of view. If a reader finds that something in my method, or some conclusion I draw, is upsetting to her or his sensibilities, I advise that she or he should simply stop reading, and leave the seminar series with my best wishes.
I’m talking to the body of people – the very large number of people, in my estimate – who think it useful to proceed on the assumption that some pieces of data, on the basis of a high order of probability, should be considered facts. I’m not ruling out the possibility that new evidence might emerge that might show me that the piece of data wasn't a fact. On the contrary, my method demands that we must learn everything we can about the universe, and constantly subject what we've accepted as facts to the test of new evidence. One of life's greatest delights, it seems to me, is the emergence of some new research or insight that reveals a previously accepted "fact" to be quite wrong. While I don't accept everything in the analysis of Popper (more of Karl Popper in later seminars), I do share the delight he felt in seeing long-cherished scientific tenets overturned.
Okay, if you're still with me, then you've accepted that we can use the words "fact" and "true" in meaningful ways. Now, let's proceed with the elaboration of our method.
In this process of examining data and accepting high order of probability data as facts, and proceeding to draw reasonable conclusions on the basis of those facts, I employ the intellect.
This is not to say that intuitive approaches are invalid, or that meditative-introspective journeys are not fruitful. On the contrary, those approaches are often illuminating.
My purpose here, in this summary of much that is known about the universe and
our place in it, is to apply the intellect to those facts and data that have
a high order of probability of being true, so that my conclusions – about
the answers to the Big Questions – are open to the widest possible audience,
regardless of their personal beliefs. It's my hope that a rational and reasonable-minded
Hindu would see and accept the essential sense in my method and my conclusions,
just as a rational and reasonable-minded Christian, Jain, Bahai, Buddhist, Jew,
Muslim, Parsee, Animist, Agnostic, or Atheist would.
It's my hope that in this search for meaning, we can build a community of the mind, which will allow us to open our hearts to one another with the love inspired by the discovery that we really are very special beings, in a universe that has the special function of bringing beings like us into existence.
To begin with, let’s take a closer look at that word truth.
As I said earlier, nothing, in the physical universe, is absolutely true.
We live in a finite, physical universe, and nothing in it is perfect or absolute.
Everything in the universe – and indeed, the whole universe itself – is involved in the flow of time, when looked at from our human perspective. Moreover, the latest discoveries from the research into sub-atomic particles, using particle accelerators and super-colliders, suggest that the sub-atomic particle called a Proton has a finite “life-span”. The fact of the proton’s demise, known as proton-decay, sets an upper limit, as it were, on the existence of matter. These two facts (remember, facts are things that have a high probability of being true, based on what we currently know) about the flow of time, and proton-decay - among many other facts that will be discussed later in this series of seminars – leads me to the overwhelming conclusion that the universe as we know it is physical and finite, rather than absolute and infinite. So, nothing is absolute and nothing is perfect. So, nothing is absolutely true.
I’ll discuss this theme again, later in the search, but for the moment, it can be stated as a fact that nothing is absolutely true, because nothing in the finite, physical universe is absolute, eternal, or perfect.
Now, the fact that nothing is absolutely true doesn't mean that all things are equally untrue – or that the search for truth has no meaning – because some things, quite clearly, are more true than others.
For example, in normal or average conditions and without special apparatus, people fall to the ground if they jump off tall buildings. Therefore, the statement “If I jump off this tall building, I will fall to the ground,” is more true than the statement “If I jump off this tall building, I will not fall to the ground.”
It is important to realize that the first statement – “If I jump off this tall building, I will fall to the ground,” is not absolutely true.
Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (which we will discuss later) assures us that there is a rare but not impossible chance that we will not fall, if we jump off the building.
Nevertheless, the odds against such an event are so astronomically high – and the odds in favour of falling are so close to absolutely certain – that the only reasonable and rational assumption to draw, based on all the available evidence, is that we will fall if we jump off the tall building. It’s not absolutely true, but it’s so very close to being absolutely true that no sane person would risk her or his life on the chance that it is not true.
Now, let’s take a look at one of the most important tools we’ll employ in the search for meaning:
The function of intellect is, among other things, to:
3) Measure, and
Each of these four major functions of the intellect is related to knowledge.
To discriminate, in this special sense of the intellect, means to discern that there is a difference between one thing and another, to focus on one thing rather than another, and to recognize the qualities and characteristics of one thing in relation to another thing.
To compare, means to contrast the qualities and characteristics of one thing against those of another (and against all known things), and to see how similar and how dissimilar the things are.
To measure, means to recognize the physical and energy-related limits of a thing, and to find the direct and indirect ways in which the thing relates to all other things.
To categorize, means to group the things we see into families of things, and to do our best to discover how the thing, and its family of things, interconnect with the purpose of existence.
Some readers will have noticed that the explanation of the word "categorize", as a function of intellect, involved the question of how the family of things in a given category interconnects with "the purpose of existence". Some of those readers who noticed this point may object that such a statement presupposes that there actually is a purpose of existence.
Let's be clear about that point right now. I hold that there's a purpose to existence, and that consequently there's a meaning and purpose to life. I believe that when we've examined all of the data we can accumulate about the nature of the universe, from Big Bang to the present, the only rational and reasonable conclusion to draw is that there's a meaning and purpose to life.
I feel sure that the data supports this view, and I feel confident that it's, in fact, the only rational and reasonable conclusion to draw, based on that data. However, I’m just starting out on this journey with you, the readers, so I’m happy to put the conclusion forward as a conjecture or an assumption, at this stage, and work our way towards it. If you're the kind of reader who's offended by the suggestion that there's a meaning and purpose to life, I advise you to stop reading right now. I don't want to upset anyone, under any circumstances, and there's no doubt about where we're going with this: there definitely is a meaning and purpose to life.
For the moment, for those who are still with us, please accept that when I use the term "meaning and purpose of life", I’m working from an assumption that will become an overwhelming conclusion.
Okay, I was talking about some of the functions of intellect, and I was intending
to use the intellect as an important tool in the search for answers to the Big
The limits to intellect
There are limits to our intellect, just as there are limits to all things in the finite, physical universe. It's useful, here, for me to point out at least 3 of the important limits to intellect.
1) The Plethora of Knowledge
The sheer numerical immensity of data available to the human senses, the plethora
of facts and figures and sense impressions that constitutes the family of things
we call "knowledge", forces us to make approximations in our apprehension
of the universe around us.
For example, with very large numbers of things – such as the number of leaves on all the trees in a visible section of forest – we can rarely (if ever) be very precise about exactly how many leaves there are in view.
What we human beings do, in fact, is approximate these large numbers or volumes or spaces. We are genetically hard wired to approximate, by using category groupings, such as many, and few, and abundant, and scarce, just as we are hard wired to guess the missing parts of a given image or picture (more about visual perception later).
It's important to note that this limit to intellect is actually critical to our survival as a species. If our brains were hard wired to discern and know exactly how many things exist in a given view, rather than approximately, we would be environmentally disadvantaged. Important decisions would be delayed interminably if we were required or forced to know every detail and every aspect of our environment.
So, approximation is a limit to intellect, because it sets an upper limit to what is knowable, but it is also essential to our survival.
2) The limits of Scientific Models and Theories
Every theory or model that hopes to explain phenomena or predict outcomes will
have at least some limitations.
For example, Newton's inverse square law accurately predicts the positions of the planets in our solar system, based on the gravitational attraction between the planets, and between the planets as a whole and the Sun.
However, Newton's model does not consider very small gravitational interactions, such as the gravitational attraction between molecular dust particles and planetary bodies. The absence of these small but very real gravitational interactions constitutes a limit to the theory.
Furthermore, our reasonably accurate molecular theories and models do not take the forces of gravitational attraction between the particles within atoms, and between atoms within molecules, into account when calculating the velocities or positions of such large or small bodies. This is a limit to the accuracy of the model we use to study and describe sub-atomic systems.
And as a last example of the limits to our models and theories, let's not forget that Newton's gravitational theory – brilliant and marvellously predictive as it is – doesn't actually tell us what gravity is. We're closer to understanding what gravity is today, thanks to Einstein and the work done in particle accelerators, but we still don't know exactly what gravity is, or how it works.
In conclusion, every model and theory we put up, no matter how useful, is limited
in some way. And that limitation imposes a limit upon our intellect. There are
those who'll say that the limit to the intellect is what limits the models and
theories. I don't agree. It seems to me that it's the models that are small,
and that the intellect is capable of grasping and developing any new model that
In the early 1930's, a scientist colleague of Edwin Hubble said that there were probably only 2 or 3 hundred people in the world who understood Einstein's Theory of Relativity. Today, the theory is taught in high schools across the world, and there are hundreds of thousands of people who have some understanding of its implications. The intellect, we suggest, is limited by the models and theories we have available to us, and when newer and better models appear, the intellect will respond.
3) The Limits of Language
The very language we use to describe the world has limitations. These limits
are exposed when we try to explain or describe apparently contradictory or enigmatic
As an example of what we mean, let's look at what seems to be the dual nature of light.
a) Interference phenomena (quite literally, colliding beams of light against
one another, just as we can collide waves against one another in a water tank)
suggest that light is made up of waves, because successive bursts of light interfere
with one another's progress in ways similar to the ways that waves in water
interfere with one another's progress.
Also, when beams of light are shone through narrow slits in a piece of card, the light that penetrates the card does so in exactly the same ways that water will penetrate narrow slits in the form of wavelets.
So, on the basis of this evidence, light would appear to be made up of waves.
b) However, when we examine something called the photoelectric effect, we find
something very strange. When we shine UV light on some metals, we "kick
out" electrons from the surface of the metals, in much the same way that
one billiard ball will "kick out" other billiard balls that are assembled
in a mass. On the basis of this evidence, light would appear to be composed
However, particles are entities (hard objects) confined to a very small volume and waves are spread out over a large area of space.
But light appears to be both waves and particles: that is, light appears to be both a hard, small object and a thing that's spread out over a wide area. Obviously, that's a conflict.
How can we reconcile this conflict? Reason tells us that light can't be both a wave and a particle. Yet, light seems to be a wave in one experiment, and a particle in a different experiment. What we do, to find a way around this enigma, is to bend the language around the problem. We call the bits that make up light wavicles, which is a made-up word that scientists use to describe the dual nature of light.
Now, there's no such thing as a wavicle, but that doesn't stop us from using the word, and bending our language around the enigma. What we've encountered here (and it won't be the last time), is the limit of our language to describe what actually happens in the world.
Our languages are derived from a range of impressions of the world that we gain from our physical senses. Some of the things we discover in the world of sub-atomic particles, however, and in the world of interactions associated with photons of light (more later), are simply beyond the reach of our senses. The language we use every day isn't adequate to describe what we discover in the very small world of the atom – or in the very big world of the universal macrocosm, for that matter.
What we need, in order to deal with the things we discover in these strange worlds beyond our senses, is a new language, with a new set of paradigms. That new language, of course, is mathematics. But even there, in that multi-dimensional infinitude, we reach limits to what it's possible to describe or encompass within a given paradigm.
So, the very language that we use imposes a limit on the intellect.
The intellect is a powerful tool in the search for answers to the Big Questions,
but the intellect isn't perfect, and there are significant limits to the range
and reach of the intellect.
What that means for us, at the beginning of our search, is that we must be vigilant, and we must be as open-minded as we possibly can. The answers are out there, and I’m sure that we'll arrive at some very satisfying conclusions, but we must remain vigilant against lazy or arrogant thinking, and open to every new piece of learning that comes to us.
In my next seminar, I’ll look at some of the ways that we can shape our use of the intellect. I'll examine the ways in which profound thinkers have provided their little pieces of the logic-puzzle, and we'll discover a few simple tricks that will always serve us well in trying to keep our reasoning processes logical, fair, and reasonable-minded.
Good luck, good thinking, and good wishes to you all.