What I believe but cannot prove

By Michael Shermer

I believe, but cannot prove, that reality exists independent of its human and social constructions. Science as a method, and naturalism as a philosophy, together create the best tool we have for understanding that reality. Because science is cumulative, building on itself in progressive fashion, we can achieve an ever-greater understanding of reality. Our knowledge of nature remains provisional because we can never know if we have final Truth. Because science is a human activity and nature is complex and dynamic, fuzzy logic and fractional probabilities best describe both nature and our approximate understanding of it.

There is no such thing as the paranormal and the supernatural; there is only the normal and the natural and mysteries we have yet to explain.

What separates science from all other human activities is its belief in the provisional nature of all conclusions. In science, knowledge is fluid and certainty fleeting. That is the heart of its limitation. It is also its greatest strength. There are, from this ultimate unprovable assertion, three additional insoluble derivatives.

1. There is no God, intelligent designer, or anything resembling the divinity as proffered by the world’s religions. (Although an extraterrestrial being of significantly greater intelligence and power than us would probably be indistinguishable from God).

After thousands of years of attempts by the world’s greatest minds to prove or disprove the divine existence or nonexistence, with little agreement among scholars as to the divinity’s ultimate state of being, a reasonable conclusion is that the God question can never be solved and that one’s belief,
disbelief, or skepticism ultimately rests on a nonrational basis.

2. The universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will.

As with the God question, scholars of considerable intellectual power for many millennia have failed to resolve the paradox of feeling free in a determined universe. One provisional solution is to think of the universe as so complex that the number of causes and the complexity of their interactions make the predetermination of human action pragmatically impossible. We can even assign a value to the causal net of the universe to see just how absurd it is to think we can get our minds around it fully. It has been calculated that in order for a computer in the far future of the universe to resurrect in a virtual reality every person who ever lived or could have lived (that is, every possible genetic combination to create a human), with all the causal interactions between themselves and their environment, it would need 1010 to the power of 123 (a 1 followed by 10123 zeros) bits of memory. Suffice it to say that no computer in the conceivable future will achieve this level of power; likewise, no human brain even comes close.
The enormity of this complexity leads us to feel as though we were acting freely as uncaused causers, even though we are actually causally determined. Since no set of causes we select as the determiners of human action can be complete, the feeling of freedom arises out of this ignorance of causes. To that extent, we may act as though we were free. There is much to gain, little to lose, and personal responsibility follows.

3. Morality is the natural outcome of evolutionary and historical forces, not divine command.

The moral feelings of doing the right thing (such as virtuousness) or doing the wrong thing (such as guilt) were generated by nature as part of human evolution. Although cultures differ on what they define as right and wrong, the moral feelings of doing the right or wrong thing are universal to all humans. Human universals are pervasive and powerful and include at their core the fact that we are by nature moral and immoral, good and evil, altruistic and selfish, cooperative and competitive, peaceful and bellicose, virtuous and nonvirtuous. Individuals and groups vary in the expression of such universal traits, but everyone has them. Most people, most of the time, in most circumstances, are good and do the right thing, for themselves and for others. But some people, some of the time, in some circumstances, are bad and do the wrong thing for themselves and for others.

As a consequence, moral principles are provisionally true, where they apply to most people, in most cultures, in most circumstances, most of the time. At some point in the last 10,000 years (most likely around the time of the advent of writing and the shift from band and tribes to chiefdoms and states, some 5,000 years ago) religions began to codify moral precepts into moral codes and political states began to codify moral precepts into legal codes.

In conclusion, I believe but cannot prove that reality exists and science is the best method for understanding it; that there is no God; that the universe is determined but we are free; that morality evolved as an adaptive trait of humans and human communities; and that ultimately all of existence is explicable through science.

Of course, I could be wrong…


jimearl said...

I liked the title to this post. The other side would use something such as: Even if you proved it, I wouldn't believe it.

I say this because I have actually had people say this to me in regard to religion. And look at evolution; many reject that as simply a belief system.

What I am saying is this: Even if we could prove without a shadow of doubt that a god didn't exist, many would still believe in their god.

ryan said...

Good morning to Dr Shermer, and to Dr Earl, to whom I have spoken on several glad occasions. I apologize for what may seem to be a lack of organization.

We must take reality for what it appears to be. It is not a question of belief, and not a question of proof. What we see and experience around us is what really is. Leave proofs to the mystics.

About evolution; determinism; morality. If there is no god, we are sophisticated animals on our hind legs. That's it. It stops there. I can no more help being what I am, or stop being what I am, than a jackal can help or stop eating carrion.

To return to my second paragraph: my favorite story is about the philosopher Sartre and his friends having a few drinks in a hotel bar. Their new friend, Raymond Aron, had joined them. Aron was a phenomenologist, and was trying to explain this approach to Sartre, who was either resisting or not comprehending to begin with. Finally, Aron picked up his drink and said "Look, old fellow......when you become a phenomenologist, you'll make philosophy out of this cocktail".

Sitting beside him, de Beauvoir said he went dumb and turned pale.What more did Aron say, except that what we see--what we touch or hold in our hand--is all there is, and there is no meaning behind it? Philosophy cannot go beyond that.

Happy to be a comment here.

Stephen_Richard_Webb said...

Very interesting post. I just have one question, followed by a statement...If human and social constructs are the result of our thought process and our thoughts are the result of our perceptions of reality, where then do our thoughts come from? I believe but can not prove that our social contructs are the result of our subjective perception of objective reality, so these very same constructs can not be totally independant of that reality. There seems to be a harmony between the two.

Stephen_Richard_Webb said...

Does this make sense to anyone - Reality and human intelligence rely on one another - because our knowledge is the result of what we have learned from our environment, and our actions and constructs are extensions of that knowledge [applied knowledge] therefore all of our actions "create" an instance of reality different from those past as well as those that could have been. Maybe I'm just daft, but in order to determine that reality exists independant from our own thought process and extensions thereof [artifacts and cultural, physcial action etc] one would have to know what reality is apart from their own perception of it which is impossible.

Free Thinker said...

ryan, loved your comment, I'll have to re-read the dr.'s comment to fully understand it. I think thats the reason we feel so happy when we fully realise there is nothing else out there we have to be worried or concerned about....no gods, no masters...true freedom
Great Post, thanks....Ericherich

sir fer said...

Nice comment jimearl. Science can go to all sorts of lengths to show reality as it is, but even so, we still have people in this day and age who believe the world is flat. Scientfic knowledge is often "before its time"....but such is life :o)

ryan said...

Well, thank you, free thinker.

Now and then I encounter disbelief, mockery and outright hostility towards my philosophy of "despair" and "hopelessness"; how can you live without meaning; how can you be a defeatist; so on and on.

I try to explain that the pleasure in my life is just as real as theirs is to them. I simply don't need some sort of transcendent meaning from one day to the next.

And I was raised to believe that the meaning of life was the salvation of my soul from hell. Glad to be rid of that.

Have fun.

Telmi said...

"The universe is ultimately determined, but we have free will."

This is one insoluble derivative that has never ceased to bug my mind.

I can never think of the universe [or space] as being other than infinite; can anyone think of the universe/space having a boundary? If so, what is on the other side?

Whether the universe/space is infinite is beyond proof of course.

But if it is infinite, there is no question of it being determined.

Anyone mystery that can never be resolved and leads us to nowhere

Telmi said...


Typo error: term "Anyone" should be read as "Another"

Stephen_Richard_Webb said...


I think we are in agreement concerning the boundless nature of space, but as far as universe is concerned, I think that since it [the matter and energy that the universe is composed of] is definable that it definately has a boundary. Since infinity is boundless, undefinable - so is space but the matter and energy within that space is definable and that is what I concider the universe to be. I think that is where a lot of peoples get the idea that the universe is expanding [or even contracting] - to expand means to have boundary. Here's something to think about - where is the center of space if it has no boundary? The answer is much more simple than you would think - the center of space is everywhere! Where is the center of the universe? Again, simple answer: Where ever the big bang occured.

ryan said...

Good morning, stephen. I love the feeling of my head spinning, although this is too early in the morning.

I once had a roman catholic roommate who would ask me the goddamnest questions. He once asked me if I thought the universe was infinite in both directions.....is it infinitely
large, and infinitely small. At this point I felt like Nomad on Star Trek TOS: "Error; Error".

I think the universe is infinite. It is an intellectual convenience--I cannot imagine what the "end" of the universe would be: a wall? a force field? It would be impossible to speak in terms of "beyond" the end of the universe. It would be nothingness, and philosophically, I cannot grasp the idea of nothingness.

To be consistent, of course, I would have to deny that the universe is either expanding or contracting, and that there is no big bang.

And telmi, yes, the universe is determined. I believe that we, in this universe, have all the free will of an amoeba. To re-state my post of yesterday, I have been accused of being dismal and defeatist. But again, to re-state, the birdsong outside my window is just as sweet.

Stephen_Richard_Webb said...

Good morning, I'm sorry if I got your head spinning a little early ryan. As far as what I have deduced concerning the "edge" of the universe is that there is just space beyond it, because the theory of a big bang would imply that while the universe was condensed into a super hot ball of "what-the-fuck", beyond its edges would just be space - and then boom-> it expands outward in all directions - for something to expand/move it must have a boundary. So I see space as being different than the energy and matter that occupies it. Of course, as the title of this wonderful post implies: Its only a belief, but I can't prove it - though it is fun to think about.

ryan said...

Okay, this is good. So we're saying that there is a limited amount of matter--stars and planets and space junk--but an endless expanse of empty space. That helps. I had assumed that endless space meant endless matter.

I would love to contine this; this is more attractive than the errands I have to run. Later. Maybe tomorrow.

Boe said...

My understanding of the 'big bang' is that it was the creation not only of the matter in the universe but also of the space itself and as such can't be envisioned as an explosion occuring in pre-existing space.
Facinating stuff - I hope you don't mind me chiming in. I studied physics and astronomy at uni years ago - I never used my degree but I still try to keep up with it a bit.
Another weird and wonderful bit of physics comes with the notion of 'quantum entanglement' which ultimately has it that, at a quantum level, every point in the universe is immediately and non-causally connected with every other. Fun stuff, I wish I understood it better!

Anonymous said...

I prefer to think of my views as "I believe and can prove within the terms of my own reality..."

Maybe that's just me being arrogant, but I'm willing to accept the believe system that I have formed based off of a rational observation of my reality as true. I could be wrong (if my view of reality or my ability to reason is fundamentally flawed) but if so, there's no basis for human knowledge whatsoever, and we may as well give up the idea of "purpose."

Even a person who is mentally insane can see the discrepencies between what they see and what others see, so long as their logical reasoning faculties are somewhat intact.

My point is this. Don't be afraid to consider your point of view as true. You could be wrong, but oh well. Nihilism is not the answer.

karekare2112 said...

But if it is true that space actually curves, then you could travel in a single direction, and after a few billion years (??) return to the point that you started. Hmm, everytime I think of this, my head spins. I used to lie awake as a young boy and imagine the universe and that it keeps going forever. I would always have to run to the light of my living room to stop the dizziness. Even as young as age 4 I remember not believing in anything but the vastness of space and time. I used to listen to my Sunday school teacher and fail to see how she could claim that he's got the whole world in his hands, and wtf that means that Jesus loves me yes I know for the bible tells me so.

Stephen_Richard_Webb said...


Interesting. My only question is in what space did the big bang exist if it created space? All matter/energy needs space in which to exist. Time, energy, and matter AS WE KNOW IT are the result of the big bang, but there must have been space for the original matter involved in the big bang to exist in. I guess that is to say that if space did not exist, there would be no place for any of the original matter.

Boe said...

Hi Stephen. There are things in modern physics that really defy any intuitive grasp by a mind that, after all, evolved primarily to maintain human organisms in the macroscopic world as it is. One thing though that I find helpful to consider is that space is an essentially meaningless concept except in relation to matter - no matter / no space. We can imagine ourselves at the edge of the universe looking out, but if we are truely at the edge then there is nothing to make the notion of 'looking out beyond' meaningful. I could perhaps chuck something out into the emptyness, see it drift away and say 'look, empty space.', but in this case I am creating it. This is a pretty unrealistic senario though - there are a variatey of ideas, one being that space is ultimalely curved so that if we go far enough we come back to where we were. We can think of the curvature increasing exponentially as we go back in time to the big-bang, so that at that instant the curvature was infinite making everywhere one place. I hope I'm not speaking out of my arse - I read stuff but don't always process it properly!

Webmaster - Every time I post, my password is unrecognised and I have to make a new account - any ideas?

jimearl said...

Boe, I am having the same problem with the password not being recognized. It must be our computers but I do tire of having to create a new account every time I want to post a message. What to do?

Stephen_Richard_Webb said...

Morning Boe. Interesting once again. I have always beleived that the universe is spherical, therefore curved in some respect - but the sphere itself is determined by the emmission of radiation from the original blast - space is just a place, not a thing or an energy at all. If space were a number it would be zero, and if the universe where a number is would be one. Zero is a place holder for all value. This theory of mine was birthed when I was trying to contemplate what exists "behind" matter, on the other side of matter/energy. And the same conclusion kept being drawn - the space in which matter exists is what's behind that matter - but space in and by itself is merely void. It is the matter and energy within space that gives the universe its shape and definition, hense the idea of there being "an edge of the universe". I don't think that which is void [space] can have a boundary though. I don't mean to be redundant, and I love talking about stuff like this but, I believe that space and energy/matter are two totally different things [since we can't comprehend void very well, I have to refer to space as a "thing"], but are indestinguishable from our perspective - until we develop the techknowledgy that enables us to see beyond the boundary of the universe, and beyond that boundary there is nothing...just void space which would prove my point.

webmdave said...

I can't imagine what either Boe or JimEarl's problem might be. I use several different computers at different locations, including a BlackBerry, and I have no problems such as you describe.

The commenting system is part of the Google network of products. You can go to Blogger.com to research what might be going on, but my guess it is something on your end.

Boe said...

Hi Again Richard,
The curvature I was refering to is actually something a bit more counter-intuitive than simply the shape of a supposed boundary. Think of representing our 3 dimentional universe on the suface of a sphere to get some intuitive idea of the picture.
Empty space, apparently, is far from empty but essentially a seething cauldron of virtual matter being continuously created and destroyed within the bounds of Heisenburgs 'Uncertainty principle'.

P.S. Thanks Webmaster, I'll look into it.

Telmi said...


"Okay, this is good. So we're saying that there is a limited amount of matter--stars and planets and space junk--but an endless expanse of empty space. That helps. I had assumed that endless space meant endless matter."

Endless space can doubtless mean endless matter and is not illogical.

What we cannot see beyond the capacity of our best telescopes we can only speculate or imagine. But what we cannot see is not telling us much, right? We just don't know.

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