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Knowing vs. Believing

I think I’ve made it pretty clear, I think that knowledge is a very human quest and a very fulfilling one at that. I think that it’s only natural for truth and knowledge to be important to us humans. I think that the material world isn’t so drab, depressing, and dull once you get to know more about it.

I also think that to know is important, but to know why you know what you know is even more important. This is the simple principle that is at the heart of science and skepticism, that is, when you make a claim say why we should believe you.

Over the past week, two people have tried to tell me that they “know” of the existence of a spiritual realm.

On Sunday I was volunteering in the local science museum telling people about space and science and space science. Towards the end of the day another volunteer had been telling a visitor about how the magnetic field of the Earth will switch poles every several thousand years or so, and she started talking about how the pole shift would “start another evolution of humanity” because of the magnetic-consciousness-something or other.

“Oh good, evolution’s an interest of mine!” I interjected and started telling her about natural selection and mutation.

“I don’t doubt that that’s the way biological evolution works, but I’m talking about spiritual evolution,” she said. Curious, I began asking her what she meant by spiritual evolution.

She said that we are made of energy, you see, and when our physical bodies are gone our energy will keep going.

In a certain sense, we have energy in our bodies. Every single atom in our body has energy, every single miniscule electron… But though she tried to use scientific terms, she obviously didn’t understand them. Energy means the ability to do work. When you drop a watermelon from a tall building it has kinetic energy to move it to the ground. When you set paper on fire you are creating heat and light energy. Did she mean we’re made out of sound energy and if we’re noisy enough in this life we can annoy people in the future? Did she mean we’re made out of heat energy and that heat energy would keep getting transfered from object to object? What does “energy” mean to her?

But wait… there’s more!

I asked her how she “knows” this and she said “I can’t tell you why I know, I just know it.”

“That’s technically not science, you know, because in science we rely on evidence that we can examine ourselves so that we can verify that it’s true,” I told her.

“I know it’s not science, but this ‘reality’, the physical world, is all an illusion. I know this,” and blah. Well, that’s nice, but again, I have no reason whatsoever to believe you until you tell me why I should.

Thursday last week, me and one of my skeptical buddies were handed two little flyers from a Kirshna missionary during the campus “Fall Fest”. I started asking him what he believed and why. What he believes is pretty simple enough to understand. Krishnas believe that if you chant the following mantra:

Hare Krishna Hare Kirshna

Krishna Krishna Hare Hare

Hare Rama Hare Rama

Rama Rama Hare Hare

It will bring you closer to their version of god and make you feel warm and fuzzy on the inside. And what happens if you don’t chant this? According to him I’m surffering right now and I’m not happy. I don’t realize it, but I’m only under the illusion that I’m happy (insert giant question mark here). If however, I chant “Hare Kirshna” about 1,700 times a day and don’t eat meat, when I die I get to be Lord Krishna’s “eternal servant”! That’s motivation to follow your religion (actually, isn’t that pretty much the same as the Christian concept of Heaven?)! Unending slavery!

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that the religion entailed you going to a place where there are unlimited amounts of ice cream, pizza, spaghetti, cheesecake, and fun things to do. I am now motivated to follow this religion, but how do I know that I’m actually going to get this when I die for chanting “Hare Krishna”?

I asked him how he knows this remarkable afterlife is true.

“It’s in the Baghdad Gita” he said, which is their version of a holy book. See, the Baghdad Gita contains special “archaic knowledge” which tells us how to become Kirshna’s eternal slaves. The question is, how did the person who wrote it know this “knowledge” to be true?

I asked him why he trusted the Baghdad Gita over, say, the Hebrew Bible. He said “you just have to trust the book”. Funny, nobody ever told me that I just had to trust that Mein Kampf, by Adolf Hitler was infallible.

I really really wanted to say to both those people “I don’t know how I know this, but I know that you are full of horsefeathers” but I didn’t. I restrained myself and cordially shook their hands and thanked them for the discussion (albeit a fruitless one that didn’t get me anywhere due to their unwillingness to provide evidence).

Long after the conversations, however, I put some more thought into it. Now I think that I should have told them this:

“I’m not going to say that you’re wrong because I can’t disprove that this physical world is an illusion, but it seems many times more improbable that this so very realistic experience that we all share is some mass illusion than the possibility that you are wrong since you can’t tell me why you are right, so the burden of proof rests on you. You have failed to meet this burden of proof. You don’t know, you believe. If you don’t care about truth and knowledge, then my condolences. You may still believe you have a metaphysical soul but whatever it is that makes you human is dead.”

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  1. Joy Wang
    September 16, 2008 at 7:00 pm —

    I think it’s the Bhagavad Gita–you might want to double check me though, I’m no expert on world religions.

  2. jamesd
    September 17, 2008 at 5:44 am —

    One of my bugbears is that use of the word energy. Everything seems to be attributed ‘energy’ these days yet no one seems able to tell me what they actually mean by that word.

  3. w_nightshade
    September 17, 2008 at 3:09 pm —

    Brian Dunning at does a good few shows where he discusses this, and he suggests that most people are thinking of the glowing gaseous alien from Star Trek when they use this term. I think he is right.

  4. Joy Wang
    September 17, 2008 at 4:50 pm —

    The know vs. believe thing: I get really annoyed when people go, “I know god exists!!![I has teh KNOWLEDGE!!!!!]” Me: How do you know? “I just know…don’t ask me to explain it.” “Don’t ask me to explain it???? You want to convince me of something, but you won’t explain it? Pssht.

    *chuckle* Your reward is to be Krishna’s eternal servant *snort*. Remind me not to read that when I’m drinking water–I might choke. If I had to go to any theoretical heaven, it’d be the one with cookies (chocolate) and ice cream, though.

  5. September 18, 2008 at 11:18 pm —

    ohhh that energy thing. I hear a lot about that, too. It’s the new religion amongst new-agey types. They don’t like the organized religions that already exist, and can’t really accept the antiquated notion of a deity with a big white beard watching them in the shower, so they make something else up! Thus – energy.
    Maybe they’re thinking of mitichlorians? 😉

    I just like to think it’s all in my head… – a long read, but part 3 is really interesting.

  6. FFFearlesss
    September 19, 2008 at 8:52 am —

    The thing that’s always funny about people of faith, especially Christians I find, is when they try to convert people of another religion to their own. They are trying to convince somebody to give up their own God in favor of another god that they don’t believe in. “Why,” they would ask, “should I follow your god and not my own.” “Well because I believe He’s the real God.” “Okay, but I believe MY God is the real god…” and it just goes round and round.

    I actually heard a preacher come out with a great line once. “Is God real because you believe it. Or do you believe it because He’s real.” And here it’s a paradox because if you answer the latter, the question is “how do you know?” Um… because I believe?

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