Dare to Doubt
This story happened in the year 1007. A couple of friends and I were in a blacksmith shop waiting to shoe our horses and were discussing about the rising price of hay. Suddenly we heard a commotion in the street. People were shouting and running towards an open field. We asked what had happened. They told us that there was a ball of fire in the sky that fell over there. We were curious. It is not every day that a ball of fire falls from the sky. We went to see it for ourselves. Sure enough, there it was. We found a large hole in the ground and a stone encrusted inside it. It was clear that the stone had a huge impact on the ground. The vegetation around it were burnt and it was still hot. One of my buddies who was a devout religious man prostrated. He started kissing the ground and said, didn’t I say that God exists? Here is the proof. This is a miracle for all to see and a warning to all the disbelievers. If you deny this miracle you are blind. There must be something wrong with you.
My other friend and I, were not convinced. I turned to him and said, what do you think? Our scientists tell us that the Earth is flat and the sky is a dome. Everyone accepts Ptolemy’s definition of the universe as fact. He is an undisputed authority on cosmos. However, what we witness here defies Ptolemy’s explanation. According to science, there should be no stone in the sky. Could it be that Ptolemy was wrong and everything we know about the universe is topsy turvy? Methinks that there is more to science that we just don’t know. This strange phenomenon tells me that science is inconclusive. Maybe we should not just believe what Ptolemy says, but study the cosmos to find out what the heck is going on and why stones fall from the sky. If we can’t believe that the stone was thrown by God or by angels, then we better find out how it got up there in the first place.
My atheist friend, who was a staunch Ptolemist and a firm believer in science, downplayed the entire incident. He denied that the stone had fallen from the sky. He said that people must have seen a bird and mistook it for a ball of fire and what we were witnessing was the remains of a campfire. Then he gave me a lecture on “mass hallucination.” It was the first time I heard this expression. “Mass hallucination?” I asked puzzled. “What do you mean by mass hallucination? Does such thing exist? Isn’t this contrary to logic? This is more hocus pocus than what you are trying to explain away” I told him.
He tried in every conceivable way to convince me that there is a prosaic explanation to the phenomenon, stating that the belief in falling stones is against the science and that all those eye-witnesses were nuts. He offered various theories to explain the phenomenon. His explanations were less plausible than the phenomenon he was trying to negate. .
I asked him, why should we not accept that the stone has fallen from the sky and find out how and why? He said that is preposterous because it is against the science. “But what if science is wrong?” I asked. “That is nonsense,” he retorted. “What I mean is that our understanding of it is wrong!” I clarified. “What you are saying is superstition. There are no stones in the sky, period,” he reiterated emphatically. “Shouldn’t we be open minded and give it the benefit of doubt and investigate things before rejecting them?” I asked softly. “Yes, but not as open minded as to let our brains fall out,” he quipped with a sneer. He called me gullible and a fool and acted as if threatened by my questions.
We were both members of SSR 11 (The 11th Century Secret Society of Rationalists) and met in a basement to discuss Aristotle, Plato, Ptolemy, science, religion and what not, away from the eyes of the Church and other ill-wishers. He then threatened that if I insist on my unscientific ideas, he will denounce me to the Society so that I could be publicly ridiculed and expelled.
I admit that I can be a coward at times. I did not want to be ostracized and the idea of being ridiculed publicly did not appeal to me. So I kept my mouth shut and my thoughts to myself. I wondered if there are others who also see things the way I see them but are afraid to speak their minds because of the fear of the believers on one hand and of the deniers on the other. The skeptic society is not skeptic at all. They are simply deniers which makes them believers from the other end. Both the believers and the deniers are the two sides of the same coin.
While not speaking to anyone, I remained wondering about the mystery of stones falling from the sky. There was something amiss and I could not put my finger on it. You see, I am ignorant. However, I am lucky because I know it. When I don’t understand something, I don’t deny it. I don’t laugh and ridicule things that I don’t understand. I put them to a mental box labelled “the unknowns”. While my atheist friend denied the whole phenomenon and my religious friend had a renewed faith in his god and they both were content and convinced, the mystery of falling stones kept bugging me.
Years passed. Centuries came and went, until in the year 1634, a couple of months before he was charged with heresy and placed in house arrest, I had the privilege to meet the great Galileo. He made me peep into his telescope and see things I had never seen before. He told me about his discoveries and about Copernicus and his theories. He explained that Ptolemy was completely wrong and the sky is full of stones. Suddenly thing made sense to me. It was a complete shift of paradigm. I was finally vindicated. I was not crazy for doubting and for not trusting blindly what the scientists were telling me. More years passed and more centuries came and went. Eventually everyone accepted the heretic views of Galileo. However attitudes did not change. The world changed but people didn’t. My last horse died a century ago and I now drive a car. We filled our houses with all sorts of gadgets but our minds have not changed.
My religious friend is still a believer. He attributes anything that he does not understand to God and stops thinking about them. Realizing the story of creation, as stated in his ancient religious book cannot be true, he now advocates “intelligent design”. My atheist friend is a university professor. He teaches astronomy and physics and has forgotten all about Ptolemy. As usual, he is a staunch defender of science. He ridicules anyone who believes in UFOs, telepathy or any other phenomenon that science cannot explain. These days he is not talking about Ptolemy, but Newton and Einstein. As far as he is concerned, humans have discovered everything that has to be discovered and any idea that may go against science is heresy. He has forgotten that he told me the same thing when I first met him a thousand years ago when his views of science were very much different.
Me? Oh well, every day I discover that I am more ignorant that I had previously thought. Unlike my religious and atheist friends who are full of certainty, I am filled with doubts. I continue to wonder whether there is more to this universe and whether there are laws governing it that are yet to be discovered. Should I interpret reality to fit my world view or should I adapt my world view to embrace reality? Should I trust my own commonsense or my world view? Could there be other dimensions of which we are not aware? Could there be other breakthroughs in science that could shift our paradigm once again? In this millennium alone, I have witnessed several shifts of paradigms. I won’t be surprised if tomorrow someone discovers that what we think of the world is utterly wrong.
I have seen how things that were thought to be impossible, like flying, telecommunicating or going to Moon and Mars, have become possible. I won’t be surprised if one day Nikola Tesla’s prediction that “ere many generations pass, our machinery will be driven by a power obtainable at any point of the universe,” comes true. I don’t laugh when people talk about zero point energy or UFOs. I don’t deride those who say extraordinary things because time has shown that those who laughed were eventually those who were laughed at. I don’t believe, nor do I deny anything. Denial is also a form of belief. I remain a skeptic and full of doubts. As Bertrand Russell said, “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts.” Elsewhere he said, “Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.”
I have seen so many “impossibles” become possible that I no longer believe in impossible. The only thing that I doubt will ever change is the thinking and the attitude of us humans. It would take a miracle to change that and I don’t believe in miracles.