I‘ll begin this article with a very special form of the Argument from Ignorance.Call it the “Argument from Ignorance of Future Discoveries.” This is the fallacious idea that our ignorance of future discovery requires us to strongly consider anyone’s speculation about what might eventually be discovered. Here’s an example from a recent comment:
“People in the middle ages didn’t know about radio waves, yet they were everywhere. They just didn’t have receivers in those days. How can you be sure that there are not spiritual ‘vibrations’ all around us, and our instruments are just not refined enough to detect them?”
“Many things (like every known invention/technology) were once thought by scientists and others to be impossible. As the instruments of inquiry become more sensitive, more of the ‘truth’ becomes known.”
These statements appeal to common human cognitive biases toward making assumptions about the unknown. Some of these tendencies are hard wired. Others are an outgrowth of accelerating advancements and discoveries (and people’s inability to keep up). Most people are baffled by the pace of discovery and change. So they throw their hands up in a kind of “what will they think of next?” confusion. They then wrongly conclude that anything they can imagine that seems “futuristic” is equally likely to be eventually discovered.
These biases are less analytical than a declaration of a desire by the person for a state or phenomenon. The new-age “subjective wish fulfillment” progression is a pernicious mental trap. It goes something like this:
- I thought of it, or I felt it, or I dreamed it, or I experienced a powerful “ineffable gestalt.”
- It gave me a sense of freedom, of possibility, of oneness, and I felt transcendent–for a moment I escaped the humdrum of normal materialistic existence. I want to discover how to inhabit that state permanently (and potentially overcome death).
- We really don’t know everything. You can’t prove it’s not real or it couldn’t someday be real.
- True or not, it gives me hope, and I’d rather have hope than despair, so don’t try to analyze it (because I’m secretly afraid it might not hold up to scrutiny).
The shifting of the burden of proof is the key here. It is one thing to have an imagination–a state of respectful anticipation, saying “I wonder if that might be possible…?” Then we can systematically go about dissecting the problem, and slowly discovering the solution. That takes firm discipline.
But believers refuse to be limited to either a sense of possibility or a methodological approach. They want their quick fix. They get downright specific and declarative about what exists and what will be discovered. They consider it to be self-evident, and they get extremely petulant when pressed to support their claims. They accuse anyone who questions them of harboring “negative energy.” Even Buddhists (who I consider to be the least destructive of the major religions) get carried away with such ideas as: “We are pure energy. We are part of the universal “ground of being.” We are pure thought, all matter is maya (illusion).” Et cetera.
Worse, having dreamed up a universe of pure consciousness, they populate it with personalities of their own choosing–usually archetypes from scriptures or that reflect traditional visions of human perfection or transcendence. These are metaphorical superheroes who are not subject to the puny laws of physics. In so doing they have embraced Platonic dualism, turning an elusive and invisible daydream into a reality they consider to be more concrete than the world in which they live. All mystical persuasions ultimately fall back on the inability to disprove this alternate reality, and the impenetrability of personal experience and subjective consciousness.
But back to our original subject: the painstaking work it took just to make meaningful sense out of something as simple as radio waves. (And radio’s a walk in the park compared to the “ground of being.”) There were many interim steps. Anyone who might have imagined the concept of radio in the middle ages remained a dreamer so long as they lacked a detailed understanding of electromagnetism. My favorite example is of course Leonardo da Vinci, who designed workable concepts for airplanes 500 years before they were ever built. Da Vinci was on the right track, but his designs were impractical because they lacked sufficient propulsive power. Da Vinci knew he was a visionary. Instead of purveying vague notions, he charted a path to the future–one that would remain unrealized until long after his death. It took centuries of scientific discipline to finish what he started.
Dreams without discipline lead nowhere, sap the dreamer’s energy, and confuse others. Dreams with discipline lead to steady material progress and vastly increased awareness.
Practical steps toward the invention of radio began long before the middle ages with Thales of Miletos initial scientific discussion of magnetism around 600 BCE. He also discovered static electricity by rubbing amber. It would be nearly 2,500 years before the true nature of the actual link between electricity and magnetism was discovered. It took more than a half-dozen separate discoveries or developments to bring radio from a concept to a useful and ubiquitous technology:
- Calculus and differential equations
- Physics of electromagnetic wave propagation–simply put: that electric and magnetic fields propagate by inducing each other and travel in 2 separate planes separated by 90 degrees.
- The precise analysis of #4 through Maxwell’s Equations
- Materials science to develop metals needed to construct large radio towers such as the one pictured above.
- Development of high-power amplifiers, first using vacuum tubes, then solid state components.
These steps made radio possible. But entirely other steps were needed to make it commercially practical.
- Wired telegraphy.
- Wired telephony.
- Wireless telegraphy.
This admittedly pedantic discussion has a point: Hindsight is 20-20. And since most of the 2,500 year development cycle for radio took place before we were born, there are few people alive today who remember the days before radio was a fact of life. So there is little direct experience for the incredibly lengthy and detailed process of discovery which led to its use.
So the next time you hear someone use the radio wave argument, remind them of this process. In the middle ages, only a charlatan could have claimed any knowledge of radio. People may have imagined it conceptually, but it would have been about as useful for communication as Da Vinci’s airplane drawings circa the late 1400s were for practical flight. Which is to say, totally and completely useless. His unsuccessful flight test on January 3, 1496 underscored this point.
We should be highly suspect when people claim that science will ultimately “catch-up” to spirituality by validating new-age or Buddhist concepts like “non-locality” or consciousness as “the ground of being” or the spirit world as the origin of the material world. Such claims should be scoffed at and ignored unless and until the phenomena in question can be subject to detailed scrutiny. We should consider these claims as lunatic as a town crier in medieval times trying to sell us airtime on an imaginary radio network.
Here’s a challenge to the know-it-all new-agers who claim “science doesn’t know everything” as they babble about such lofty subjects such as quantum uncertainty and wave-particle duality: If you want to be taken seriously, start by learning to derive Maxwell’s equations. Then we’ll talk.