The basis for Copernican Revolutions

Some time ago I was chatting with a friend of mine (Atheist) about the nature of mind. From my perspective it seemed obvious that our mind was somehow separate from the brain. Sure they interacted with each other (hardly anybody would deny that), but it seemed completely far-fetched to think that the mind just is the brain; something the brain does. I had several reasons for believing what I did and my friend offered several reasons for his perspective.

On the proverbial table were two options. The one option was the more “intuitive” option; namely that our mind is something which is somehow independent of our physical body. Some evidence supported that view. The other view was the less intuitive option; that our mind is reducible to matter and energy. It’s all just electrons and chemical reactions so the fact that we “feel” like our mind is something beyond our body is an illusion. Two perspectives, each claiming to explain the data and each offering supporting evidence.

How should we decide between them?

I wrestled with this for a while until I thought back to the Copernican Revolution. In centuries past it was believed that the earth was the center of the universe and everything rotated around it. Why did people believe that? First and foremost their reason was simply because that’s how it looked! Everyday experience gave the distinct impression that the earth isn’t moving (at least it sure doesn’t feel like it is) and yet we can see everything else moving around us (sun, moon, stars, meteors, etc). Furthermore, the Geocentric theory provided mathematical models that gave (relatively) reliable predictions for how the heavenly bodies moved, thus adding to the layers of explanation. Given the state of the evidence, combined with “common experience,” how could one draw any other conclusion?

Eventually Copernicus did draw another very different conclusion about the whole matter. First of all we should wonder why he even bothered to look for another explanation. I think if we asked him he would tell us the reason he looked for another explanation was because something about the explanation of the day didn’t quite “work.” It seemed like something was wrong with the theory, even if it explained the vast majority of the data. Something about the theory was nagging at him.

Secondly, though, we should ask why the alternative explanation won the day. I think that answer is also fairly simple; the new theory fit the data better. It “worked” better. There was something about the alternative that was superior to the traditional explanation.

Possible explanations

In another conversation (a Church friend this time) we discussed the fact that there is always some other possible explanation for any phenomenon we might observe, even experiences that we believe are examples of God moving in our lives. Did you hear the voice of God? That could have been your imagination. Was Jesus’ tomb really found empty? His body could have been stolen. Do you really feel as though you have free will (to circle back to the first conversation)? You could just be suffering from delusions caused by chemical reactions and electrons. Another explanation is always “possible” to just about anything and everything in life. In the extreme form we could all just be brains in vats, controlled by some mad scientist. That is technically possible.

With Copernicus, though, he did not merely have another “possible” explanation; he had an explanation with advantages over the traditional view. In other words he did not settle for just inventing explanations for the sake of inventing explanations; these theories were supposed to do something. They needed to “work.” They needed to explain the data. A new theory is accepted only if it explains the data better than the alternative. When people switched from the intuitive perspective (Geocentrism) to the less-intuitive perspective (Heliocentrism) they didn’t make the switch merely because Heliocentrism was “possible,” they did so because Heliocentrism was both possible and did a better job of explaining the data they had access to. It worked better than Geocentrism.

Sorting through possibilities

Back to the example of the human mind. If we have two explanations before us we will always have to live with the reality that it is “possible” that our explanation is false. This is the case no matter which alternative we accept. The challenge, then, is to consider which alternative provides us with better reason to believe it is true; which makes the better case? In Arguing with Friends I describe how every worldview, every philosophy, every religion, even every political party, corporation, charity, etc, has to answer two fundamental questions; what and why. First, what does that view endorse and second, why believe it? The same applies to something like the nature of the human mind. If I have the intuitive observation that I have a free will, I have consciousness, I have a mind which is somehow independent from my brain then if I am going to accept a theory that tells me that all my intuitive observations are wrong that theory must do precisely the same thing as the Copernican model had to do in order to overturn the intuitive understanding of the day; my theory needs to be superior to the traditional view. Simply saying, “well my theory is possible, given the data” is not sufficient. If all Copernicus could offer was an alternative theory that did an equally decent job of explaining the data, but not a superior job, then even today I would see no reason to accept Heliocentrism. Heliocentrism is not merely one alternative among many; it is the best alternative.

Apply this to the many other discussions one could have where our intuitions come under attack.

  • I heard the voice of God. It could have been your imagination. Perhaps, but why should I accept that explanation over the explanation that God did speak to me?
  • I believe I have a free will. But it is possible that your choices are completely determined by the chemistry and electrical impulses in your brain. What reasons can you give me to believe that my brain functions are the cause of my mental activity instead of merely being correlated to my mental activity?
  • I know a guy who had cancer and then it disappeared after we prayed over him. He could have been falsely diagnosed. Yes, that is possible, but I have no reason to doubt his testimony nor to doubt that the medical establishment assessed him correctly; can you give me a reason to doubt that?
  • Jesus rose from the dead. He may not have actually died. That’s possible, I suppose, but does that theory explain all the data better than the theory that he rose from the dead?

These are just a few examples. In each case the skeptic is welcome to make their case – and you need to keep an open mind to the possibility that they actually do make a good case – but at least you do not need to doubt your beliefs (even intuitive beliefs) merely because the “possibility” exists that you might be wrong. Don’t settle for that; expect more from your challenger!

I read another take on this whole issue recently at another blog. In his words, “possibilities do not create probabilities.” It’s another good perspective; take a read through his thoughts.


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