November 23, 2001 (Ira Pilgrim)

Belief Systems

Man can believe the impossible, but can never believe the improbable.

Oscar Wilde

Many years ago, the pilot of a light plane made an emergency landing on a Salt Lake City highway. While he was waiting for help to arrive, a motorist ran his car into the airplane. When asked if he didn't see the airplane, he replied "I saw the plane, but I didn't believe it."

Most people cannot distinguish between what they believe and what they know. Even among scientists, only the most creative are able to make this distinction. If you read about evolution or the origin of the universe, it becomes evident that what one person sees as theory, another sees as fact.

Consider the shape of the earth and its relationship to the sun, planets and stars. Before the advent of astronomy, few considered the problem. If they did, it was not recorded. People accepted the fact that the earth was flat and that the sun came up in the East and set in the West. They knew that the Moon and stars came up in the East and set in the West. They knew this particularly if they were nomads or hunters, because that would help them to find their way home. If a few knew more than that, it is not recorded. Carving things in stone was very time consuming.

The ancient Greeks knew that the earth was a sphere and were able to measure its diameter with remarkable accuracy.

Columbus was a very skilled navigator and he knew that the earth was a sphere. If the legends are correct, he was trying to find a shorter route to the orient. However, America got in the way. Columbus didn't discover America; there were people there when he arrived. How they got there is highly speculative, and is likely to remain so.

When Copernicus (1473-1543) postulated that all of the planets, including Earth, revolved around the sun, it was considered an attack on the belief systems of the time. It was heresy and Galileo (1564-1642) was sentenced to house arrest for supporting Copernicus' theory in print. His punishment might have been worse if he hadn't publicly recanted. Gradually, as more and more evidence accumulated, the Copernican model of the solar system became accepted, particularly since astronomers could predict, with great accuracy, where in the sky, any star or planet would be at any particular time in the future. The real clincher came in the last century, when man went into space and sent machines to explore the planets. What was once conjecture is now undisputed fact.

Everybody knows that the moon looks bigger when it rises, and smaller when it is high in the sky. Some astronomers postulated that it was because light was refracted by the atmosphere which magnified the size of the moon. That idea was accepted for a long time. It took experimental psychologists to prove that what the astronomers theorized was not true and that the apparently greater size of the horizon moon was an optical illusion. While I found the evidence that I read about it to be very convincing, I was really convinced one evening, while I was driving in hilly country in Utah and the horizon was constantly changing. The full moon changed from small to large and back again in seconds, depending on where the horizon was at any particular moment..

I have a compartmentalized mind which groups things as true, probably true, possibly true, possibly false, probably false, false. I am very careful what I put into the true category.

That evolution has occurred and is occurring is as true as the fact that the earth is a sphere. How it occurred is still in the possibly or probably true category. Recently, when the genetic makeup of man and the chimpanzee were compared, mans relationship to apes moved from the possibly true category to the probably true category in my mind. Until I can actually look into the past, or see an ape change into a man or vice versa, it will remain in the probably true category.

We are all believers. We have to believe, because if a person questioned everything that he was taught, he would never learn anything. Nor would he be able to get through school. Unfortunately, many people never change their minds, even when confronted with facts that refute their beliefs.

Next column

Return to the Science Home Page

Return to Ira's Home Page