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Science and the Unknown

         Science is more about not knowing than it is about knowing.  Science is not a warehouse full of boxes labeled “truth.”  It’s more like a mouse nibbling away at the edge of the unknown.

Of course the unknown is always changing (so is what we think we know).  2500 years ago some Greek scientists (natural philosophers) thought that the world was flat.  Some others thought it was spherical.  They were all basically guessing, but Aristotle’s guess was cleverly based on his observation that when a ship disappeared into the distance, the last thing visible was the mast, suggesting that the surface of the earth was curved.

Another unknown thing at the time was whether the sun revolved around the earth or vice versa.  It was easy to guess one way or the other, but there was no way at the time to know, because it would have looked the same either way to somebody standing on the earth.  When Copernicus argued for the heliocentric theory 2000 years later, he was guessing too, and it took Galileo to present some interesting indirect evidence to support the theory.


Nowadays one interesting unknowable thing is whether the universe has a center.  Odd as it seems, there is no center to the universe as far as astronomers can tell.  Everything seems to be expanding equally away from everything else (except for the fact that individual galaxies are held together by gravity, and except for the fact that the farther away galaxies are, the faster they are distancing themselves).


It’s entertaining to read blog discussions in which people can’t picture this.  The easiest way to visualize this expansion is to take a sheet of paper with dots (representing galaxies) placed irregularly over it, then to enlarge the image by 5% onto a transparency, and place the transparency over the original. There is no center, just an enlargement of the whole.



What causes this expansion (latest theory) is dark energy, about which nothing is known.  We can’t see to the edge of the universe, and maybe there is no edge (in other words, it might be infinite, in which case there would be no edge).  If that sounds fun to you and not just crazy, then you have a good scientific attitude.


Here’s another scientific unknown: consciousness.  Neuroscientists can’t find your consciousness in the lab.  Like whether there’s an edge to the universe or not, the questions of what consciousness is, where it is, and what happens to it after you die (if anything) are still worth asking.  And fortunately we have some clues based on subjective near-death experiences (NDEs), out-of-body experiences (OBEs), apparitions, ESP, spirit mediumship, and cases “suggestive of” reincarnation (Ian Stevenson).

These “paranormal” aspects of consciousness are still beyond our ability to explain.  Some scientists like Dean Radin (Entangled Minds) think they might be explained by quantum physics; other “normal” scientists think that this is a stretch.  Well, it’s also a stretch to try to explain the expansion of the universe in terms of dark energy.


The cutting edge of science is always a stretch…a nibble into the unknown.  The biggest disservice to science occurs when taboos and dogmas prevent open inquiry.  Declaring the earth to be flat or the center of the solar system without evidence is just as bad from a scientific perspective as the current refusal on the part of many in the scientific establishment to take seriously apparent phenomena that sizeable percentages of the population experience, like OBEs and ESP.


Science is always a stretch: from what we think we know to what we know we don’t.


Charles F. Emmons is a sociologist at Gettysburg College and coauthor with Penelope Emmons of Guided by Spirit” and Science and Spirit.



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