What Do You Know?
By Lynn Ungar, minister for lifespan learning, Church of the Larger Fellowship
Well, what do you know! No, really: what do you know—and how do you know it? And how do you know that you know it? Our fourth UU Principle says that we are committed to a “free and responsible search for truth and meaning.” But how do we go about searching for truth, and how do we know when we have found it.
Well, one obvious way to know things is through our senses. We know the things we can see and touch and smell and taste and hear. We can trust the evidence that comes to us from direct observation. At least, sort of. For instance, it turns out that we literally don’t all see things the same way. Maybe a while back you saw the picture of a striped dress that was going around social media. Some people saw the dress as gold and white. Some people saw the dress as blue and black. The exact same picture. You can do a computer search on “striped dress test” to read articles about the science of why that is the case.
But I can tell you this—although I read an article that explains that the dress is really blue and black, there is no way that I can look at that picture and see anything other than white and gold. If I can’t believe that what I see with my own eyes is definitely true, what can I believe?
Well, science. The fifth Source of our living tradition talks about “the guidance of reason and the results of science.” We are folks who know that science matters, that evidence matters, that very bad things can happen when you try to pretend that the science around things like climate change or vaccinations can be ignored or denied. We know that there are laws of how the universe works that enable us to predict what will happen (every single time you drop a pencil it will go down, not up) and to create technology that really works.
People may say that humans and dinosaurs were on the earth at the same time because that matches the stories of the Bible, but that simply isn’t true. We know this because the scientific investigations of thousands of people across time have proven things about the age of our planet and the development of life on earth that demonstrate beyond the shadow of a doubt that dinosaurs were long gone by the time that people arrived. Believing otherwise because of your faith in the Bible is just not going to make it so.
Except, of course, that science is a process, not a conclusion. Everything that we know through science is always the best understanding that we have at the time, not necessarily the final answer. The picture can change as we get more information. For instance, scientists now think that birds are probably the direct descendants of the dinosaurs, and that at least some of the dinosaurs had feathers. So in one sense you could now say that humans and dinosaurs not only lived at the same time, we’re still living together. It’s just that dinosaurs these days look more like vultures and sparrows, not stegosauruses and velociraptors.
So if you can’t absolutely know something through observation or science, maybe we should go with the saying, “Trust your gut.” People have an amazing ability to have a sense about things that goes beyond what our minds have logically puzzled out. You might know instantly that a person you meet will become a good friend—or is someone that you can’t trust. But it turns out that even those gut-level first impressions are not that reliable.
Scientists did an experiment in which they set up situations in which people met each other, but in half of those first encounters they had the person who was meeting the subject hand them a cup of coffee. It turns out that if you hold something warm as you meet someone you are much more likely to have “warm” feelings toward that new person. Not really a great basis for deciding who you can trust!
So what do we know, and how do we know it? Do we really know anything? Maybe not. Or maybe it is better to think of truth as a process rather than an absolute fact. We are on a search for truth and meaning. Learning and growing is an ongoing part of what we do as seeking human beings. Through science, through relationships, through stories, through mystical experiences that we can’t explain, we gather up the pieces that we build into structures of understanding.
It might be a structure that expands or shifts or changes over time. Sometimes we might even need to pull down a wall or two, as well as put in a new window or door. But throughout our lives as Unitarian Universalists we are committed to building ever sturdier and more beautiful houses of understanding to live in and explore from.