Sunday’s Wisdom #409: Scientific Belief in the Unseen

“That which can’t be seen simply hasn’t been studied yet. Therefore, the most unscientific thing a person can do is refuse to believe in things they can’t see.”
– Sougen, Bucchigire!/Shine On! Bakumatsu Bad Boys!
Season 1, Episode 11, “Rush! To the Kyoto Showdown”

The exact context for this quote is a discussion about souls. The villains of the story have been harvesting people’s souls and using them to power devastating weaponry, and one of the protagonists, of priestly inclination, states that these souls are weeping. Of course, he understands if his companion, something of a mad scientist, may not believe in something as unscientific as souls, but the man replies with the above comment, and I love it.

It happens all the time where people who purport to subscribe to science and evidence and proof say, in effect, that they do not and will not believe in things which they cannot see. This is used especially, though not exclusively, in reference to religious subjects, like gods and the existence of immortal souls. It makes a certain sort of sense, because is it not illogical to believe in things that cannot be seen and have never been proven? However, those who subscribe to this philosophy often ignore or deride those many accomplished scientists, both today and throughout history, who have very much believed in things they could not see, both religious and otherwise.

Take, for instance, neutrinos. I especially love the story of their discovery because the scientist who proved their existence had to theorize about them first. He was observing data in his studies, found some irregularities, and, in accordance with the scientific method, he posited a theory. It was widely ridiculed at the time, but he persisted, and eventually he found his proof. Neither he nor any of his peers at the time could see them, had no proof of them, and yet he believed when others did not.

The original theory of continental drift was likewise ridiculed and dismissed despite a great deal of circumstantial evidence. That is, until we gained the ability to see what was going on at the bottom of the oceans, and learned that the solid ground on which we stand is actually a collection of fragmented pieces drifting around atop a burning ocean.

Our understanding of diseases, of bacteria and viruses, is relatively new as well. Until we were able to see these microorganisms, our treatment of the diseases they cause was absolutely terrible. But then someone found a way to look, and proved their existence, and modern medicine was forever altered.

Radiation was discovered by accident, by a scientist who was conducting a completely unrelated experiment and found something very odd. They observed, theorized, and eventually proved their theory, and now we learn about it in grade school.

All of these things, like the electrons which make up light, were things we could not see, not for thousands of years, but the effects of which could be observed. It took leaps of faith, if you will, for scientists to believe in them, and some of them did not even live to see the fruition of their theories. But that is what science is: the pursuit of knowledge which upends our previous understanding of the universe. Even much of Isaac Newton’s work was overturned in due time, and how foolish would have been the scientist who refused to entertain that possibility?

One of my favorite moments from the old musical The King and I is when the children of the king of Siam are faced with how small their country is and how little they know of the world. They even disbelieve in snow because, being in Siam, they’ve never seen it. But their father, the king, is wiser than his children, and instructs them to believe their teacher. He is of a scientific mind, one capable of believing things without having yet seen them.

How many more things are there which we have not seen, but which may be? Gods? The soul? Aliens? I mean, if start talking about aliens from outer space, people will laugh and call you crazy. Why? Because they haven’t been seen… yet. 😉

But if the past is anything to judge by, it seems to be a foolish thing to disbelieve something just because it hasn’t yet been seen.

Now, of course, that doesn’t mean one must believe everything. I merely mean to say that basing every belief only on what one sees is far less enabling than one realizes. Indeed, if we base every belief on what we see, we will be wrong – dead wrong – a startling amount of the time.

We must be able to believe without seeing, or we cannot call ourselves scientific.

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