Adam J Purcell Ponders… Reality

Published: 27th August 2002

There is a dragon down the end of my garden. It's true but he is very shy. You may be lucky and see him one day but it is unlikely - he likes to remain hidden. You could stay out on vigil all night but you're still not likely to see him. You could watch the place, continuously, for years but will probably still not catch even a glimpse. You could set up intricate detecting devices but will you get the proof you are looking for? Almost certainly not. You'll just have to take my word for it, after all you cannot prove he doesn't exist, only that you've yet to detect him. There's the old adage 'absence of proof is not proof of absence'. And who can argue with that?

Of course I don't believe this dragon exists down the end of my garden, not really. It poses an interesting question, though. Humanity has come a long way in the past forty thousand years. There was a time when we observed much more than we could explain. There were patterns to events, predictability to the world, the mechanisms for which were well beyond our understanding. There is still a lot we do not understand, more than we as individuals can even begin to appreciate. Some of those things are truly beyond our comprehension and, in our current form, they are simply impossible for us to grasp. Infinity is one example, it is doubtful that even the last of our descendants, whatever they have evolved into, will be any better at truly understanding it than us. Death, of course, it the other big one.

Over our history we have come up with a myriad of ideas to explain the inexplicable. Comfortable, or not, ways of answering what was otherwise unanswerable and calming our fears of the unknown. Science is the current way we explain most things. I have to say this is the name I put by cross against on the ballot paper. Is it really as enlightened as I and others would like to think? In some ways, certainly not. How many of us have really done all the experiments and gathered all the proof we are told, so confidently, exists? How much of science do we, as individuals, take on blind faith? The vast majority of it I would say. Having said that, the proof of science is all around us - look at what we have achieved with it. We are told that the Earth is round (roughly speaking), that it revolves around the Sun (as opposed to the Sun revolving around us) and many other pieces of information that we accept as truth despite most of us not having personal proof (side stepping the issue of can we trust anything we experience as being true!) True or not, science has given us electricity, artificial light, central heating, mass transportation devices, computers, etc., etc. Our entire civilisation is built on the technologies science has given us. All of this makes me feel comfortable that I could prove for myself anything that I am told by science - the evidence is there in plain sight. Science is about understanding and learning, never about ignorance.

What of those who believe in the dragon down the end of my garden? I can't help wonder how they can justify their positions - after all there is no proof. They tell me that they don't need proof to believe and that one day I may come to regret not sharing that belief. If proof comes along I will, of course, accept it - that is the way of science, of my philosophy. Should we live in fear of the unknown? Should we allow others to tell us to be afraid if we don't share their ideas when those ideas have nothing to back them up? I don't know, I just wonder how they can say this dragon exists whilst at the same time dismissing out of hand another idea which has as much, apparent, substance to it. If I claim that a horde of nasty gremlins are terrorising my invisible friend, and I give them no proof only utter conviction, do they not have to believe it on the same basis they believe in the dragon? Is not any other position wholly indefensible from the impassionate standpoint of reason? Now my dragon believing friends may well turn around and say that reason plays no part in their belief of the dragon and go on to challenge me to prove he doesn't exist. Unfortunately, it is impossible to conclusively prove that something doesn't exist and they play on that fact. It is time for humanity to grow up, take that final step and leave the dragons behind. Either that or we accept everything with the same level of proof in exactly the same regard - suddenly the pixies and fairies are as real as the dragon they share my garden with, not to mention my secret underground lair underneath them all. Time we accept that reality must stand up to the same level of 'proof beyond reasonable doubt' that we expect of our justice. Time we accept our fairy tales as entertainment and morality lessons and get on with building humanity into dragons, and beyond.