But is it real?

What does the question even mean?

Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality
25 min readOct 12, 2021


Re-Assembling Reality #15, by Mike Brownnutt and David A. Palmer

Can you prove that God exists?

This question crops up regularly in discussions connecting science and religion. From the dichotomies of two-list-ism (Re-Assembling Reality #1) — beloved by Enlightenment thought and never quite shaken since — it is easy to see why this question seems so important. Proof has to do with demonstrable, testable, objective fact. God is the epitome of the supernatural. If you are going to relate science and religion, if you are going to connect things in Column 1 and Column 2, then a proof for the existence of God is the place to start.

If we wanted to write an essay on proofs for God’s existence, we could discuss what is meant by proof. And we could discuss what is meant by God. But we have little time for two-list-ism, so it should come as no surprise that we have no intention of discussing either the nature of proofs or the nature of God. We see a far more pressing problem regarding proofs that God exists: understanding what we mean by exists.

Before we get onto a topic as difficult and contentious as God’s existence, let us start with some easier examples. Consider the following list and decide, for each item, whether or not it exists:

Someone else’s mind,
A walk.

For those items that you think exist, consider what manner of existence each item has. Do you know that any given item does (or does not) exist? How do you know that? Can you demonstrate its existence to the satisfaction of anyone you know? How?

Before reading any further, you may wish to ask a friend what they think of the list, and if they agree with you on all (or any) of your answers to the above questions.

In his book The Magic of Reality, Richard Dawkins helpfully tells us under what circumstances we should believe that something exists:

“The only good reason to believe that something exists is if there is real evidence that it does.”[1]

If Dawkins is right, the way forward is simple: we go through our list of rocks and aliens and stars, and we work out if there is real evidence for each item that they exist. Then we have our answer.

Best of all, any evidence worthy of the name should (surely) be sharable by everyone. So everyone who follows this simple procedure of assessing whether there is real evidence should come to the same conclusion for each item on the list. Thousands of years of disagreements can finally be put to rest. There is not a moment to lose.

Let us take each item in turn.


We suspect most of you think that rocks exist. We are OK with rocks. That is a useful benchmark. (That said, every year when we do this in class, there is always one student who says they do no not think that rocks exist. So if you said “No”, you are not alone.) We shall return to rocks later.

Kannesteinen Rock at Nordfjord. It may be real. (Source: Svein-Magne Tunli.)


There are, of course two different questions to untangle here: “Do aliens exist?” and “Do we have any reason to believe they exist?” The first question is ontological (to do with existence), the second is epistemic (to do with knowledge).

Regarding the first question, an alien, if it exists, sitting a billion light years away, will exist entirely independent of human opinions. The answer to the first question (Do aliens exist?) will not change from “No” to “Yes” simply because human beings accrue more information. At most, more information can change the answer from “I don’t know” to “Yes” (or, possibly, from “I don’t know” to “No”).

By contrast, the answer to the second question (Do we have any reason to believe aliens exist?) might very well change as humans accrue more information. There used to be no evidence of aliens, and so (by Dawkins’ dictum) we should not have believed in aliens. If one day a flying saucer turned up with a little green man in it, we would have real evidence that aliens exist. Aliens didn’t suddenly start existing the day the flying saucer got to earth (so the answer to the first question did not change), but belief in aliens went from being unreasonable to being reasonable. This tells us that it is possible to have reasonable beliefs that are wrong, just as it possible to have unreasonable beliefs that are right. Dawkins’ dictum gives us, at best, a reasonable answer. It does not guarantee us the right answer.

It might be noted that there are very reasonable and smart people who believe that alien life exists, and they can give reasons to justify their belief. Some arguments in favour of aliens give logical or theoretical arguments, while others give experiential or experimental arguments. There are other very smart people who believe that aliens do not exist, and who can give reasons to justify their belief. There are still others who sit very carefully on the fence, and who give reasons for doing so.

Aliens would be puzzled if they started to exist because someone had evidence for them. (Source: Wikimedia.)

It may be disheartening to discover that reasonable people can disagree over whether we have reasonable evidence for a thing’s existence. And this is only the second item on our list. The disagreement is not over what we mean by “alien life”; it is not a dispute between the well-informed and the ill-informed; or between science and religion; or between different religions. These are smart people, aware of Dawkins’ dictum, in possession of the same evidences, attempting to form a belief about the existence or otherwise of a relatively concrete and easy to comprehend entity. And they disagree.


On the face of it, this is an easier one than aliens. We can see stars. Everyone knows that stars exist. Surely there is no dispute here.

But what, exactly, is it that exists? And what, exactly, do you believe exists?

When Siberian tribes looked at the night sky, they thought stars were holes in heaven. So consider two questions: Did holes in heaven exist? Did stars exist?

When Europeans in 1850 looked at the night sky, they thought that stars were balls of burning gas.[2] Consider three questions: Did stellar balls of burning gas exist? Did stellar balls of plasma (because that is what fire is) exist? Did stars exist?

When civilised people in the 21st century look at the night sky, they think they see gravitationally bound nuclear reactors converting hydrogen to helium. Consider three questions: Do stars exist? Do stellar nuclear reactors exist? Are you sure?

We really want to say that stars exist. We want to say Siberian tribes were saying something meaningful when they pointed at the night sky and said that stars exist. We want to say that the universe itself did not change when we discovered that stars did not burn by chemical reactions: stars existed both before and after that realisation. We want to say that stars would continue to exist even if we discovered that the dots of light in the night sky are actually portals to alternate dimensions.

This is significant, because it seems that we want to be able to say that a thing exists — that it is in some way real — even though we freely confess that we may be entirely wrong about essentially every aspect of what we believe that thing to be. In this sense,when we say that stars exist, we are not saying that holes in heaven exist, or that stellar nuclear reactors exist; we are just saying that stars exist. Whatever that means.

Let us leave cosmology for a moment and consider religion. Consider a group of people who thought that a supreme God presides over a hierarchy of lesser gods. Then at some point they changed their views and thought that there is only one God, and He is angry and vengeful. Then at some later point they thought that this one God is kind and fluffy. And we might suspect that, while devotees are now convinced by the fluffy picture, they may in future adopt a different picture of God.

We might look at a series of such radically different conceptions and say that the claim “God exists” is meaningless, because we do not even have a stable idea of what we mean when we say “God”. We must, however, be careful about too quickly embracing such an argument against the existence of God. Because we desperately want to say that stars exist.


Atoms present us with the same problems as stars, and then some. In 400 BC, the Greek philosopher Democritus said — without evidence — that all matter is made up small, indestructible, inert units which he called atoms (meaning indivisible). As far as we can tell, Democritus was wrong. Matter, at its most basic level, is not made up of things which are indivisible and inert. That’s just not how matter works.

In 1803 John Dalton proposed that chemical elements consisted of identical, indivisible atoms. He was wrong on both counts: the basic units of chemical elements are not indivisible, and (thanks to isotopes) the basic units of elements are not all identical to each other. In the interest of space, we will not critique the development of J.J. Thompson’s plum-pudding model, Ernest Rutherford’s planetary model, The Bohr model, Quantum Electro-Dynamics, or Quantum Chromo-Dynamics. Suffice it to say, whichever way you slice it, our view of atoms is inconstant. But it is worse than that!

While we have radically changed our ideas about what a star is, we at least broadly agree on what it looks like. It looks like a bright dot in the night sky. We have seen stars. But you have never, with the unaided eye, directly and distinctly seen an atom. There is a branch of thought in science which says that you must remain agnostic about the reality of anything that cannot be observed directly with the unaided human senses. This means you should have no opinion on the reality of atoms. Similarly, you should have no opinion on the reality (or otherwise) of electrons, or genes, or your own brain, or your own children when they have left the room.

Dawkins says that we need “real evidence”. But what is real evidence? Does a view through a microscope count? A view through an electron microscope? A “view” through a particle accelerator? There is not universal agreement on this. Depending on how open you are to accepting something as real evidence, you may or may not have real evidence for a thing, and the things for which you have real evidence may or may not actually turn out to be real. There was, after all, by some measures, “real evidence” for Dalton’s conception of the atom. And yet we now believe that no such things exists.


If you place a brick on top of a tall building, that brick has potential energy. You cannot see the energy. You can see the brick and you can see the building. But the potential energy that the brick ‘has’ is equal to the mass of the brick times the height of the building times the gravitational-field strength. If you push the brick off a building, it falls. As it falls, it gains kinetic energy. You cannot see the energy. You can see a brick and you can see it moving. The kinetic energy that the brick ‘has’ is equal to half the brick’s mass times the square of the brick’s speed. By a wonderful piece of book-keeping, the brick’s height decreases (because it is falling) and the brick’s velocity increases (because it keeps falling ever faster) in just the right way so that the amount of kinetic energy it gains is exactly equal to the amount of potential energy it loses.

Let us accept that the brick is real. Let us accept that mass is real — you can feel the heft of the brick in your hand. Let us accept that distance is real — the roof of the building really is a long way from the ground. Let us even accept that gravitational fields (or something very much like them) are real — you feel a tug towards the ground. But what about the product of the mass and the height and the gravitational field strength? Is that real, or is that book-keeping?

I go through my bank statement each month to tally up what I got paid, what I borrowed, what I bought, and the interest I was charged on my mortgage. And I make sure it all balances. I don’t claim that moving numbers on a spread sheet is anything other than moving numbers on a spread sheet. There are no actual things involved: no coins, or bars of gold. It is just book-keeping. The reason I never see money moving around when I hand someone my credit card is that there is nothing to see. There is book-keeping, and that is all.

What about energy? Have you ever seen energy? You might see a light bulb turn on. You might see photons. And the universe has a column in its book-keeping for “number of photons times photon frequency times Planck’s constant.” But do you have any evidence that energy is real; that energy is anything other than the universe’s exercise in book-keeping?

The universe’s bookkeeping is not limited to energy. To take an example, there is a class of particles called leptons, and their number is conserved. You cannot destroy one lepton without creating another one. The total number of leptons in the universe has to remain unchanged. We don’t insist that there is a thing called ‘the lepton number’. It is just bookkeeping.

Energy lies at the heart of science. It is about as fundamental and physical a concept as you can get. It is disconcerting to realise that there could be reasonable disagreement over whether or not it exists. How has this not been settled already? In large part, scientists have not settled the issue because they cannot. And in possibly larger part, scientists have not settled the issue because they don’t care.

Consider two universes:

— In one universe energy exists. It is a real (albeit immaterial) thing that is passed between objects, but it is unable to exist separate from them.

— In the other universe, energy doesn’t exist in any physical sense. This universe keeps track of its bookkeeping without the need to pass chits back and forth between objects.

To all observers, under all conditions, these two universes would look identical. Use whichever theory you want. Your theory would still work, and your experiments would still give you the same answer. Faced with such inscrutability, the scientist knows when they are beaten and accepts their situation: I don’t know if energy is real, and I don’t particularly care. If energy is real, I don’t know what manner of real it might be. And I don’t particularly care about that either.


Before getting into a discussion of something as spiritual as souls, let us return to something as physical as energy.

Consider what happens if you try to separate the energy from the brick that ‘has’ the energy. A brick on a building has energy but, given the energy is the product of the brick’s mass, its height above the ground, and the gravitational-field strength, there is no way to take the brick from the picture without taking the energy from the picture as well. You cannot get potential energy without a body for it to inhabit. The same is true of kinetic energy: you cannot separate the energy from the brick which carries the energy.

While you cannot separate the energy from the brick, the energy is not part of the brick, and it is certainly not the same as the brick. It is not made of the brick. There is nothing about the brick’s constituent parts or their arrangements from which energy ‘emerges.’ Energy remains as some immaterial ‘thing’ which can never be reduced to the corporeal, and yet which can never be removed from the corporeal.

Even when the energy is removed from the brick — for example, when the brick is dropped to the floor and energy is transferred from the brick to the ground — the energy is always tied to, but never the same as, a material body. You never observe “disembodied” energy.

Energy, eternally existing, at one moment present in a moving brick. At another moment, no longer present in a stationary brick; gone elsewhere, to animate another body. We often say that a moving brick ‘possesses’ energy, though we start to wonder if it would not be more appropriate to say that it is the ghostly energy which possesses the brick.

Let us return from considering physical, scientific things like energy to considering spiritual religious things like souls. Souls, eternally existing, at one moment present in a living body. At another, no longer present in a dead body; gone elsewhere, to animate another body, perhaps.

There are some who insist that the soul, if it exists, must be identifiable with a material substance. (Because if it is immaterial, then it cannot be said to really exist.) But we set no such bar for accepting the existence of energy. Energy is not identifiable with the material that ‘has’ the energy.

There are some who insist that the soul, if it exists, must be separable from material substance. (Because if it it only present when matter is present, then it is surely just some property f the matter.) But we set no such bar for accepting the existence of energy. Energy is not separable from material that it possesses, but is not reducible to simply a property of matter.

There are some who insist that the soul, if it exists, exists only as a phenomenon that emerges from matter. (Just as the mind emerges from the complex activity of the brain, or life emerges from the complex activity of non-life). But we set no such bar for accepting the existence of energy. Energy does not emerge from a particularly complex arrangement of atoms.

Theologians and philosophers wrestle with questions of how the corporeal and incorporeal world relate. How, they ask, can an immaterial soul influence a material body? In one sense, the analogous question arises in science: How can immaterial energy influence a material body? In another sense, though, the question does not arise in science. Not because it cannot be asked, but because no-one cares. An object has more energy when it is moving fast than when it is moving slow. Energy is conserved. The book-keeping works. Who cares how?

It becomes clear that arguments which look solidly scientific can shed insight on topics that look religious, and vice versa. It also becomes clear that the neat distinction between physical and spiritual is neither neat nor distinct. The observant reader will notice that we are at the end of this section and we have not expressed a view on whether or not souls exist. And we are OK with that.

Other people’s minds

Now that you have come this far, you may wish to pause for a moment and, in light of all that has just been said, consider whether your own mind exists. Is it entirely separate from the brain? Does it emerge from the brain? Is it related to the brain? Is it ‘nothing but’ the brain? Is it material, or immaterial, or something else? How does it relate to thought? How does it relate to qualia? How does it relate to volition? These are all great questions, and I shall skip rapidly over them. We face a far deeper problem, which remains even when all such questions are solved: does anyone else’s mind exist?

You know first-hand that you have experiences of light and dark and sounds and smells. It is not simply that your brain processes information for you to react to, providing information like “this is sharp.” Rather, you have genuine, qualia-driven, hot-cognition of pain. But you have no experience of other peoples’ experiences. They might cut themselves and tell you that a knife is sharp but, while you hear their words, you do not feel their pain. You have no direct evidence that what they experience is the same as what you experience. Indeed, you can have no direct evidence that what they experience is the same as what you experience. Any direct evidence would be your experience, not theirs.

Putting that problem to one side, think of another person for a moment; someone you know well. Most likely they look pretty much like you. At least at the level of having a nose and a mouth on the front of their face; they don’t have radar dishes where you would expect their ears to be; that kind of thing. They probably express similar emotions to you. Maybe they don’t laugh at exactly the same jokes, but they laugh at something. Or at least smirk to show they find something funny. If you put the two of you in a brain scanner, the basic structure of your brains would look pretty similar: wrinkly bits on the surface, fissure running front to back, brain-stem at the bottom.

In light of the similarities between you and your friend, it may seem reasonable to believe that they have a mind; that they experience the world in much the same way as you do. Indeed, in light of the similarities, it may seem unreasonable to not believe that they have a mind. However, given the essentially first-person nature of experiences, the belief that your friend has a mind, however reasonable it is, is entirely untestable.

An objection is sometimes raised here that we can test whether something has a mind. Alan Turing, it is claimed, showed that we can establish whether machines can think: if the machine’s behavior is indistinguishable from that of a thinking subject, then the machine passes the Turing test, and is counted as a thinking machine. This follows the argument that, if people think and machines act like people, then we have shown that machines think. The same formal argument can then be made that, if I have a mind and other people act like me, then I have shown that other people have minds.

Unfortunately for this argument, while Alan Turing started his famous paper with the question “Can machines think?” he had not even finished the first paragraph before he abandoned any attempt to provide an answer:

“I propose to consider the question, ‘Can machines think?’ This should begin with definitions of the meaning of the terms ‘machine’ and ‘think’. The definitions might be framed so as to reflect so far as possible the normal use of the words… But this is absurd. Instead of attempting such a definition I shall replace the question by another, which is closely related to it and is expressed in relatively unambiguous words.

[There follows a short summary of the now well-known Turing test.]

We now ask the question, ‘What will happen when a machine takes [part in] this game?’ Will the interrogator decide wrongly as often when the game is played like this as he does when the game is played between a man and a woman? These questions replace our original, ‘Can machines think? [3]

Turing claims that the questions Does this machine act like it is thinking? is “closely related” to the question Is this machine thinking? Nonetheless, demonstrating the former goes no way to answering the latter. Similarly, while claim This person acts like a person with a mind is testable, it goes no way to establishing the claim, This person has a mind. For completeness, we might also not that the inverse also holds: while the claim This tree does not act like a person with a mind is testable, it goes no way to establishing the claim, This tree does not have a mind.

Being sensible people, we might not lose much sleep over the fact that we cannot prove that other people have minds. It is reasonable to assume that they do, and unreasonable to assume that they do not. Why lose sleep over whether it is provable?

The philosophical position of positivism, however, states that all beliefs must be testable. Under this view, the meaning of a statement lies in the method by which one can demonstrate the statement’s truth or falsity. As such, a belief that cannot be tested is not simply untrue; it is not even unreasonable: it is meaningless. On such a view, one cannot claim that “other people’s minds exist,” because “other people’s minds” is not a meaningful concept. One might as well ask “Does Vpm!F exist?”

One might imagine that scientists would sidestep such sophistry. Whatever one expects, though, scientists often embrace it. The adoption of such a perspective — explicitly or tacitly — into science has radical implications. Consider the idea that mind is simply the working of the brain. This is positivism in action: I cannot test what your mind is doing; I cannot test the qualia you experience or the emotions you feel. But I can test what your brain is doing; I can test reaction pathways and brain chemistry. Qualia are not really real. They emerge as outworkings of brain chemistry. Brain chemistry is real. Qualia are not.

The ability to demonstrate what is real, what we have real evidence for, seems like objective science. It looks like scientists, driven by hard data and brute facts, and following Dawkins’ Dictum, are making a path through the fog of ignorance and superstition. However, the conclusion that ‘brains are real and minds are not’ was not arrived at empirically. It was forced on science by a philosophical shift many decades earlier which has — and which can have — no basis in evidence.


Making a hole is relatively easy. And it should not be easy to make something that does not exist.

If I drill a hole in a piece of metal, that hole has numerous objective properties that would normally be assigned to things. It has a size. It has a shape. It even has a co-efficient of thermal expansion. (The hole will get larger if you put it in the oven, and smaller if you put it in the freezer.) The edge of the hole may be sharp enough to cut yourself on.

We can objectively count how many there are. But do they exist? (Source: pxfuel.)

On the other hand, someone wishing to argue that hole is not really a thing would have ample arguments at their disposal: A hole does not exist independently of the metal surrounding it. A hole is not ‘the presence of a thing’ but ‘the absence of a different thing’. The metal exists, but the hole is just a lack of metal, surrounded by metal. I do not cut myself on the edge of the hole, but on the metal that was revealed by making (or ‘making’) the hole.

So we have something that we know doesn’t really exist, but we talk about it as though it existed. And then we just accept that it is a strange kind of existence. It’s a kind of existence for which some ways of talking about ‘normally existing’ objects (like rocks) also apply to holes and some properties of ‘normally existing’ objects do not apply to holes. And we are totally OK with that.

Science is entirely happy with this. While a pedant may object that, by leaving the freezer door open, one is not letting the cold out, but letting the heat in, the maths does not care. And if considering the movement of cold makes the maths easier, scientists will take the easy route every time.

To take an even more extreme example, a space in a semiconductor where an electron isn’t is called a ‘hole’. The hole can be assigned a position, and it can move. The hole can even be assigned an effective mass and effective charge. It makes the maths easier. And we are totally fine with that.

Religion is also happy about discussing the absence of a thing as though it were a thing itself. Is darkness a thing, or just the absence of light? Is hatred a thing, or just the absence of love? Is stillness a thing, or just an absence of activity? Is activity a thing, or just an absence of stillness?


If you take two apples and then take another two apples, you have four apples. This can be expressed mathematically as follows:

2 apples + 2 apples = 4 apples.

Each term in that equation includes apples, so it is a simple matter of mathematics to divide each term by apples to arrive at the result that

2 + 2 = 4 .

This seems uncontroversial until someone asks, physically speaking, how you “divide by apples”? How do you get rid of the ‘apples’ in ‘2 apples’ without also getting rid of the ‘2’?

A stone is part of the action of skimming stones. (Source: Killy Ridols.)

As soon as I place an apple and another apple on my desk, I have 2 apples. It is not possible to have an apple and another apple without 2 somehow being there. The 2 is, if you will, immanently present in my apples.

But while the 2 is somehow present in my 2 apples, it is not restricted to my apples. It is also present when I have 2 oranges, or an apple and an orange (2 pieces of fruit), or 2 atoms, or 2 children. The 2, if you will, transcends the apples. This transcendence goes beyond the fact that 2 is not restricted to my apples. The 2 is not even part of my apples. I could grind my apples up, put them in a test tube and analyse them every which way without ever finding any 2-ness. The 2-ness of my 2 apples is not based in anything material.

No one has ever seen a 2. People have seen an apple and another apple; they may have seen 2 apples; but no one has seen a 2. We might make symbols — human-made graven images — that represent 2. But no one has ever seen 2. No one has ever touched it, or tasted it, or heard it, or smelled it. The 2, if it exists, is immaterial.

Given that 2 is not tied to the material of my apples, there was 2 even before my apples ever came into being. And there will continue to be 2 long after there are no apples left in the universe. There are those who believe that 2, not being tied to the material of the universe, was there even before the universe came into being and will continue to be long after the universe itself is gone. Eternity past to eternity future.

The number 2, if it exists, if it can be said to ‘be’, has a form of be-ing which is immanent, transcendent, immaterial, and eternal. I could understand why scientists would insist that numbers have no place in science. Indeed, on these grounds, it would be shocking if otherwise rigorous scientists were so lax as to let numbers anywhere near good, sound, empirical science.

It gets somewhat disconcerting if we ask what effect immaterial numbers could possibly have on a material world. How can numbers, immaterial as they are, possibly have any influence on a world that they cannot touch. Mathematicians may play with their meanings of “2+2=4,” but why should material apples on my desk be swayed by anything as immaterial as “rules of addition”.

Maybe numbers exist. If they do exist, then we would need scientists to accept that there are some things which exist, and yet which are not material. There are “things” which cannot be touched or seen; and which belong at the very heart of science.

Maybe numbers don’t exist. If they don’t exist, then we would need scientists to accept that there are some things which apparently do not exist, and yet which apparently determine the laws by which all of science runs. Despite their apparent “non-existence”, they seem to remain indispensable for the furtherance of our understanding of the material world.

If Dawkins were to insist that God has no place in science because science has no place for immanent, transcendent, immaterial, and eternal entities, then I would hope, for the sake of consistency, that he would also reject mathematics.

A walk

What is a walk? I swing my legs alternately and travel from one place to another. But does a walk actually exist? The word may be a noun, but is the action — the doing, the process, the constant changing — a thing? It involves things: legs and feet and time and space. But does the walk become — in its doing — a thing itself? I cannot I wrap it up, poke it, put it in a bottle. I cannot put it on a shelf and save it for later. Do processes exist?

Maybe legs and space and time are real, and walking is just some secondary feature of those real things being strung together. But what if, just for the sake of the argument, walking is real. What if the process is the thing, with legs and space and time just being some secondary features of the real thing being taken apart?

Many cultures think in this second picture. In Daoism, the dao, ‘the way’, is not so much to be understood as an object, but as an act — the act of following the way. The Chinese word for ‘thing’ is Shi, ‘a happening’ — as in “I have a lot of things to do.

Similarly, Jewish thought is much more likely to foreground actions than Modern Western thought. When the Apostle Paul wrote “These three remain: faith, hope, and love” (1 Cor. 13:13) we think of three nouns, rather than three actions. This, despite the fact that in the exposition of love immediately prior (vv.4–8), Paul describes love using sixteen verbs.

Do we have any reason to believe that the first picture (where objects are real and actions are secondary) is more fundamentally true than the second picture (where actions are real and objects are secondary)? Even in modern Western object-cetric thought we recognise the fundamental significance of action. We understand a foot, not as an object in itself, but as a part of the process of walking. However radically different an ant’s foot is from a human’s foot, the commonality they share is a role in walking. We think of the action as more basic than the objects which happen to be performing the action. Is a foot, then, best viewed as a part of the body, or a part of the walking?

When I skim a stone on a lake, are the objects (the stone, the water) the fundamental things from which the activities arise? Or are the activities (the skimming of the stone, the splashing of the water) the fundamental things from which the objects arise? Are rocks real?

We started this essay by wondering if we could connect the two columns of our two lists. Maybe we could prove (Column 1) that God (column 2) really exists. Then, surely, would have forged a connection between science and religion. On closer inspection, however, our difficulty was not so much in making connections between the two columns, but in attempting to preserve any distinctions.

Our analysis of energy (which would seem scientific) has many similarities with our analysis of souls (which would seem religious). Consideration of other people’s minds presses us to insist that the reasonable conclusion is the one for which there can be no evidence. A desire to talk about stars and atoms (which seems scientific) turns out to be a desire to talk about things whose meaning forever slips through our fingers (which sounds mighty religious). While some people may be relieved that a mathematical foundation to science has apparently displaced God, they may be distressed to find that they are still stuck with immanent, transcendent, immaterial, invisible entities which seem to run the universe, but whose existence they can neither prove nor disprove. Finally, consideration of a humble walk caused us to doubt our former certainty in the existence of rocks.

Fortunately scientists are happy to embrace (at least some) immanent, transcendent, immaterial, invisible entities which seem to run the universe, but whose existence they can neither prove nor disprove. Game on.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forum and the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.


[1] Dawkins, Richard (2011). The Magic of Reality: how we know what’s really true. London: Transworld Publishers. p. 15.

[2] As a side note, this was really awkward. They knew that chemistry proved the sun could burn for no more than 30 million years, and they also knew that Darwin said the earth should be at least 300 million years old. And they knew that the sun should be at least as old as the earth. It is one thing for Darwin to claim that the earth is older than the bible says it should be. It is another thing for Darwin to claim that the earth is older than the known laws of physics and chemistry say it can be. But that is a controversy for another chapter.

[3] Turing, A.M. (1950). “Computing machinery and IntelligenceMind, LIX (236), pp. 433–460.



Mike Brownnutt
Re-Assembling Reality

I have a Master's in theology and a PhD in physics. I am employed in social work to do philosophy. Sometimes I pretend that's not a bit weird.