Asking Good Questions
If you want to see something spectacular, you have to get away from the city lights. Then, if you bring a telescope and pay very careful attention, you can discover evidence of a universe vastly more intriguing and majestic than anything we might have ever imagined in our wildest dreams. For example, if you start at the Great Square of Pegasus and then look near the star Alpheratz, you will find a dim, fuzzy little puff. On a clear, moonless night, you can even see it with the naked eye. But here it is on the right magnified by a telescope: the Andromeda Galaxy, home to about a trillion stars (well over twice the number in our Milky Way), spanning 220,000 light-years across. That beggars the imagination. You can stare at it all night long.
However, if you shine a spotlight on it, it will disappear. You have to let it shine on its own.
Well, I want to show you two other mysteries that also cannot be seen unless you get away from the city lights. Although they may appear dim and fuzzy at first, if you focus in on them and pay careful attention, you will discover evidence of a universe immensely more spectacular than our wildest science-fiction fantasies. The simple facts alone will leave you transfixed and speechless.
The first mystery—what Albert Einstein called “the eternal mystery of the universe”—lies in asking what words are. What are these black symbols that you’re staring at right now? That is to say that if we can understand what these sentences mean, we do not have the slightest clue what they are.
What Are Words?
At first, this might seem like a goofy question—a dim, fuzzy thing to look at. But stop and consider that without words we would have no governments, no technology, no science, no sports (which depend upon verbal rules), no songs, no fajita recipes, etc. We fill libraries with words and ask children to spend years studying them. We use words to work and to rest and to praise and to destroy. So exactly what are they?
That actually turns out to be a spectacular question that leads to a watershed of understanding.
“The eternal mystery of the world,” said Einstein, “is its comprehensibility.” You see everywhere we look in nature, whether we look through a telescope or through a microscope or just take a walk in the woods, we comprehend rational, creative explanations—such as relativity, gravity, DNA, photosynthesis, the Krebs cycle, the carbon cycle, the water cycle, quantum entanglement, heliocentrism, adaptation, etc. It takes an intelligent, creative person ten or twenty years of study before they can begin to comprehend these explanations. Yet they are simply there, like books sitting on a library shelf, waiting to be read. We can translate them into English (or Arabic, etc.), but what exactly is that “them” that we are translating?
Words appear to be quite unique to the human species. “They’re completely unknown in animal systems,” says famed linguist Noam Chomsky. “We have no idea how they evolved, when they evolved, where they came from.” He says we don’t really even know how they work. “We have very little understanding of how each person has [words] innately as part of their fundamental nature.”[i]
But if what we don’t know about language isn’t enigmatic enough, what we do know about it takes the mystery fathoms deeper. For even though we do not know what words are, we do know what they are not: they are not physical. The meaning conveyed by these black symbols that you’re staring at has no tangible qualities—nothing that can be directly or indirectly seen, heard, felt, tasted or smelled. We can actually observe the complete absence of physical qualities in words. This is an objective, testable, falsifiable, scientific fact: the meaning carried by any media is nonphysical/immaterial.
But if words are immaterial, then the authors of words must likewise be immaterial. That is to say that just as physical media carry nonphysical meaning, so also our physical brains carry nonphysical authors.
It’s at this point that we have to stay away from the city lights. You see when we ask this age-old question, “What are words?”, the universities will bombard us with an unending chorus of professors who want to enlighten us with understanding.
- Philosophers will call them “Platonic Forms” or “items in a superseded ontology”.
- Neuroscientists will call them “qualia” or “intrinsic entities”.
- Physicists will call them “emergent properties” or “a fifth phase of matter”.
- Biologists will call them “evolved memes”. Etc., etc., etc.
They will expound and extrapolate and pontificate until the cows come home. And all this “enlightenment” will be about as helpful as pointing a dozen spotlights at the night sky. The trouble is that modern science presupposes materialism. (I give you a list of quotes about this under the heading “How?!”) Therefore, they have to try to come up with some way to explain, as the title of a recent Scientific American article put it, “How Matter Makes Mind” and how the meaning of words is, literally, a physical thing.
I don’t want to tell you what words and sentences are. I just want to help you see what they are not. They are not physical. Again, this is not a philosophical conclusion, but rather an objective, testable, falsifiable, scientific fact. And if true, objective science has taught us anything at all over the past 2000 years, it has taught us to have faith that if we listen carefully enough, and focus in and pay special attention, we will always discover rational, creative explanations about how nature works and about what has been happening in the past.
And that leads us to the second great mystery, which is about history.
Why the Year 0 CE?
Again, lots of people try to bombard us with enlightenment, but if we want the truth to shine clearly then we’re going to have to start with the evidence. The world has good, objective reasons for making 0 CE the turning point in history. Now when we ask, “What exactly happened about 2019 years ago?”, the various answers to that question mark some of the most contentious political issues that we have ever known. Indeed, from the day he was born—when some foreigners arrived and asked, “Where is he who was born king of the Jews—to the day he was executed due to accusations of treason, Jesus of Nazareth was perceived as a political threat. Wars have been fought over how to even ask the question, “What happened?” Here is a survey of the main stances:
- Gnosticism’s Question: “What secret knowledge about Jesus of Nazareth did various teachers say that God revealed to them through angels or visions?” Gnostics presupposed that the mystical revelations about history were true.
- Islam’s Question: “What did the prophet Muhammad say that the angel Gabriel revealed to him about Jesus of Nazareth, starting in the year 622 CE?” (The current Islamic year is 1441, for they started counting in 622 CE and then have a lunar calendar with 354 or 355 days in a year.) Muslims presuppose that the mystical revelations about history true.
- Mormonism’s Question: “What did the prophet Joseph Smith say that the angel Moroni revealed to him about Jesus of Nazareth, starting in the year 1823 CE?” Mormons presuppose that the mystical revelations about history are true.
- Hinduism’s question: “What can we learn from Jesus of Nazareth about living edifying, uplifting, and fruitful lives?” (There are several Hindu calendars, but the primary ones start counting in the year 78 CE. The origin of these calendars is highly controversial.) Although they admire Jesus and his teachings they presuppose that the Biblical account of Christ cannot be accurate, for they believe that there are many gods.
- Buddhism’s question: “What can we learn from Jesus of Nazareth about compassionate living?” (The current year for Theravada Buddhism is 2562, for they started counting in 544 BCE when Siddhārtha Gautama attained nirvana.) Although they admire Jesus and his teachings, they presuppose that the Biblical account of Christ cannot be accurate, for they say that there is no one personal God.
- Naturalism’s question: “What fits within the naturalistic worldview?” They presuppose materialism, so accounts of the miraculous are unacceptable.
- Christianity’s question: “What did the eyewitnesses claim to see and hear?” (Luke 1:1-4; 7:22-23; John 18:20; Acts 4:20; 1 John 1:1-3; 2 Peter 1:16; etc.)
Most of these views offer to enlighten us with presuppositions—which can be about as helpful as pointing a spotlight at the night sky—and only one of them is objective. It may be outrageous. It may open the door to believing in a world that is ten thousand times more unusual than anything we could have thought up on our own. Nevertheless, it is objective.
So let us get away from the city lights, look up to the heavens, and ask some excellent questions. In 1867 the Christian Georg Cantor, German mathematician and discoverer of set theory, said, “To ask the right question is harder than to answer it.” Come, I invite you to ask. Many want to dictate, but let us instead listen.