For this week’s #tuesdayswithbill, The Science Guy takes us on a journey through the skeptic’s brain to answer a question about spiritual existence. Are we spiritually or electronically connected to each other and everything else? Bill doesn’t believe so because what we’re talking about is something impalpable. There’s no way to test for things like spirits and chakras. That doesn’t mean they don’t exist, but it does mean we should have to reason to believe they exist.
Cory: Hi Bill. Cory here from Vermont, the beautiful state of Vermont. I'm a huge fan, by the way. Thank you for everything that you do. So my one question to you is I've been reading a lot of things about spirituality and electric impulses, you know, really I guess stemming through our entire anatomy and kind of the concept that our universe is us and we are our universe. A little out there, I get it. I know. My question is to you, what do you think about that? Thank you.
Bill Nye: Cory, this is a great question. We, in the skeptical community, are very skeptical that there's any life force running through us other than chemical energy that makes us go. Now, I'll give you an example. Yoga. People do a lot of yoga and the big thing in yoga is to stay flexible, to stretch, to make sure your bones and muscles stay limber through your whole life and it's very effective and people get a lot out of it. But along that line, there are claims that you have these sources of energy in your body that, my understanding, are called chakras, but no one has been ever able to observe a chakra. I mean, they're an idea and you might experience it in your mind, but there's nobody who's been able to cut open a human or a mouse and X-ray a human, tap on a human, listen to a human with a stethoscope, or take human blood samples, and detect a chakra. It just hasn't happened.
With that said, people get a lot of comfort out of communities to know that other people are thinking the same way you're thinking. There's a team, essentially the human team, we'd all work together if push came to shove. But I am very skeptical that there's this life force that runs through us all. People have gone looking for it from a scientific standpoint for centuries. Now remember, there's a couple ideas in science that are very important and they're described nowadays in what's called critical thinking; your ability to think critically about everything. And you cannot prove a negative. In other words, if someone says you can't show that there aren't chakras; you can't show that there isn't a life force; you can't prove that I am not part of the spirituality of the universe, the spirit of the universe. And that's true you can't prove that. That's just the nature of negative ideas, of "nots."
So with that said, the other idea in critical thinking and skeptical thought is it's based on claims or assertions or hypotheses that you have to test. So if somebody makes a claim that there's a life force flowing through him or her or through all of us, how would you go about proving that? How would you show that it's true? How would you show before and after, before the life force after the life force, with the life force, without the life force? And you can say after somebody's dead they have no life force. Okay. But after somebody's dead they would be dead whether there's a life force or not. So that aside, there is a lot in the universe and we don't know what it is. I'll give you that. Furthermore there's dark energy, dark matter, 96/95 percent of the universe nobody knows what it is, but I don't think that's what you're talking about. You're talking about this in the skeptical community right now it's called woo or woo woo, the unknown that flows through us, the life energy. But it hasn't been provable so you can't prove a negative; you have to have a something you can test. A claim. These are very important ideas in critical thinking, in science. And I'm really glad you're thinking about them because maybe you will make a discovery that will change the world.
I'll give you an example. Nobody knows exactly what consciousness is. Like I'm thinking about thinking; I'm thinking about what you're thinking; you asked a question having to do with what you were thinking, what I'm thinking, what everybody's thinking, but what is it to have an idea? What is it when we are aware of ourselves, when we look in the mirror and we see ourselves? What is consciousness? And this to me is very reasonable. It's related to this feeling that yoga people get when they talk about this energy they feel, this life force. Furthermore, there's a lot of — people who study neuroscience talk about the brain, but they also talk about the central nervous system, the CNS. And that would be your brain connected to everything else. And one of the things or two of the things they like to talk about are your eyes. Your eyes are so intimately connected to your brain that people like to say your eyes are the only part of your brain that you can see. Whoa dude. But here's an interesting study that has been replicated many times. If you are – they'll set up a psychiatrist or psychologist will set up an experiment where somebody comes into the room and you, the subject, has to walk toward them to do some interaction, hand then something or something. Then they'll be another experiment where you have to move away from him or her. Well, if you move toward them, your tendency is to like those other people better than if you're required to move away from them. So they set up a test so that these two ideas are independent; what you're trying to accomplish and moving toward that person are independent of whether or not you're going this way or that way.
And the expression that's popular right now is embodied cognition. This is to say something you do with your central nervous system commanding my hand to move toward or away somehow affects what you feel, like your brain and the rest of your nervous system are not independent. So when you move toward to somebody you like him or more her more, if you move away you like him or her less by a little bit, by a measurable repeatable amount. So it could be that this idea of spirituality and this life force that's flowing through us, this perception of that is actually a manifestation or a result of your central nervous system and your brain being all one piece and you can't do this without affecting that. It's a cool idea. Maybe you'll become a neuroscientist and figure it out and dare I say it, Cory, change the world. Cool question.