May 12, 2013
I’m at a stage in my life where big changes are happening. I see my independence and my responsibilities grow with each passing year and little by little I understand more about the world. I still have much to learn as a young and naïve person. I possess energetic and new ideas like many of those in youth but I lack the experience and wisdom of those older than myself. With so much change I ask myself: what is important? There are many answers to this question (family, friends, happiness, peace, and so on) but I’m going to focus on just one thing today that I find important: understanding. That is truth, knowledge, learning and everything else that goes along with it.
In philosophy this understanding of knowledge is called “epistemology” or the theory of knowledge. It asks: What is it to know? What do we know? How do we know that we know? I’m going to address one specific claim that I have found puzzling over the short duration of my life. It’s those that people walk up to me and tell me they know something to be absolutely true. They know something for certain there can be no doubt and there are no corrections. It can be anything absolute knowledge about morality, science, the nature of reality. Now, I understand why people like this idea. We feel secure when we know exactly what is and what will happen. As human beings we don’t like uncertainty and we usually fear it.
To see how strange this is I’m going to give examples from science. Earlier this year a space satellite finished collecting valuable data from way in the early beings of our universe. It mapped out the afterglow of the Big Bang itself which tells us a lot about the structure of the universe. We all have a pretty good idea about what makes up the universe. This church, the flowers outside, the Earth, planets, stars, galaxies and so on. That’s all of the universe, right? Well, no, not even close. This satellite (and satellites before it) helped refine our understanding of how much of the universe is made of the stuff we see with our eyes. The number? Less than five percent. All the stuff that we see is less than five percent of the universe! What is the rest of the ninety-five percent? We don’t know. So you can see why I have issue with claims of absolute knowledge. It’s out of proportion with reality. How can you know with certainty when you are only aware of less than five percent of the universe?
Now, along the lines of science I hear a lot of people say “science proved it!” Science has the truth of the matter and that settles it. Richard Feynman, a renowned physics of the last century, was interview during his later years about what it means to know. He said,
“You ask me is the science true? And I say no, no, we don’t know what’s true we’re trying to find out everything is possibly wrong!”
He goes on to say:
“One thing is, I can live with doubt, uncertainty , and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live with not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and on many things I don’t know anything about!”
He highlights a key understanding of absolute knowledge: that it is an impossible and perhaps a naïve view of the universe to divide things between strictly true or false. Some things are more wrong or more true than other things. What we often do is say it’s either this or that and those are the only choices. We ignore the possibility of a spectrum of choices. We effectively take a square and try to shove it into a circular hole that it cannot fit through. In the process we lose some of the original meaning and contort it to fit our absolute established ideas. Ironically, our quest for absolute truth blinds us to actual truth. Even in science, even in the most well established theories, there follows a question mark no matter how small. It’s not an admission of stupidity it is humble honesty. Everything is a work in progress and the more progress the more we get correct.
Now, facts about the universe are one thing, but how about moral truths? I remember a story about a philosophy teacher who was telling his students why he taught ethical philosophy. He told his class that most people are good and decent people and that his class wasn’t about how to be a decent person. Ethical philosophy was about exploring the fuzzy spots in moral decision making. Even the most just, the most righteous, and the most conscientious among us can have trouble deciding what is the right or wrong thing to do. I just finished taking an ethics class myself and I learned very quickly that there are intelligent people and philosophers on all sides of all issues.
What troubles me about claims of absolute moral knowledge is when it is taken to such extremes that it fills people with misplaced self-righteousness. History is full of examples where people and movements have sought to impose their ideology because it was the “correct” one. That the prevailing ideas of one culture are the ultimate moral standard and anyone who disagrees is immoral and must be removed. Morally, though, is not so easy.
Now, the quest for knowledge and truth will continue. I don’t know if we’ll ever reach an “ultimate” or “absolute” understanding of truth. It could remain forever out of reach, but we do know how to progress towards it at the least. Along this journey, we learn more about ourselves and become ever more enlightened but we must tread carefully, we must be humble, and we must have the courage to say that we might be wrong sometimes. I’m going to end with an excerpt by Carl Sagan. This is taken from a TV show he hosted called “Cosmos” in the 1980s. This segment is called “The Pale Blue Dot” referring to our planet Earth.
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”