Like a man trying to photograph a dream, I will try to describe in mere words the cascade of emotions and thoughts running through my brain as I sit here by the beach at 2 am. To do this I realize might be impossible but I unfortunately have no other means of conveying this to you, my dear reader other than words. Even as I reread my last blog post I am still not happy with it, I feel like words are a cheap medium for such powerful topics and I know that I will have to redo it again in the future, and perhaps with no better luck.
Having said that, come join me at the beach, it is two in the morning on Friday night, one or two small clouds, no moon, and seemingly endless stars. Someone once told me that the reason why we love the sound of the oceans waves is that it sounds much like the waters rushing around the womb in which we were born. While I may not know if that is true, what I must agree with is; the sense of calm that the sound of the waves conveys to me. I came here to escape my yeshiva and have a cigarette yet I find myself lost in space, gazing at the stars and lost among them. The awareness of how far the stars are, how big they are, and how insignificant even they are in the universe, is the truest humility I think one can ever truly experience. How tiny are we, evolved slime on a mote of dust orbiting a mediocre star in the outer neighborhoods of an average galaxy? How is it that we know anything? How is it that we CAN know anything? Do we actually know anything?
Last year after reading the meditations by Descartes, I remember having a long conversation with a friend over whether or not we could know if we are dreaming, and if we should even care. My conclusion was; that we cannot know and therefore I do not care, and this is my starting point for the nature of our knowledge. I agree with Descartes that “I think therefore I am” meaning since I am conscious and although everything might be an illusion, I must exist in some form to experience this illusion. However, I do not know that this is not an illusion so I cannot “know” more than that.
There are so many things that confound us in this experience we call reality, that seem so amazing to our semi-evolved mammalian brain. The problem though is that for each phenomenon there are so many explanations, each sounding better than the one before. Therefore, I believe the only proper initial attitude is one of equal skepticism to all claims. Upon further thought though, we may wish to ask that although they cannot all be true, and perhaps none of them are, can we say one is more likely than the other? The answer is yes, we do have a method for sorting out the truth of theories, and it we call it science. It cannot prove a theory correct but, by making predictions based on the theories and observing to see which theory is consistent with observation it can conclusively disprove theories. Once we have done this and weeded out the ones we know to be false, then by default the remaining ones are the most likely to be true. We cannot say more than that, we cannot say we “know”, we can say probably, more likely, less likely, and so on but anything more than that seems to me to be a denial of the nature of our knowledge.
To me when someone says, “I know” I squirm a little bit; I get very uncomfortable when people use such absolutes. I have noticed that the crazier a person is the more certain he is of things that he in no way can be certain about. Have you ever noticed that the person screaming that the world is going to end, or that aliens implanted chips in his brain, or that god is speaking to him, will almost never use the word maybe. He is absolutely sure, he KNOWS this, as a fact. How many less suicide bombers do you think we would have if Muslims said, “Allah is probably the one god, and Mohammed might be his prophet”, but no, they are sure, 100%, no doubt about it.
I find the opposite to be true as well, the more sane and levelheaded a person is, the more likely he is to say, “I don’t know”. It is a truly liberating three words, it is an acknowledgement that we are human and limited and might not know everything. It is only with this attitude that we might learn new things. It is with this form of mental bookkeeping and keeping track of which things we know little, of which we know more, and of which we know nothing, that we can grow and learn. My hero, Richard Feynman once said
I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which 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 in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
This is why he is my hero, not for his Nobel Prize winning theories, not for his physics lectures (which I own and love), but for his common sense. His simple attitude of trying to figure out this puzzle called reality, not caring for anything more than that, here is another quote from him
People say to me, "Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" No, I'm not... If it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it — that would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers... then that's the way it is. But either way there's Nature and she's going to come out the way She is. So therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn't predecide what it is we're looking for only to find out more about it. Now you ask: "Why do you try to find out more about it?" If you began your investigation to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong. It may be that you can't get an answer to that particular question just by finding out more about the character of Nature. But that's not my interest in science; my interest in science is to simply find out about the world and the more I find out the better it is, I like to find out...
We must not forget how young we are as a species, and how new we are to this. Looking back through time to get a good picture of who we are can sometimes make us forget to look to the future and see who we will become. We are not the final result of evolution; we are a by-product on the way to other better and more intelligent by-products. We may know a lot compared to any other species we are aware of, but there are many species yet to come and they will build off our knowledge and will know so much more. We have discovered science a mere few hundred years ago; we have only begun this true quest for knowledge.
Compared to what is out there we might know very little, however we have accomplished a lot in very few years since the scientific method has become commonplace. We have mastered chemistry, electricity, and even some of the nuclear forces. We have discovered relativity and quantum theory. We have the standard model of elementary particles. We understand biology from humans and elephants down to plankton, bacteria, and viruses. We have mapped the genome. We have discovered how species evolve. We have made advances in medicine, increased the human life expectancy, and decreased infant mortality. We can make artificial body parts, we can help the deaf hear, and the lame walk. We are making serious headway in our understanding of how the brain works. We have invented the car and the plane. WE CAN FLY! How amazing is that? We have gone to space, walked on our moon, and sent spaceships out of our little solar system. We have instruments that can see all the light that our blind eyes cannot, from radio to gamma rays. We have discovered black holes. We know the history of our solar system and to some degree of accuracy we know its future. We have invented the telephone and the computer and now we have them both in one in our cell phones. We have the internet, which allows the entire species communicate with one another (unless your mullah or rav banned it) and we all have access to all the collective knowledge of our species. We can compute on atoms. We have teleported. We can make our own atoms.
We have accomplished a lot in these few years, yet accomplished almost nothing in comparison to what we can and will accomplish.