Human advancement is inexorably linked to the progress of human thinking.
What we have come to know and believe has been subject to multiple influences.
In the West, prior to the seventeenth century, most people, the philosophers included, believed that there were only two prime sources of knowledge, viz.
- To relearn the wisdom of the ancients, or
- To glean from the scriptures the innate knowledge of God.
There was a pervasive belief, true to a limited degree, that there had been a “golden age” where philosophers knew much more about the world than was currently the case. It seemed that knowledge would be progressed by regaining the learnings of such venerable ancients as Galen, Ptolemy and Aristotle. Thus knowledge was not so much discovered but recovered from the understanding of the sages from the past.
As well, there was a pervasive belief, sometimes reinforced forcibly by the church, that the gospels were the literal word of God and could be mined and interpreted to improve knowledge.
However, the English philosopher and Franciscan friar, Roger Bacon began to believe that the natural world could be profitably studied by empirical methods, thus making “new” discoveries to contribute to human knowledge. This led to a much more proactive approach to the acquisition of human knowledge and paved the way for what we have become to know as the “scientific method”.
Prior to the development of the scientific method in the early part of the seventeenth century, it seemed legitimate to consider with equal weight opinions and observations whether derived from religion, alchemy, magic and folklore or more objective sources. Although not articulating the approach, scientific method was used by Kepler, Galileo, and more latterly by Boyle and Newton. In this way science was opened up to broader and more reliably informed discovery. And thus the Age of Discovery was unleashed which culminated in the industrial revolution and the advancements in science that propelled the economic growth of Western societies and improved the standard of living of their inhabitants.
But even though knowledge rapidly advanced under these conditions, the more astute began to perceive that there were still limits to what could be known.
The first hurdle to human understanding is a psychological one, well-articulated by Thomas S Kuhn in his seminal book The Structures of Scientific Revolutions. We each have a vested interest in what we have come to believe. As a result we seek out evidence to confirm our particular world-view and tend to ignore or discount (often unconsciously) data which might contradict our favoured viewpoints. Kuhn pointed out that scientific paradigms are usually only challenged when it becomes impossible to ignore the conflicting evidence. Some believers will resort to undue efforts to support the current paradigm, with theoretical elaborations and complexities.
Of course before the seventeenth century there was additional pressure to align scientific theories with gospel observations. Most would be familiar with the struggle to establish the heliocentric nature of our solar system in the face of biblical references that asserted the sun revolved around the earth. This theory was first proposed by Johannes Kepler. The development of the telescope by Galileo offered supporting evidence. But this flew in the face of Catholic orthodoxy and Galileo was placed under house arrest and forced to recant. (Interestingly, despite huge amounts of evidence accumulating supporting Galileo, it took the Vatican a further three and a half centuries to concede the Church had erred!)This was a classic case of Kuhn’s conjecture that evidence must be discounted that threatened the dominant paradigm.
This effect is still pervasive today. When an academic writes a learned paper and seeks to have it peer reviewed, more than likely the academic will seek out those who share their particular paradigm to critique the work. If, for example I am a believer in the catastrophic effects of climate change and I write a paper on climate change, I will normally have the paper reviewed by those who share my point of view. And of course those who are sceptical about the effects of climate change will be certain to have their work reviewed by those of similar beliefs. It is illustrative of that famous saying by. Anais Nin that “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.
But there are other impediments to the expansion of knowledge. One of these is the effect that the observer has on the observed. Any act of observation of the physical world causes an act of interference however small. Traditionally, for example, if I were to try to measure the current flowing in an electrical circuit the current measuring device (an ammeter) adds additional impedance into the circuit thus slightly reducing the current flow in the act of trying to measure it. If I try to measure the air pressure in a tyre, the pressure gauge bleeds off a little air into it, thus slightly reducing the tyre pressure.
The most acute case of this effect is encountered in quantum physics. Quantum physicists showed that when viewing phenomena at the very basic level, such phenomena can only be properly represented in a statistical way. If, for example we were trying to calculate the position of an electron in the “shell” of an atom we cannot define in absolute terms where the electron is located but only express it in terms of a probability function. But when we take steps to detect the electron we find we can observe its position. It is as though the act of observation collapses the probability function to a definite outcome.
In a very real way the observer is again effecting the observed. In some sense, (particularly at the level of the quanta,) the observer is helping to create the reality he/she perceives.
Finally, we must also understand that full knowledge of the universe will never be accessible to us.
The first indication of this limitation in physics was probably Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. Again this is a rule of Quantum physics which in its simplest form tells us we can never know both the position and the momentum of a fundamental particle. Once you have determined position, the momentum of the particle is unable to be determined. Alternatively if we know the particle’s momentum we are unable to determine its position.
In mathematics Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem has a similar outcome. Without going into its complexities, Godel showed that in mathematics if we wish our theory to cover all axiomatic formulations of number theory there will be some undecidable propositions. If on the other hand we wish to be sure of our outcomes our theory cannot cover all propositions. That is we can either have a theory which is complete but with unprovable theorems or we can be sure of all the mathematical outcomes but only at the expense of being limited in application.
(A rough translation of Godel’s Theorem states “All consistent, axiomatic formulations of number theory contain undecidable propositions.”)
[If uncertainty is prevalent in physical systems, imagine how much more complex and therefore likely to produce uncertain outcomes, social systems are. For example Thorngate’s postulate of commensurate complexity is the description of a phenomenon in social science which maintains that research in the field of social psychology can achieve only two of the desired outcomes of generality, accuracy and simplicity at any one time.]
In this way there is substantial evidence to suggest Mankind will never have the capacity to totally understand the universe.
In very simplistic terms I have often queried how is a part able to understand the whole? And of course a human being is a seemingly rather inconsequential part of the universe. Yet, as we saw above, an individual is able to impact in a meaningful way on some of the phenomena he/she observes.
So the universe is an interactive phenomenon where we partly determine how it presents itself to us but is always inherently unknowable. So it seems to me that the universe must always hold mysteries for Mankind.
In a previous essay I wrote:
Because humanity is but one part of the universe, and it seems unlikely that a part could ever understand the whole, I suspect that we should reconcile ourselves to the fact that the universe will always hold mysteries for us. (Although I must confess there was a time when my children were teenagers, I am sure they thought they knew everything!)
Surely to aspire to omniscience is to aspire to god-like status. Further, determinism must be the natural state of an omniscient being, for whom no mysteries remain. I doubt that would be at all desirable for most of us. Imagine a life that was laid out in front of us like an undeviating road to a known destination. That doesn’t sound like a very attractive option to me.
I believe for most things I have an enquiring mind and am happy to acquire as much knowledge as I reasonably can in the subjects that interest me. But I am sure my mind, and I suspect every other human mind, does not have the capacity to acquire anything but a modest fraction of the knowledge required to completely understand the universe. And even if we were to pool all our knowledge that would not be nearly enough to accomplish that impossible task.
So, I believe I can confidently say, the universe will always provide mysteries for the human mind, with fruitful opportunities for discovery as long as it exists. And this is no small thing. I certainly prefer this option than a universe devoid of its innate mystery and wonder