What do We Really Know?

There are people who believe that we are close to having a grip on knowing how everything works. I’m not one of them, though I admit the idea is attractive to my rationalist side.

I think I heard the death bells knelling for this idea when I read that the universe is currently thought to be composed of:

74% Dark Energy
22% Dark Matter


4% is the stuff we know about, like matter & normal energy

No too many years ago, before astronomers discovered that the universe is expanding and accelerating rather than expanding and slowing, they used to think that they almost had everything tallied. And then 96% of everything got away from them. It shook my confidence, I’ll tell you.

We like to think that things are knowable and predictable and that these comforting qualities extend in all directions. But a simple look around put the lie to this notion, I’m afraid.

Take Time for instance. Flowing from the past to the future in a seemingly endless supply. But scientists tell us that they believe there was a ‘Big Bang’ that created the universe we know. But what was there before that bang? And this universe which is expanding and accelerating? They tell us that the galaxies will eventually expand so far from each other that they will not be able to see each other. And then later, the stars within our galaxy will expand away from each other into invisibility and so on until the last two molecules of Hydrogen have finally moved so far apart that light could not travel from one to the other if given an infinity of time to make the trip. What lies beyond there, I wonder? Is there a where there?

So, consider that Time was one axis then and either way we went on it, we came to the unknowable.

Size is another such axis. Here, where we are, is somewhere in the middle range of sizes. Size is an easily understood matter but if you begin to consider the largest thing we know of, the universe, you quickly come to the question, “What lies beyond the Universe?” And, if you go the other way, into the very very small, scientists tell us that they believe there is a limit called the Planck Length and that to imagine anything smaller than that is non-sense. That’s a strange idea in itself. It’s like saying, “There’s a door over there but there’s no point in opening it because there’s nothing on the other side.” It is beyond understanding in our terms.

How about that gravity, eh? If you put enough matter into a small enough space, the gravity it generates will finally get so strong that not even light can escape – we call the place where light can no longer escape, the event horizon and the phenomenon itself is called a Black Hole. When scientists try to calculate what goes on inside of Black Holes, they cannot. The laws of Physics and the math that describes those laws, as we understand them, just breakdown beyond the’ event horizon’ of a Black Hole. So, they just call the inside of a Black Hole a ‘singularity’ and agree to walk around that crater in our theories of how things work until we can figure it out.

The other day, I read an article in Scientific American entitled, “What Birds See“. I wish I could give you a link to the entire article but the SciAm folks have hidden it behind passwords. You can read the beginning if it here, however. ➡

Basically, what the article said was it is physically impossible for us to know what birds see because they see colors we will never be able to see short of a major genetic reengineering.

Birds have this capacity because they have retained color-processing cone cells in the eye that mammals lost millions of years ago. Birds, you see have four types of color-processing cones cells whereas we humans only have three (and one of those is only a late addition). They see the colors we see better than we can see them and they also see into the ultraviolet as well.

The bottom line of all this is that the simplest sparrow sitting up on the telephone line outside your house looks around at the same things you are looking at and they see it in a profundity of colors that we cannot, and will never be able to, see or imagine.

No, it is a pretty uncertain place we live in. Read any current article on human memory and you will find out how unreliable it is. Pick up any book on history and reflect a moment that it is describing just one of an infinity of stories that could be written about the period covered.

Consider that much of what goes on around us is invisible like atoms, electricity. gravity and radio signals. No one has ever seen them though we would all assert they exist.

We can both point at something and call it red but how do I know that you aren’t seeing what I’d say is green and you are just calling it red because that’s how you learned it?

Do you know when you and I taste lemon, if we are both having the same experience? I suspect people’s food preferences are based on the fact that we really do have different taste experiences when we’re eating the same things. I detest olives but my wife loves them – go figure.

Yeah, we exist in a middle ground where predictability is fairly dependable but strike off in any direction of size, speed, temperature, pressure, time, or you name it and sooner or later, you will come up against the walls of the unknown with your nose pressed against the unknowable.

And then, turn inside and consider that neither the past nor the future have any physical existence – only this moving fluid moment has tangibility and, in fact, you cannot say where it is and if you try to say when it is, it will move.

Now, really turn inside and ask yourself what is real. Is it your thoughts – those small voices that chatter all day? Meditators would say no because you can learn to quiet your thoughts – to still the chatter until silence reigns. Who is there then? Simple undifferentiated awareness. So, ask yourself again, on the inside, what is real? It would seem it is the silent awareness because it can exist without the chatter of the thoughts whereas the reverse is not true.

Some people think that the ego is just the story the thoughts tell themselves to comfort themselves against the implacable silent awareness that underlies all consciousness.

So, what do we really know?

Update: 070527

I’ve been reading an excellent debate between Andrew Sullivan and Sam Harris about religion vs. atheism which may be found here (thx Charles S.).

In line with my theme here about ‘what do we really know‘, I offer the following quote from the debate. The context is that even science – even science – that we take to be our best grip on what we might think we know can be faulted as follows:

our faith that our senses and our memories are (usually) reliable, rather than being hallucinations induced by some unknown outside source; our belief that our short-term thought processes are (usually) reliable (that is, that we are sane at all); our belief that the entire universe didn’t whisk into existence a second ago (including all of us, with a complete set of fake memories), and won’t whisk out of existence a second later; our belief that other bodies which act like ours contain conscious awarenesses like our own (and that the “intensity” with which they feel sensations and emotions can be judged by the complexity of their behavior); the belief that it is likely that a consciousness is permanently destroyed by the destruction of its physical body and will never be resurrected later in another body (that is, the only thing that makes us think murder is immoral at all).

Leave a Reply