Speak Your Mind: Life, the Universe, and Everything
One of the most common counter-argument I hear when I advocate for evidence-based decision-making is that there are some things we just don’t understand. Science doesn’t know everything and we shouldn’t give it too much power over us, lest we lose our humanity. The question at the core of this – whether or not everything is knowable – is a question debated by philosophers and scientists. In fact, NPR recently reviewed two books on the subject, each came to a different conclusion.
The first book is a posthumously-published autobiography of Martin Gardner. He wrote the popular “Mathematical Games” column for Scientific American and died last year. He thinks that some things are inherently unknowable:
Just as “there is no way to teach calculus to a chimp, or even make it understand the square root of 2,” he writes, “surely there are truths as far beyond our grasp as our grasp is beyond that of a cow.” He concedes that once upon a time humans were chimp-like and over time developed brains that cracked the “square root of 2” problem — but that doesn’t faze him. There are properties of our universe so profoundly complex that no sentient mind, no matter how enhanced, will ever understand them fully.
An alternative point of view is articulated by Patricia Churchland, a philosopher from U.C. San Diego. She hates the notion that there are things we can’t know. We’ve discovered so many things over human history. Just because the problems are getting harder doesn’t mean they are unsolvable:
“Ignorance is just ignorance,” she says. If you don’t know something that doesn’t mean you will never know it. In , she writes, “There is something smugly arrogant about thinking, ‘If I, with my great and wondrous brain, cannot imagine a solution to explain a phenomenon, then obviously the phenomenon cannot be explained at all. … What I can and cannot imagine is a psychological fact about me. It is not a deep metaphysical fact about the nature of the universe.’ ”
For centuries, she says, authority figures have argued that we will never understand germs or earthquakes or atoms or volcanoes — that even to try was to trespass on divine territory. But we trespassed. We asked. We probed. And we learned. People who say we will never fathom the nature of consciousness are just doing what previous authorities did — they are choosing to hide from knowledge; they’re cowards.
I’m inclined to side with Churchland on this one. Maybe I’m being too naive and optimistic, but it seems like the limits of our knowledge would have more to do with the lifespan of the species than something inherent in the knowledge itself.
What do you think? Is everything knowable? Are there questions that science can’t answer?
Featured image credit: Lauro Roger McAllister