Some Questions and Answers
A: No one knows. Roughly two trillion galaxies in our universe, we guess, most of it mysterious dark matter. One hundred thousand million blazing hot stars in the Milky Way alone. After 13.8 billion years, our cosmos is still swelling, redshifting. Why? No one knows, not really.
Q: What, then?
A: Just that: we know almost nothing. Start with that. Let’s say that you — you personally — come into possession of everything that human beings have learned over the past 200,000 years. All the science, all the philosophy, every tool and technique that human beings have ever devised. Measured against what you don’t know, it’s a mere thimbleful of water dipped from one out of a million million oceans.
We know almost nothing, okay?
Q: So how … ?
A: I don’t know, of course, but here’s a thought. We could choose to see it as liberating. Imagine, after all, the crushing weight of omniscience. Being in possession of perfect knowledge, we would always know the full consequences of our every action. Do you really want to be able to trace the causal connection between your joy and another person’s despair, between your pleasure and another person’s agony? Honestly, we should be relieved to let it go, this delusion that we know anything much about anything at all.
Q: But what … ?
A: I’m not convinced that anything needs to take its place. We know only that we know nothing, as Socrates used to say. And if that’s not enough for you, think of it this way. Suppose you dedicate your life to increasing by an infinitesimal amount the ludicrously small store of human knowledge. Let’s say you discover something about the microbiota of the human gut. More than 10,000 microbial species inhabit the human body, after all, and they comprise more than half of its total number of cells. Let’s say you learn something new and important about, oh, Streptococcus thermophilus. Well done, you! Only 9,999 bacteria, archaea, fungi, protists, and viruses, comprising 10-100 trillion symbiotic cells in every person’s body, to go! Not to mention the immensely complex interaction both among all these microbial organisms and between those microbiota and the rest of the human ecosystem.
Q: Are you … ?
A: Of course not. May your achievement be celebrated! May it be heralded by one and all! Still, let’s not get carried away. Let’s strive for a proper perspective, shall we?
Q: I …
A: Sure, sure. But stop and think.
Q: Okay …
A: You see where I’m going with this.
Q: Well, actually …
A: It’s not so much what we know that gets us into trouble, but what we think we know.
Q: You …
A: No, not really. I’m as admiring of human ingenuity as the next person. I’d certainly rather have air conditioning, antibiotics, and Netflix than not have them. And if evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker is right that we’re less murderous than we used to be, I’m happy about that, too. Well done, us.
No, what I’m getting at is something different. Here, let’s try a parable.
On a desert island is a lone castaway. He stands at the edge of the surf, shades his eyes, and looks out, out past the glassy breakers, past the spumous reef to the distant horizon, where a tiny cloud bank marks the location of another such island. That island, though he can’t know this, is home to its own castaway, and when she stands at the edge of the surf and looks out, she too sees a tiny cloud bank, below which paces yet another unseen castaway. For upon this shining sea there is a far-flung archipelago of isles, atolls, cays, all of them ringed with the whitest sand, and on them are solitary individuals living out the days of their lives. Day after day after day after day. For the castaways, these individual islands are worlds unto themselves — every square inch of each one intimately familiar to its inhabitant, its secrets long since revealed. See those little birds flitting from branch to rock and back again? Their beaks shaped just so? They are simply those little birds, the way those little birds look, right down to the precise curve of their beaks. Each island a world unto itself: bounded, complete, graspable.