Thursday, December 4, 2008


When humanity was just beginning to discover the marvellous capacities of reason and research; when in the first blush of scientific optimism – perhaps in the eighteenth century, though the Ancient Greeks had understood something of the excitement – men began to believe that every possible accomplishment was open to them, a fantasy began to form in their minds that has still not been dissipated to this day, despite many a sobering setback. This fantasy ran something like this: total knowledge of the world is really just a matter of carefully examining what is before our noses, taking what we find and carefully describing what we see. It is just a matter of carefully documenting our experience, for our experience is experience of the world as it is; our experience gives us the world, the whole world and nothing but the world; and once the documentation has been completed, we will be in a position to control what we have completely understood. The fantasy relied upon the totally unfounded belief that our experience gives us unrestricted access to every dimension and level of the world as it is, rather than mere access to a human world bearing all the hallmarks of our limitations. It further relied upon the additional totally unjustified belief that what we had thus understood would remain for ever the same and simply jump to our command like some perfectly docile slave. There are now too many growing suspicions in the minds of those scientists who think about such matters for such beliefs to be seriously maintained by anyone for much longer.
As creatures restricted in space and time, time-bound and space-bound, we can only live in a universe that we cannot, in principle, understand, in a universe in which what we understand floats, as it were, on an ocean of incomprehensibility. It is characteristic of us that we should begin arrogantly to assert that the universe came into being at some precise point in the past in a manner we do not fully understand but that created at that moment both space and time. In doing this, we deny any sense to the word ‘before’ in such a scenario, for if time and space were created at the moment of the so-called Big Bang, there was by definition no before. But only a little imagination is required to see that if time and space in our universe were created at the Big Bang, this does not mean that the Big Bang itself was not dependent upon another wider universe for its existence. We do not like the idea of positing a background universe the nature of which we cannot grasp. Yet it is worth repeating this thought: the universe we know, however well we get to know it, sits within a universe we both do not and cannot know, for most of reality is beyond the range of our experience.
This does not, of course, and should not prevent us from striving to understand everything; but it should remind us as well not to get too attached to the things we believe and claim to know. A completely comprehensible universe – and the avowed aim of science is to render the universe entirely understood – is an intolerable universe; it is a nightmare. It is a nightmare because it elevates the human intellect to the level of an absolute principle in the cosmos and thereby makes that cosmos the product of the human intellect. Since the human intellect is necessarily restricted and capable of only partial understanding we see right away just how nonsensical is the claim of the human intellect to understand all of reality. We see the folly of imagining 1) that the universe we understand is not conjured up by the intellect, but just presents itself to us as it is; and 2) that such an understood universe is identical with the real one, rather than being just one more toy universe to join the long line of such toys that have amused us since our first beginnings. The human intellect does not and cannot understand the whole of reality for the simple reason that its understanding is 1) a subfunction of that same universe and 2) directly dependent on and inseparable from its own ignorance: it is perpetual discovery in which what is to be discovered depends altogether upon what has been discovered without end; and it is perpetual discovery in the sense that perpetual discovery is merely the obverse of perpetual ignorance. There is no terminus to this process. We thrive upon local understanding and detail and we build a coherent account out of this; and this account is directly connected to our practical needs. The fantasy of total knowledge and total control arises quite naturally out of our sense of limitation and powerlessness: we think that the small victories we achieve over our environment are a promise of godlike control over the whole of reality. It is, however, about time we grew up and recognised this fantasy for what it is: an infantile dream of omnipotence. Even if we, as humans, had access to the whole of space, time and matter, we would still have only local understanding because we would be limited by our own intellect. Our limitations mean that out knowledge will be limited for all eternity.
This is a blessed relief. It is the blessed redemption of a life in a changing, ever-changing universe and the perpetual recasting of our knowledge by means of this change! The thought of a universe in which all is understood, by the human intellect, now and for ever, is simply intolerable! Those who pontificate about humanity’s reaching some final frontier of knowledge at which all would be grasped by us simply lack the imagination to conceive of the complexity of the universe upon which our known world bobs like a child’s bathroom duck on a trackless ocean.

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