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10 More Things We Can’t Comprehend
A short while ago on Listverse, a list by a different author titled ‘Top 10 Things You Can’t Know‘ was published. While interesting in its own right, it focused more on ‘confidential information’ than ‘things which literally cannot be known,’ prompting a number of comments from readers expecting the latter. This inspired me to compile my own list of knowledge which is not just held by a privileged few, but is in fact ostensibly unknowable to all of us as human beings. Some of the following items are based in science and are literally impossible to know; others describe philosophical debates that are unlikely to ever be definitively resolved. At any rate, I hope the following list serves as food for thought and a basis for debate.
Why is the universe the way it is?
As they learned more about celestial mechanics through research, astronomers in the 20th century became increasingly fascinated with the fine-tuning of the universe. All physical constants colluded to create the perfect conditions for life on Earth, so much so that the perfect calibration seemed beyond coincidence. If the laws of chemical bonding or gravity had been even slightly different to their actual values, the Earth would spiral into the sun or worse, would never have formed at all.
This is another issue divided sharply down team lines, with no evidence possible that would reconcile all thinkers. Religious thinkers and proponents of intelligent design have pointed to the exquisite balance of physical constants as proof of a divine engineer, who consciously guides the development of terrestrial life. Skeptics, meanwhile, have dismissed any wonderment with what is known as the Anthropic Principle. This principle is viewed by some as so obvious as to hardly bear stating, while others view it as disingenuous and intellectually dishonest. To summarize, the Anthropic Principle states that it is only to be expected that the universe is tuned for human life – if it weren’t, we would not be around to debate it. It could be that out of a million possible universes, only one could support human life. However, states the principle, it is a given that we would be milling around that one universe, pondering the odds of our existence but with no frame of reference.
Unfortunately, neither the claims of intelligent design nor the tenets of the Anthropic Principle lend themselves to empirical verification. As such, this is another debate that will continue unresolved through the ages.
Complete Information on a Quantum Particle.
In the regular, macroscopic world, we know intuitively how an object will react when it is acted upon. If I throw a ball straight up in the air, I expect it to slow down and then fall back to the ground in a predictable manner once gravity has acted on it. Likewise, if I throw that same ball to a partner across the yard, I inherently expect to be able to gauge its location and speed simultaneously. Indeed, for my friend preparing to catch the ball, both of these parameters need to be carefully monitored at all times, lest they end up with a concussion!
Once one enters the realm of subatomic particles, however, the Newtonian physics on which we intuitively base our lives breaks down. Many will have heard the term ‘uncertainty principle’ in relation to quantum mechanics. This principle posits that certain pairs of parameters describing a particle cannot be precisely known at the same time, not even in theory. The primary example usually given to illustrate this is the position and momentum (velocity times mass) of a particle. The explanation is steeped in mathematics but in summary, the more precisely one of these properties is measured, the more uncertain the other becomes.
While the following analogy is a loose one, this makes for an interesting hypothetical game of quantum catch-ball. As a thrown ball comes towards me, I concentrate on the speed of the ball coming towards me and as a result, lose track of where the ball is. As I try to regain focus I concentrate on its location, but now have no idea when it will reach me. As with much to do with quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle is counter intuitive, but is nevertheless based on a solid base of theory and experimentation.
What does ‘blue’ look like?
If the above question sounds nonsensical, it is because it is one which defies any kind of meaningful answer. In physics, color is defined based on the wavelengths of light reflected off an object, but this explanation fails to describe the subjective sensation of sight. One does not need even the most rudimentary physics education to recognize and differentiate between colors as they are encountered. Light from the sky enters the eye, and is then processed by the brain in milliseconds to produce an experience of ‘blue’ – one that may be unique to each of us.
Scientists label these sensory-based subjective experiences, such as sight or hearing, as qualia (singular, quale). Almost by definition, it is impossible to know if one person’s qualia are the same, similar to, or completely different from those of the person standing next to him. Who is to say that my ‘blue’ might not be your ‘green’, or vice versa? Or that our sensations of ‘sweetness’ might not differ entirely?
At first blush, one may counter by noting that we can all mostly agree on what color is which, what is a pleasant sound, and what is bitter or spicy. Indeed, that is so – but all that this requires to be true is that each of us is consistent in our own experience. From the time we are born we are educated that ‘this’ is green, ‘that’ is birdsong, and so on. How each of us perceives our qualia in our private, internal worlds is inscrutable and unknowable to anyone but ourselves.
What is my partner thinking?!
Odds are, a majority of readers who have been in a romantic relationship of any duration have had this thought multiple times. As all of us can attest to from personal experience, men and women possess differences in their psychological makeup that can baffle the opposite gender on occasion. A part of this difference is due to hormonal and physiological differences (testosterone/estrogen levels, etc.), while a large part debatably arises from social conditioning during childhood (‘Only girls cry!’ or ‘Sport is for boys!’). While it is important to note that differences between individuals are often larger than differences between the sexes, as a general rule our personalities and psychology are shaped – directly or indirectly – by our chromosomal make-up. As a result, the reason he is reluctant to discuss his day, and she insists ‘nothing’ is wrong when she is obviously upset, the other half will never truly know.
Do we have free will?
This is a debate in which every punter has their own horse, but for which no decisive conclusion will ever be reached. To explain why I feel I can make such a bold assertion, I iterate my reasoning as follows:
If we are machines – if the human mind is solely a by-product of brain chemistry – then it is invalid to suggest free will could be a possibility. As complex a system as human psychology may be, the brain is nevertheless subject to the laws of physics, with each neural action determined by past experience and current stimuli. The arguments commonly used to escape this disheartening conclusion invoke one of two wildcards: the soul, or Multiverse theory.
Existence of the soul is understandably a near universal belief amongst the religious. The soul is said to be an immutable and eternal part of our beings that is connected to God and the afterlife, and that bypasses the laws of physics. Certainly, if this is true, free will is possible in theory. But therein lies the rub: because the soul is defined as unrestrained by physical law, it is impossible for us, in our physical world, to ever prove or disprove its existence. All belief boils down to a matter of faith in either direction.
The same can most probably be said for Multiverse theory. This theory posits that every quantum interaction spawns a new universe, so that literally every single potential eventuality has or will occur in one universe, somewhere. Confined as we are to a single reality, it is hard to imagine how this theory could ever be proven. That said, even if it did turn out to be true – if one makes every possible choice simultaneously at every junction, would that be considered free will? Or would it be determination of a different bent?
What is it like to be a bat?
The above question is taken from a well-known essay by American philosopher Thomas Nagel, and is similar in many ways to the topic of qualia. The difference here is that while you and I can agree on a label for a color regardless of our subjective perception, and can agree that both our experiences arise from the same familiar construct of ‘sight,’ some life-forms have senses so alien to us that we literally cannot fathom what they would be like to possess.
On the fringe of potential human understanding is the ability of bats or dolphins to navigate via echolocation. Similar in concept to radar, these animals are able to gauge the distance to various objects by ‘bouncing’ sound waves off them and interpreting the returning signals. Some blind people, such as Daniel Kish of World Access for the Blind, have managed to develop a similar technique using cane-tapping or oral clicking. However, these people are certainly in the vast minority. To the average person, imagining what it is to be a bat is as futile activity as attempting to flap their arms and fly.
Even more foreign to the human senses is the ability of some aquatic organisms to navigate and detect prey through their disturbance of electrical fields. This ability is known as electrolocation, and even the Daniel Kishs of the world will have to join the rest of humanity in failing to grasp what such a trait would feel like to possess. This list is hardly exhaustive – even some senses that are extensions of ours, such as a dog’s wide hearing range or a snake’s ability to detect infrared radiation, are conceptually difficult to contemplate.
What is the perfect system of government?
For as long as human civilization has existed, government has been necessary for the maintenance of civil order and organized distribution of resources. Every civilization has developed its own codes of law and society. However, history stands testament to the fact that the ideal system of government has never been realized.
Philosophical rumination on the ideal society has a long history. Among the most famous examples of this are works such as Plato’s The Republic and Thomas Moore’s Utopia, the latter of which has been co-opted into modern English as the very definition of a perfect state. While visionary for their time, however, neither society portrayed by these authors would be viewed as ideal in this day and age. For example, both employed slavery or indentured servitude in the workings of commerce, which would not be compatible with modern liberal sensitivities. Plato’s republic was also based on population sizes which would be considered rural today (generally accepted to be under ten thousand). This goes to show both that great thinkers have failed to solve the question to hand, and also that shifting cultural mores over time may render any given system obsolete over time.
In the last century, fascism and communism have been widely reviled in liberal nations for their oppressive implementation and economic repression. Certainly, there is much wrong with these systems. That stated, while it has become largely taboo in the West to speak out against democracy in any capacity, it must be said that it is not by any means a perfect system. Allowing open voting to all citizens is certainly the most egalitarian approach possible; however, by permitting citizens to cast a vote on issues on which they may be entirely ignorant, the decision making process cannot be optimal. Further, this leads to a corruption of the election process. Often a charming candidate can win office on charisma alone, with a majority of voters incapable of or unwilling to consider the actual issues under debate.
Of course, the fact that democracy is partially lacking is entirely the point of this entry. As stated by Winston Churchill in a 1947 House of Commons address: ‘Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.’
What does ET look like?
If there is sentient life out there in the stars – and based on the sheer size of the cosmos, it is at least a real possibility – what does it look like? I would contend that it is impossible for us to truly envision what an alien race would look and act like, as it is entirely out of our scope of experience. All life on Earth is practically identical when compared to the vast range of life allowed by the laws of biology and chemistry. Most vertebrates, for example, share the majority of functional organs and morphology (head, torso, eyes, legs, heart, lungs and so on). Even plant life and animal life is surprisingly similar – many readers will have heard the factoid that humans share 50% or more of their DNA with carrots and bananas.
Looking to entertainment media for film and TV makers’ visions of aliens, a strong bias towards anthropomorphisation of aliens is evident. While budget is doubtless a factor in earlier science fiction shows (such as the original Star Trek series), the trend continues to the modern day even where directors have much larger budgets and CGI at their disposal (a prominent recent example would be James Cameron’s Avatar). Even where aliens are presented as exotic and frightening (Predator, Alien), the creatures in question share many features in common with terrestrial insects or other predatory species.
While some portrayals of alien life are certainly more imaginative than others, at the end of the day even our most creative storywriters have only their experiences to draw on in describing new worlds. If and when first contact with ET is finally made, it is uncertain that we will even be able to recognize a totally alien life form, let alone communicate with it. Whatever one’s thoughts on the topic, it is a safe wager that ET will turn out to be much more exotic than anybody could have imagined.
What is evil?
At first glance this question might seem out of place. After all, as humans we all have an intuitive gut feeling for good and evil. However, once you begin to analyze more deeply, the threads of logic begin to unfurl.
The most conservative definition of ‘evil’ would be ‘to willingly and habitually inflict pain and harm on others, for no necessary reward other than their suffering.’ This definition would fit the common perception of the Christian devil, so would appear to be appropriate. However, by this narrow definition some of history’s greatest villains would not be classed as evil. Adolf Hitler, for example, encouraged and organized the persecution of Jews with no regard to their human dignity. However, their torture was not its own goal; his goals were forward-looking and based on a misguided notion of racial purity and patriotism. Certainly he would not have considered himself to be evil.
Would we be happy then with relieving Hitler of his ‘evil’ status? I am sure most readers would emphatically say no. In that case, how do we widen the definition of evil to encompass people such as him? ‘To pursue one’s goals with no regard to the welfare or dignity of others’? Not quite – Hitler doubtless had due concern for the happiness of those German citizens he chose to recognize. So then, ‘to willingly hurt innocent parties in the pursuit of a goal?’ Once the definition has been widened this far, many upstanding military commanders who were heroes of their nations become suspect.
Without going further down the rabbit hole here, I hope the above serves to show that evil can likely never be satisfactorily defined. We know that people like Hitler are evil – we just do – but attempting to explain that conviction leads to confusion.
Is there an afterlife?
The ultimate item I assume many would be expecting from a list such as this is the question, ‘Does God exist?’ I have chosen to avoid that question, for the reason that ‘God’ is too abstract a concept to present in blanket terms. For example, even the most ardent atheist would profess a belief in the Big Bang. If I decided to label the events which created the Big Bang as ‘God,’ my non-believing friend would now be a theist by trick of definition.
Instead, I pose the question of whether there is a spiritual life after death; this includes the Heaven professed by monotheistic religions such as Christianity or Islam, as well as reincarnation and other such beliefs held by Eastern religions.
The question of an afterlife has vexed philosophers and laymen alike since the dawn of time, and we are no closer to an answer today than were our ancestors. On the one hand, it is human nature to question the meaning of life and ponder its continued existence once we shuffle off our mortal coils. A life that ends with mortal death is seen by many to be bleak and meaningless, and belief in an afterlife is the only thing that sustains them. However, desire aside, unless the deceased begin returning to us from beyond the grave to openly and unambiguously document their experiences, it will be impossible to definitively prove the existence of an afterlife.
Believers in the paranormal and Near Death Experiences (NDEs) may protest, and certainly many intelligent people belong to this category. However, mainstream science is yet to recognize the former phenomenon, and the latter is mostly believed by the scientific community to be symptomatic of a distressed brain shutting down near death. With opinion divided down two irreconcilable paths and no consensus in sight, it is safe to say that mankind as a whole is no closer to answering the question: ‘what happens to me when I die?’