WHY WE CAN'T KNOW
By Roland Watson
I closed the last article by saying that we live in an unknowable universe. The question is, why is the universe, in an essential sense, unknowable? Why are we doomed to ignorance? And, for that matter, how can I feel so confident saying this?
In addition to the scientific problems I have described, I can offer another argument in the form of an analogy. In this case, I will use as my analogy an ant-farm. In case you don't know what this is, an ant farm is simply a narrow glass box, containing sand or dirt, in which a colony of ants live.
An ant farm is a plaything for a child, kept in his or her bedroom, in the family home, in the U.S. or some other country, on the earth, in this solar system, in the galaxy that we call the Milky Way, in the universe.
In addition, the ants in the ant-farm have a complex social existence, with role definition and other aspects of cultural organization. However, they are completely ignorant of their own true circumstances, that of being a pet on a tabletop.
Of course, they are much more than this. They are insects, a species of sentient life, but, can they even appreciate that?
By definition, their ignorance cannot change. There is no possible way for them to conceive of anything even remotely related to their real existential circumstances and fate.
They will never have any knowledge of the following: a child, a pet, a plaything, a family, a home, countries, planets, solar systems, galaxies, and the universe. They will never be enlightened.
Our partial view
I am sorry to say it, but these are also our circumstances, exactly.
If you are part of a system, it is only possible to have a partial view of it, often a very partial view indeed.
This is the case with humanity, and it is the basic reason why we perceive the universe as inexplicable, and why this will never change.
You can only get a complete or absolute view of a system by stepping outside of it and considering it as a whole. And, since it is impossible for humanity to get outside the system of its existence, like ants, we are doomed to a most profound ignorance.
Of course, you might say, wait a second, we're not ants. We're better than ants. We have a consciousness, which we can use to achieve this understanding.
Well, we know almost nothing about the consciousness of ants, but that's not really the issue here.
What is real knowledge?
The issue is the nature of understanding, or knowledge, in this case knowledge of the universe or, more precisely, knowledge of the system of the universe.
We do have consciousness, but it is self-consciousness, not universal-consciousness. It is useful only to understand ourselves as part of the universe, not the universe as a whole, in and of itself.
Said another way, we can never step outside of the universe, and then look back on it as a whole. Because of this, we can never know what it really is, including what it is for.
This is in fact one of the basic reasons why religions developed, to offer an explanation - or at a minimum sympathy - for our ignorance.
For example, many religions talk about the possibility of combining after death with god, or even, with Buddhism, of combining with - of losing your separate state from - the universe, and while you are still alive.
What they are attempting to do is persuade you that you can reach universal consciousness. You are not destined to remain ignorant, at least if you do what they tell you to do.
Two types of knowledge
Actually, and as I just implied, to understand something, some system, requires two types of knowledge. The first is knowledge, by way of experience or education, from within the system.
For instance, if you want to understand America, the American social system, you have to live in the country - be a part of it - and for a long time. In this case you see the system, and how it works, from the inside.
The second requirement is to experience the system from the outside, since this enables you to see it as a totality. Again, for America, you can leave the country and, after an extended period abroad, you should be able to look back and perceive it as a whole.
This will give you new perspectives, objectivity and understanding. (Part of this will of course also come from learning what people in other countries think of it.)
The basic implication of this is that life is - in some ways - relative. What we know is directly related to who we are - what we perceive and experience.
However, there is such a thing as objective reality, the way things really are. Nonetheless, our view of it will always be personal, and because of this, limited in some ways.
For example, the degree to which you may be outside of something varies. If you are from Europe, understanding America is in a sense easier, or more complete, because many of us share a history, including a language history, as well as certain cultural practices. If you are a member of a self-contained ethnic group in a tropical rainforest, though, the U.S. will be much more difficult to understand, as will you be to most Americans.
Sometimes you are so far outside the other system that no real knowledge, or even empathy, is possible. For instance, men have no conception of what a woman experiences when she is pregnant and then gives birth. We can try to sympathize with the pain of childbirth, but we are excluded from the type of connection that a woman feels with her child.
This is actually the case with any type of creative expression. A pregnancy and birth, after all, is as an act of creation. We can never fully appreciate what others, such as artists, experience in the act of creating their art, even if we are artists ourselves.
A funny example of when you are really outside a system is trying to figure out what your cat or dog is thinking, when they stare at you.
This is my theory of knowledge. I believe it is as rich an idea as the basic rule of life that actions have consequences. It has all manner of consequences, which I will begin to explore in the next article.
Some of the consequences are so profound, though, that I only consider them fully in the fourth part of the website. There, I will examine more deeply the consequences of our fundamental ignorance, including what it implies for what we can really know about the universe and its purpose; about god; and about the meaning and purpose of life.
© Roland Watson 2014