By Roland Watson

In the last article, I described my theory of knowledge, which is that to understand something you must be part of it, and able to stand outside of it. Both perspectives are required, to give a full or complete understanding. But, since in many cases this is impossible, we are consigned to ignorance.

Understanding yourself and others

This idea has a wealth of consequences, which I will now begin to consider. The first, and certainly one of the most important, has to do with self-knowledge, and, by extension, with understanding other people. You can never step outside of yourself, or into someone else, so you can never achieve total understanding of either, of yourself, or of other people.

You can, with your imagination, attempt to project yourself outside of yourself, or into, as it has been phrased, the shoes of other people, but you will never quite get there. There will always be gaps in your knowledge, and as a result, misperceptions and misconceptions.

There's a great song by the band Everlast about this, called What it's like. It basically says that we can't know "what it's like" for different people who are having a hard time in life. "God forbid you ever had to walk a mile in his shoes, cause then you really might know what it's like to sing the blues."

What this suggests is that it is not only knowledge about what it's like for other people. There's also empathy. For example, when one of your loved ones dies, it's a tragedy - for you. But if someone else's loved ones die, it means nothing to you, not really. Not only can we not understand other people, we can't share their feelings, either.

Fixing the world

By further extension, this applies to all of the other separable components of the human experience, including all of the subsystems that are the basis of stereotypes. We can never have complete understanding of - or empathy with - the opposite sex, and different races, ethnicities and cultures.

This in turn has a huge consequence for a number of issues that I have already raised. If you cannot understand yourself, or other people, how can you purposefully change yourself or improve the world?

The implications of the unfathomability of the universe extend far beyond understanding the universe. They extend to understanding every definable part of the universe, and relating those parts to achieve harmony and equilibrium.

For instance, we saw that the basic rule of life is that actions have consequences. But given this unfathomability, as well as the effects of chaos, we can never know if our actions will have their intended consequences. The only way we can be assured that the intended consequences of our actions will have a reasonable probability of occurring, is through the exertion of will, to divert anything that might get in their way.

Institutional reform

I want to give a specific example of what all of this means. In the series on chaos I distinguished the idea of reform, or changing something is small ways, from global change. Here, I want to consider social institutions that exercise dictatorial control over some aspect of society. I said that reform - working to change them from within - will never work, because the leaders of the institutions will never willingly give up their power.

My theory of knowledge sheds additional light on this. Institutions, including the government, military, religions, schools, corporations and media, all argue that they are able to police themselves, meaning that they can correct on their own any flaws that they have or develop.

This claim is of course absurd. As I've already said, not even the police can police themselves. But, the question is, why? The answer is: since they only have the internal view, they do not accurately perceive themselves. This in turn leads them to believe that they do not need to change, nor that they are ever wrong, or too large or powerful.

An obvious example here is the world of financial services - Wall Street. Even after almost destroying the world's economy, Wall Street leaders refuse to accept blame, and amazingly argue that they need less regulation, not more.

The problem of infinity

To return to the universe, we are part of it, so we have the inside experience, and we can seek to understand it through exploring the possibilities of life, and through the study of such subjects as science and philosophy. But, we can never stand outside the universe, step away from it and then look back, and say: "Oh! That's what the universe is, as a whole. That's what its purpose is, where it came from, and why it works the way it does." Because we have only the inside view, we will never have this knowledge.

If you doubt this, one example that might change your mind is to consider the concept of infinity. The current scientific view is that the universe is infinite, in space and time, or space-time, whatever you choose to call it. However, the number of galaxies, though very, very large, is thought to be limited. For that matter, the universe itself may have a limited size, but it is thought to be expanding. The question then becomes, expanding into what? And, for all intents and purposes, this "what" is itself viewed or accepted as limitless.

What this suggests is that it is impossible for anything that occupies space and time, which experiences life as a series of events, with causes and effects, and a distinct beginning and end, to perceive anything outside space and time, anything infinite, or immortal.

Since our experience has limits, we can only imagine similar entities. We cannot conceive what a system without limitations, a system of infinity, might be like.

Also, even though there are limits to our knowledge, I in no way want to discourage speculation. That would be defeatist and, in a way, determinist. Indeed, it may be the case that we have already dreamed up the answer to everything. Of course, even if we have, we'll never know it.

The problem of god

We accept that the universe exists. Well, at least most people do. Some people believe that this is too bold a statement, and that the only thing that can be said with certainty is that we, or our thoughts, exist. Rene Descartes' famous declaration: "I think, therefore I am," says nothing about the universe.

Of course, as Bertrand Russell has pointed out, at this level of analysis the "I" is insupportable as well. Only thoughts exist, which for convenience we choose to call our own. But, whatever you think exists, the universe, you, or just thoughts, the fact is something exists, and given the way we look at things we assume that this something has to have a cause, or creator. The proof of the ant-farm analogy is that we can never know who or what this creator might be. We can call it God, but then we have to ask, who or what created God?

Interestingly, this argument, which I use to prove the durability of our ignorance, is also known as the cosmological proof of the existence of God. Viewed this way, it says that existence presupposes a creator - every subject has a predicate, which for lack of a better word we call God, even if to us, he, she or it is otherwise totally unknowable.

As an aside, this is also the basic argument for, or statement of, the philosophy of agnosticism.

The depth of ignorance

We saw that the universe is ordered, and that this order may be evidence of purpose. Unfortunately, we, as humans, will never know what, if anything, this is. This also means that we will never know if we have some larger purpose in life, including some direct link with such a universal purpose. The only thing we can conclude is that we are here, and we are alive, so our purpose must be to live. As to how we live, that is a completely different question. There is no fundamental basis for making decisions about how to live, fundamental as in verifiably true and consistent with universal and human purpose, because we have no idea of what, if any, deeper or overriding purpose we and the universe may have.

This is the central question of the philosophy of ethics. Is there, given this lack of absolutes, any basis, rational or otherwise, for deciding on standards of behavior and also, by extension, on principles and structures of social organization? Indeed, one can argue that the lack of absolutes means that there is no such thing as good, or evil.

This, then, the conceptual problem of ethics, and the many, many real life problems it causes, is yet another consequence of universal form, of its impenetrable unfathomability. There are others as well, what you might term derivative consequences, and which I will briefly describe below.

Mysticism and you

First, life is a mystery. One consequence of this is that we speculate about it, about this mystery, and the results are what is called mysticism. However, it is only speculation, and in many cases completely unfounded superstition. There's a great quote from Witold Gombrowicz about this.

"The church was no longer a church. Space had broken in, but it was a cosmic, black space and it was no longer happening on earth, or rather the earth was turning into a planet suspended in the void of the universe, the cosmos was present, we were in the center of it ... We were no longer in church, nor in this village, nor on earth, but, in accordance with reality - somewhere suspended in the cosmos with our candles and light and it was there, in infinity, that we were playing our curious games with each other, like monkeys grimacing into space."

I don't mean to be insulting, but that is a powerful metaphor.

Secondly, not only is there no absolute basis for defining good and evil, there is no such basis for assuming that we have a soul, either. The idea of an insubstantial supernatural entity, separate from but associated with our body, which survives the body's death and transmigrates to another form of existence, either a terrestrial rebirth or some other "afterlife," such as heaven or hell, or some other form of communion with the putative creator, is completely insupportable.

In other words, for all intents and purposes, we are on our own. Bob Dylan sang: "How does it feel, to be on your own, with no direction home, a complete unknown, like a rolling stone?"

The answer to this remarkable question is that it depends on how you look at it. Some people revel in our uncertainty. Others are frightened to death by it, and grab at any possibility of true knowledge, of an answer. And, of course, many people are socially conditioned to require certainty, and to believe and have faith in a particular answer.

One of the primary objectives of the University of Life is to get you to grasp this uncertainty as the tremendous opportunity that it is. Life entails great hardships, admittedly, but it is an unparalleled, actually, an unimaginable chance, as well. You should pursue, with all of your energy, all of the wonderful things and all of the incredible experience that it has to offer.

In the next article, I will examine the experience of death.

© Roland Watson 2014