Exercising Humility: What We Don’t Know

Over the millennium, humanity has amassed an enormous knowledge and an incredible understanding of world.Starting with a simple thing like discovering how to chip a rock to make a tool, we have advanced our learning so today we have sciences, arts, humanities, engineering, theology, production management and on and on.While lesser animals rely on strength, or physical dexterity, or speed, or instinct, or at times cunning and simple intelligence, humanity relies on its deep, rich and multi-layered store house of knowledge, and our ability to expand, deepen and utilize that knowledge.But if we look at what we know, and compare that to what still remains to uncover, how far along are we? How much don’t we know, that is left to find out?I would and will argue that enormous amounts remain to discover. In fact, amounts so enormous that we should display, and should feel compelled to show, significant humility about the scope of our knowledge, and how much could remain to know.So what don’t we know? What are key and significant gaps in our understanding? Let’s examine that. But to start, a definition of “know” is in order.Pragmatic Approach: Criteria for Mankind KnowingFor our criteria, we will gently side step the couple thousand years of philosophical debate on “knowing”, and turn to a pragmatic definition. For this discussion, mankind will know something when 1) widespread concurrence exists about that something’s features, structures and mechanisms and 2) significant understanding exists on how that something comes about, how it operates and what impact and uses it has.As an example, humanity knows about steel. We know its chemical composition, its properties, how to make it, and how to use it in buildings, vehicles and machines. Every day, in dozens and hundreds of interactions and activities, humanity demonstrates that at a practical and pragmatic level, we possess a working knowledge of steel.As a counter example – and this will be our first major unknown – humanity does not understand spatial singularities. No consensus exists about their properties, what structure they have, and how they function. We have theories, but they stand now as incomplete and unverified.So let’s turn to the critical unknowns, starting with spatial singularities.SingularitiesBlack holes. Though not an object of serious study, or even any study, a century ago, these objects now garner intense and spirited focus. A black hole, of course, contains matter so dense that no object inside its grasp – i.e. inside its event horizon – can escape.Big Bang. Though not even conceived a century ago, the Big Bang now reigns as the prevailing theory for the origin of our universe. The theory postulates that our actuality emerged from an incredibly hot, dense state that expanded not into space, but created space itself as it expanded.What underlies, and bedevils, both these astronomical phenomena? Singularities. A singularity represents a “location” in space where density becomes infinite. And that leaves us in a bind. General relativity, the reigning theory on gravity, allows the mass in a singularity to collapse to a conceptually incomprehensible size of nothing. And quantum mechanics, the reigning theory of matter, can not handle gravity at the strength present in singularities.And that underscores the issue – we don’t understand singularities. Our best current theories lack equations to describe them, and conceptually we lack a consistent vision or image of what happens inside them. Now we do have understandings (some) of black holes that surround singularities and of the Big Bang after its postulated emergence from a singularity, but the actual entity itself – the singularity – we have only tentative approaches at explanation, none confirmed.Now does this matter? Steel matters – we build things from it. But we don’t use singularities for much. A singularity appears to be just that, a singular outlier within the general span of physical existence.But accounting for that peculiarity, that outlier, may involve significant revisions in mainline theories in physics. And singularities do not stand alone in putting stress on the current physics paradigms. Dark matter, dark energy, the fine-tuned nature of physical constants – these phenomena also represent nagging outliers, not yet incorporated in our theories.In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, physics underwent a conceptual “revolution” as theories emerged on relativity, quantum theory, the structure of atomic particles and the like. Singularities, and its brethren outliers, could trigger a similar upending. And while we might not use singularities themselves in our technology, the altered theories of physics that explain singularities could be, likely will be, useful, even revolutionary, in terms of scientific and practical impacts.ConsciousnessWe are aware of our world, and aware of our desires, and aware that we are aware. Compared to just about anything, we are sure of our awareness and consciousness. It is with us all the time, and in fact in some sense is us.But what is it, and how does it occur? One can envision physically following light entering the eye and measuring the chain of neurons that fire in the brain. But in those measurements of wavelength, and ions, and voltages, where is consciousness? Where is the sensation of red, for example? And that so far stands as a stumbling block. Your consciousness – your experience of red, or joy, or desire to climb Mr. Everest – your consciousness is decidedly a first person experience. No third-person measurement can yet be done that allows others to partake in your experience.Consider computers. We can program them for monstrously complex calculations. But we can not program them to be conscious. Consider a bat. We understand how it uses sound echoes for location and flight, but we have essentially no concept of what the bat experiences as it uses echo-location. Consider someone without sight. They can study the physical processes of vision, but no amount of study provides them the experience of sight. Similarly no amount of explanation allows the sighted to experience the mental mappings of sound, smell and touch the sightless use to navigate the world.This ephemeral nature of consciousness, this inability to measure it objectively, this sense that consciousness floats out there not a physical thing, these features have rendered – and continue to render – consciousness an enigma. While we each individually can sense our own consciousness, collectively we have not yet built a common theory for what it is, what causes it, and how to detect, measure, fix, alter or augment it.But what significance lies in this lack of understanding? After all, our lack of understanding of consciousness in no way prevents each of us from having consciousness.But imagine a bit. Imagine if by understanding consciousness we could build a collective consciousness, in a beneficial and moral manner, so that we could share not just words, but the basic qualia of feeling. If individuals could feel each other’s feelings, individuals might, most likely would, become more caring, more ethical, more humane.Image if computers could be conscious. Certainly we face great philosophical and practical concerns with granting machines consciousness, but again let’s project mankind could and would execute this in a beneficial, ethical and controllable manner. With computers as conscious allies (think of Data on Star Trek), humanity might benefit.Image if computers gain consciousness on their own, independent of humans. An understanding of consciousness would help in managing such a scenario.Even on a more near-term and pragmatic level, an evolving understanding of consciousness would help us understand ourselves, assist in mental illness and wellness, and satisfy a curiosity about what makes us work and what makes mankind unique.The Initiation of LifeOn our world, life flourishes in abundance. Plants, insects, sea creatures, land animals, bacteria, mankind, and more and more, thrive in every possible location on Earth.And we understand significant parts of this life. We have identified cellular mechanisms and metabolic processes and evolutionary chains and reproductive systems, to touch on just part of our knowledge.But we do have a piece that by and large remains elusive – how this all started. Certainly comprehensive theories exist, and certainly experiments demonstrate that complex organic compounds arise from simple compounds, under favorable conditions. But unlike steel, or bridges, or legislation, or regulations, items we can in practice produce, for good or bad, no understanding exists on how to produce life from non-life.Basic questions such as the role of asteroids, the possibility of imported organics from other planets, the conditions present on Earth during various formative eras, and whether several strains of different types of life (not using DNA/RNA for example) emerged, remain only partially answered.Again, what is the practical significance? Life exists, in abundance. Our lack of understanding on its initiation does not diminish, alter or impact the current cornucopia of life in existence now. Might this just be a nice to know?Possibly. But understanding how life started, and by extension how to initiate life, likely will garner major practical benefits. Understanding how to generate life could provide new foods, new fuels, new medicines, and other possibilities not even imagined.On a larger level, understanding how life starts would provide a sense of how rare or not rare life is. We have a deep curiosity about that. Understanding the mechanisms of life’s initiation would satisfy that curiosity, and by extension would impact our theological and metaphysical tenets. If life is hard to come by, that has one set of implications, and if not, another, likely a profoundly different set of implications.The Future of the Human FormSince the dawn of culture, humanity has altered its living condition with its intelligence and technology. Clothes, crops, buildings, machines, medicines, electronics, vehicles, energy production, all represent ways in which mankind has used its resources and expertise to ease and improve its life and living condition.But the human form has remained basically unaltered. Our key body components – bones, muscles, organs – do not differ substantially in location, function or configuration from humans living six, or sixty, or even six hundred millennia earlier. We still eat animal and plant life. We still give live birth. Our life expectancy, though longer, still measures decades, not centuries. Despite medicines, we still succumb to disease and infirmity. We retain the benefit, but also the limitation, of five senses. Our brain enables language, but still not telepathy. We can envision the future, but still can not perform calculations in our head with more than a handful of numbers to a handful of significant digits.We stand now at a cusp. We are entering an era where technological advances will enable alteration of the human form. Mankind has never possessed that capability.And we don’t know the outcome of our use of that capability.We could alter the human form through genetic engineering. We could augment our bodies with electro-mechanical implants and additions. We could advance our intelligence through integration of electronics. We could transfer our essence into a virtual world. We could even, not likely but possible, discover other intelligent life, and through that discovery in some unforeseen way leverage that to alter our human form.Mankind could emerge in a form from science fiction, or as something beyond anything we can imagine, or maybe not so dramatic but significantly smarter, stronger and longer lived.Multiple paths exist. But we don’t know which one, or ones, we will, or even will be able to, follow. I would say we don’t even have forecasts, or even approximations.As before, how does this concern us now? These possibilities remain unachievable for today, or even for a generation, or several generations.These concern us now because the research on these possibilities has started now, or will start soon. To the degree these possibilities raise ethical or cultural questions, those questions need consideration now. For example, if we develop mental augments, will the cost make the augments only available to the wealthy?When these developments do emerge, they of course could, likely will, radically transform humanity. The possibilities boggle the mind. In ten thousand years, will we need sex for reproduction? Will we be more silicon than carbon? Will we have lives that extend centuries? Will we have direct mind-to-mind communication?And though these possibilities only exist for now as concepts, or subjects of research, the possibilities and technologies behind them have achieved a certain critical mass. They are likely enough we must include them in our discussion. The great religions and philosophies of the world prescribe life styles and actions to achieve salvation or attain fulfillment or gain eternal existence. In view of the potential for mankind to control its basic form, and possibly attain these otherwise supernatural goals via technology, do we need to fundamentally reinterpret those religious and philosophical prescriptions? Or maybe even discard them?The Nature of the SpiritualBillions of individuals hold to a faith in a reality and order beyond that which we experience. The great religions and spiritual philosophies – Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, among others – teach of Gods and existences beyond our daily actuality.But despite the span and depth of these teachings, does humanity “know” the nature of those transcendental realms? Do we share a common vision of their essence and workings? We must answer no – we do not share a common objective view of the spiritual.When a mother gives birth, we witness an almost miraculous, and certainly glorious, occurrence. But despite any wonder, we all see and hear the same event, and all agree that a new child has arrived. When a natural disaster occurs, though tragic and unfortunate, all can see and witness the devastation. Every day, uncountable common experiences occur in our actuality which people know and agree on in common.Despite faith, and revelations, and spiritual texts, and inner spiritual feelings, and miracles, that is not the case for the spiritual. This does not claim the spiritual does not exist. Very simply, to the degree it exists, humanity does not have what would count as knowledge of it, as defined here.This lack of a common vision stems from more than just the different perspectives of differing religions and philosophies. With the spiritual, we encounter, individually and collectively, a conceptual barrier. Current dogmas envision God as infinite, timeliness, unbounded and describe our spiritual realm as transcendent and eternal. Mankind, in contrast, is temporally bound, physically-constrained, finite, limited. Mankind thus lacks the required experiences and intellectual framework to visualize a supreme being and a supernatural dominion as they actually are. To draw an analogy, for us to understand the spiritual parallels in difficulty to that of having a butterfly understand a space ship.Again, as before, what is the issue? The great religions continue on, and the peoples of the world continue in their faith, knowing and accepting that the spiritual involves great mystery and many unknowns.However, religions and philosophies, almost by definition, strive for the truth. So for the religions and philosophies, there is an issue. Though they realize that a true understanding of the spiritual likely lies beyond world-bound humanity, they still endeavor by their very nature for as deep and broad a vision of the spiritual as achievable.And organized religion is not without stress. For many individuals, modern science and secular culture provide for a more logical belief system. For them, God and the spiritual become unnecessary, non-existent. And while some, even many, secular adherents exhibit a bias against religion, individuals can come to a non-God belief conscientiously, after evenhanded reflection and deep thought.The issue of the unknowability of the spiritual thus presents a pragmatic issue. In the face of secular belief systems, how do religions present a compelling and holistic vision, when fundamental parts of that vision reach into the unassailable spiritual realm? This challenge will grow, since the depth and breadth of purely secular views expand daily. While some may not have concern if religion dwindles, religion has and in the future will likely play a critical role in culture, and may hold important pieces of the truth.Other UnknownsOther serious philosophical and scientific unknowns exist:
Do we possess free will?
Why did the universe being with such low entropy?
How do we interpret quantum mechanics?
Does other intelligent life exist?
Is time real?
Type these items into a search engine, and the results will show a diversity of answers, and none a definitive answer.The ImplicationsLet’s summarize then, starkly, what remains unknown.Lacking an understanding of singularities, we don’t know how existence started. Lacking an understanding of consciousness, we can’t explain the core of our essence. Looking into the past, we don’t know how life started. Looking into the future, we don’t know what we will become. Looking above, we have no firm grasp on the supernatural.We don’t know if we make free choices. We don’t know why we benefited from an astounding orderly, low entropy universe. We don’t have a metaphysical grasp of the quantum stuff of which everything consists. We don’t know if we are alone in the universe. And we remain uncertain about the nature of this river called time.Thus we don’t know a good many fairly fundamental things – actually we don’t know a great many fundamental things.Now, no doubt, while fundamental, these unknowns do not act as showstoppers, certainly not on a pragmatic level. Even with these unknowns, what we do know allows us, day-in-and-day out, to produce steel, grow food, run governments, generate electricity, and otherwise perform the hundreds of daily activities needed to support a world of billions.So while we can’t answer the big questions, we successfully answer the little questions. What’s the issue then?We have several, then.Though day-to-day our knowledge sustains billions, few would argue the current world condition is perfect, or even much better than minimally satisfactory. Thus, room for improvement exists, much, much room, and thus at a practical level, answers to the big questions would most likely provide insights to do the daily activities better.Further, I might argue that our ability to perform the hundreds of daily activities for survival rests on a knife edge. Certainly even without answering the big questions, mankind will (likely) continue to advance. But incremental technological improvements may not prove sufficient to keep mankind from slipping on that knife edge. New fundamental knowledge will likely prove crucial for mankind to progress on a less tenuous basis.Then we face the more ephemeral, but nonetheless troubling and potentially dangerous, issue of conflicting worldviews. A worldview, to review, embodies the core beliefs with which an individual or collection of individuals, filters, interprets and organizes events and objects.And different worldviews exist, no doubt. Differences exist on the reality of a deity, on optimism on mankind’s future, on an individual’s continuation after death.For the most part, individuals respect and tolerate these differences.But in important ways we don’t. We can be vehement, intolerant, condescending, belittling, and otherwise arrogant towards worldviews we judge uninformed or inferior to our own. Even without reference to the worldview of others, we can be oblivious, or complacent, or close-minded about our own world views.At the extreme, we can go to conflict, verbally and physically, to the point of death and war, over differences.But if so many questions, not just trivial questions, but fundamental questions, stand as unanswered, can we be so content and sure in any world view to look down on the worldview of others as ignorant? If so much remains unknown, how can we “know” that our way of looking at the world is so correct to disdain others?I would answer we can’t, we can’t be sure, and we can’t know. With so many fundamental unknowns, our worldviews are tentative, provisional.What does this imply? This implies that we should have humility. And understanding. And patience. And openness. As deeply held, and deeply considered, as our world view might be, others hold to equally considered worldviews. Neither they nor we can definitively “prove” our world view correct, since the correctness of a world view almost certainly depends on the answers to the fundamental questions covered here. And we don’t know those answers.We thus should maintain wonder and curiosity. The tentative nature of our knowledge, and thus our worldviews, requires we look less sideways to compete or defeat other world views, and look more forward and outward with wonder and curiosity to improve our own world view.

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