Thursday, July 14, 2011

On Knowing a Little Nothing About Everything

Our troll William reminds us of the well known cliché of the great and even sometimes correct physicist, Albert Einstein: "Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." In his view, religion is primitive, childish, and "nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses." Therefore, for Einstein, science without childish nonsense is entirely lame.

Could this be why he refused to eat his peas and accept the unsettling implications of quantum mechanics? Yeah, probably. If only he had practiced a less primitive and childish religion -- or maybe even understood his own -- perhaps he could have realized that complementarity and nonlocality are here to stay, irrespective of what mere physicists have to say about them. I mean, God is surely a physicist, but not only a physicist.

I think even Einstein would agree that physics can only discover truth, not invent it. And if physics arrives at a theory which renders the person who affirms it an illusion, well, so much the worse for the theory. Back to the drawing board.

As we said at the conclusion of yesterday's post, God will wait for the prodigal scientist. What did Robert Jastrow say? "For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountain of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries."

Now, what is so interesting about this is that, at the top of that mountain, man doesn't discover an equation, or a singularity, or subatomic particle. Rather, what he discovers is another... face? Jesus Christ!


We'll get back to this provocative idea later, but let's just stipulate at the moment that it is indeed possible to come face-to-face with reality and to graze in the mirror and recognize the phase before one was born. There I AM, just as I left him!

As we were saying yesterday, there is no object -- not even the teeniest tiniest ittybitty eerywhig of a torytale -- that lacks an "interior horizon" that is forever inaccessible to the cold and eager grasp of the materialist. Hate to be so antipromethean, but Way It Is.

"Even subspiritual entities are not completely bereft of this kind of protection.... There is no being that does not enjoy an interiority, however liminal and rudimentary it may be" (Balthasar, but see also Whitehead for exciting details).

The above holds true unless, I suppose, your faith in yourself is total, in which case there is literally no getting through to you, because you are entirely complete and therefore closed.

Congratulations, you unlucky bastard! You've come to the end of the lyin'. To you, we have nothing to teach. So why are you here? Might I suggest that it is because you are not even -- or especially -- fooling yourself? You're certainly not fooling us! So rejoyce, because ho ho ho Mr. Finn, you're going to be fined again! And again. And again. Until you're ready for your final exhumination.

At any rate, as we ourselves have said many times and in many ways, "what we actually experience of the world always remains an infinitesimal sector of the knowable" (ibid).

And not only! For as the "sphere of knowledge" expands, so too does the edge that shades off into the unKnown. Thus, if restricted to the horizontal plane only, it is quite accurate to say that "the more we know, the less we understand," and it is not difficult to see why this must be the case.

To playgiarize with another shopworn truism, it is possible to know more and more about less and less until we know everything about nothing, at which point we are granted tenure.

Conversely, only the Raccoon -- dues-paying or honorary, it doesn't matter -- knows a little nothing about everything. It's just how we roll, even on shabbos.

The little "nothing" we know about everything is that inaccessible essence known only to... God? But isn't it interesting that even this little "nothing" speaks to us?

In other words, as we were saying a day or two ago, in the act of knowing, there is a kind of "cosmic movement" from interior to exterior. But the moment we try to clutch at that interior, it recedes back to its private sphere, like a mirage in the desert road on the way to Vegas.

Thus, "even so-called exact science remains an approximation of the truth about the essence of matter. It is no more and no less than a never-ending attempt to woo the core of the material world, which is not directly available to sense perception" (ibid).

Rather, it is veil upon veil upon veil, just like Einstein's "primitive" religion, Judaism, says it is. Not sure if Einstein ever got to the next part, which is that the veil simultaneously conceals and reveals, which is why reality is always a reveilation.

Is this a bad thing? No, of course not, unless you think that a negligee on a Victoria's Secret model is a bad thing. Nature woos us with similarly seductive veils, and we don't mind at all. Rather, she can use us until she uses us up.

Does this mean that we are championing the romantic and irrational? Hardly. Well, sort of. Again, we can know any number of things about nature. Just not everything -- any more than one could know oneself completely. Indeed, assuming that you don't even know yourself, and that you know yourself best, what makes you think that you could completely know anything else? What are you, a machine?

Balthasar: "[R]eality, not merely by reason of some accidental circumstance, but by reason of an intrinsic necessity, must always remain richer than any cognition of it," and "the truth even of the lowest level of being contains a richness that so utterly eludes exhaustive investigation that it can continue to engage inquirers until the end of time yet never ends up as a heap of unmysterious, completely surveyable facts."

For those of us who actually enjoy science, this should be wonderful news, because it means that there is no end to the knowledge party, no matter how late one arrives. Like the burning bush, or the wine at the wedding, or the feeding of the five thousand, there's always more where that came from.

However, this cosmic fact will not be a liberating joy, but a frustrating persecution, for those who pursue science with secret pretensions to omniscience. There are always scientific party-poopers, those annoying know-it-alls who tell everyone to break it up and go home.

For such narrow-minded and snake-eyed scolds, it will be extremely disturbing to learn that God enjoys playing a little dice now and then. And history teaches that the biggest gamble of all was the creation of a bunch of big-brained Einsteins with the freedom to deny that he plays dice.

But even before that -- before mind -- comes the shocking phenomenon of Life and all it implies. For when God told the cosmos to get a life, he wasn't just serious but really yoking around with time. Time to roll 'dem bones!

To be continued....


julie said...

In other words, as we were saying a day or two ago, in the act of knowing, there is a kind of "cosmic movement" from interior to exterior. But the moment we try to clutch at that interior, it recedes back to its private sphere, like a mirage in the desert road on the way to Vegas.

Along these lines, scientists are trying to build the ultimate x-ray specs. No, they don't show your unveiled corpus, which would be bad enough; they show your unveiled emotional state (though of course, I'll wager it's not nearly as complete as they think it is), something far more intimate.

This technology has many ramifications, some good (for instance, in its applications for helping Asperger's and Autism patients), but there are some that seem rather disturbing, as well:

""We were visualising the social spaces between people," Kim says. The results were immediately telling. Take the case of "A", whose massive red dot dominated the first day. Having seen this, A appeared to do some soul-searching, because on the second day his dot had shrivelled to a faint white. By the end of the experiment, all the dots had gravitated towards more or less the same size and colour. Simply being able to see their role in a group made people behave differently, and caused the group dynamics to become more even. The entire group's emotional intelligence had increased (Physica A, vol 378, p 59)."

On the one hand, the self-awareness which seems to have come about here is probably a good thing. On the other, the fact that by the end of the experiment everyone developed a certain amount of sameness strikes me as a little disturbing. What would happen in a society if hermits were expected to be social and the naturally loquacious were expected to shut up. After all, the revelation of interactions couldn't measure their value, only their presence or absence. Maybe the big talker was a funny guy who helped people feel more comfortable; maybe the quiet one was a thinker whose silence gave him a chance to solve a problem from a different perspective than others had managed? If group dynamics become more "even," doesn't that mean the group is less dynamic - and something closer to stagnant?

Maybe I'm wrong, but the implications here bother me.

mushroom said...

For as the "sphere of knowledge" expands, so too does the edge that shades off into the unKnown.

The universe really is expanding, and, like this post, can be enjoyed inexhaustibly.

Van said...

"I think even Einstein would agree that physics can only discover truth, not invent it."

Which is that point where willian and other leftists part company with Albert.

Albert says "Drat! Snake eyes again!"

Mark said...

Great post, so many quotables. Hope you do "get back to" that provocative idea. But great post. Thanks for writing.

julie said...

As an aside, am I the only one having trouble with blogger comment pages loading today? Just curious.

William said...

Reality must always remain richer than any cognition of it. Bob conflates legend... "Like the burning bush, or the wine at the wedding, or the feeding of the five thousand" ... with reality, and further, even more baseless, conflates legend with science.

If there ever was a cognition of reality that is questionable to champion, Bob the punster will find it.

(sorry you were denied tenure, Bob)

Van said...

Wow, willian... watching your comments is like observing a colorblind member of the bomb squad selecting which wire to snip... “ 'Red'? 'Blue'? As if those silly myths have any real meaning! Lol!”.


Gagdad Bob said...

To be stupid is to believe that it is possible to take a photograph of the place about which a poet sang (DC).