Wednesday, August 22, 2007

On What We Think We Know

The longer I live, the more I understand about…what I don’t understand. What collective humanity doesn’t understand. About anything.

We look back to where the human race was a millennium, a century, or even a decade ago, and we are so smug about what we know. The dark ages are long gone and enlightenment has dawned. And in the unlikely event that we don’t know everything yet, we’re convinced we’re such an inherently inquisitive species, so open to new possibilities, that it’s only a matter of time before we get it.

Horse puckey! What a disappointment our species must be to the Universe! We have been given this tremendous capacity to learn, this insatiable curiosity, and yet we are scared to death of knowledge. History teaches us that, quite laudably considering the technology of the time, the human race puzzled out that the world was not flat, and that the universe did not revolve around the earth. But that same history also shows us how resistant we were to those radical heresies. They were too humbling, too frightening. We had no desire to know that our conventional wisdom could be so far off the mark, or that we were not the center of everything. Brilliant ancients who postulated such shocking departures from what everyone "knew" were mercilessly persecuted, many unto death.

What are we afraid of? Of looking foolish? Let’s face it, no matter how rock solid we are about what we think know, future generations are going to think us callow and quaintly uninformed. Afraid of losing control? Long ago, man discovered that to control knowledge is to control other humans. Religions and governments have been doing it for centuries. Who knows where we could be by now if it weren’t for those who hold back the whole race for their own selfish gain?

Space exploration and pictures from the Hubble, while fascinating, also make us grossly uncomfortable. It’s impossible to even contemplate the vastness of our known universe without feeling uselessly microscopic, and completely worthless, in the overall scheme of things. I personally have looked at pictures of space that show dozens of galaxies beyond our own unfathomably huge Milky Way, and I’m visited by a frightening sense of inward vertigo. As if I’m spinning down and down into my own insignificance, becoming smaller and smaller as I approach understanding of my smallness. I literally have to shake myself out of that reverie; if I followed it to the end, I fear I actually would disappear.

There are times when I let myself ponder the possibilities from a different angle. I ask myself, "What if we are something completely other than what we have always believed?" Maybe we are merely a vexatious parasite on the back of some immense stellar dog, whose owner is about to dose with a gigantic drop of cosmic "Advantage…"? Perhaps to another being, I am as small and insignificant as bugs are to me, and the end could very well come in the form of a giant foot crushing me to oblivion. Which is why I am not so eager, these days, to inflict that fate upon tiny creatures within my own sphere of influence.

As I contemplate these cosmic questions, ideas for several different "sub-essays" on this subject are scratching at the door. I realize I’ve begun a series. Stay tuned for the next installment (as time and brain power allow…)


  1. What's really remarkable it that we haven't done that much that's really new. Yes, we have computers, telephones and H bombs. We can do things much faster than before. But, we're still relying on discoveries our ancestors made millenia ago for our food, clothing, pots, pans, dishes, and water supplies. I think it's our historical amnesia that allows us to continue to believe that we're somehow unique in the history of the world.


  2. Great post.  I too find myself increasingly hesitant to step on insects for the same damn reason.

  3. Geez, Leez.  

    I'm not sure I agree with a single sentence.

    Great writing, though!

  4. HI ... I just left a comment on the list of what you (don't) believe about God on your other sight.  I got here via Robin (Gannet Girl) "Search the Sea" site.  Love your writing, and have added you to my "read regularly" list.  Thanks.

  5. 2nd try ... I just left comment on your list of what you (don't) believe about God on your other site.  I found you via Robin (Gannet Girl).  Love your writing, and have added you to my "read regularly" list

  6. Oh Lisa?  I think you should know my brain is officially on overload now!  Food for thought and much more than that.

    I don't squash bugs unless they are in the act of stinging me or biting me -- and even then I just try to swoosh them away.  I believe there is a pecking order and I like to believe that the next largest up from me will repay my kindness in like manner.  

    Knowledge if used to best advantage may make one look foolish at the beginning, but in the end, knowledge brings wisdom -- it's common sense I fear we lack more.

  7. I rather like contemplating the vastness of the universe and my own insignificance relative to.  It keeps me humble.  And sane.

    And I regularly step on any and all bugs, as I in turn shall be stepped on.  Que sera, sera.

  8. Jackie—Good point.  Solomon wrote “there’s nothing new  under the sun…”  For all our progress and technology, we really aren’t accomplishing anything more than finding ways to do the old stuff faster and/or better.  Like cooking, or communicating….or killing each other.

    Robin—You disagree, do you?  I know you have a lot on your plate right now, but how about arguing a point or two?

    Kathy—Exactly my point…(about the stepping on bugs thing…)

    Gigi—I suppose there might be worse ways to go ;)

    Lisa  :-]