Who knows?


No one knows.

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing. -Socrates

Its a phenomenon that not many want to admit, and those that do are infinity steps ahead of those who think they know. True, it is a hard thing to admit that you are a tiny globule of experience in something as wise and grandiose as the world (and atom and virus and garden patch and ocean and solar system and mily way and universe and beyond). However hard it may be for different individuals to make that humiliating admission of puny fragility, once accepted it becomes possible to figure things out. I just wanted to discuss briefly how important it is to admit how little you really know.

It’s Science

Merriam-Webster dictionary defines science as:

The state of knowing

Taking it a step deeper:

a : Knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method

b : Such knowledge or such a system of knowledge concerned with the physical world and its phenomena

Since we were children, we have been exposed to the scientific method. This is the most widely accepted methodology to gain knowledge. Let’s explore the scientific method for a moment.

The scientific method is a logical, rational and methodical approach to answering a question or solving a proposed problem. The scientific method starts by asking a question that needs to be solved. After a question is posed, the method for solving is as follows:

  1. Research
  2. Hypothesis
  3. Experimentation
  4. Conclusion
  5. Communication

A prerequisite for using the scientific method is the admission on one’s part that one does not know. That’s why you’re doing science, because you don’ t know. If you knew, then you wouldn’t spend time experimenting if you already know the outcome. Every scientist starts by admitting they don’t know.

This is easy enough to grasp. No doubt after running experiments and reaching conclusions might you have figured something out, and maybe even know something. The interesting thing about knowing is in another Socrates statement:

The more you know, the more you realize you know nothing. -Socrates

As more attributes of your world are uncovered by the use of the scientific method, the more questions arise. Generally, after an experiment has been conducted and conclusions have been realized, the ratio of answered questions to unanswered question is heavily lop-sided to the unanswered side. What an interesting paradox that we humans have on our hands; the shear act of attempting to acquire knowledge uncovers more unanswered questions. It could be argued that science and knowledge lessen the amount of understanding we have in the world.

On the Fringe

One of my favorite examples this knowledge paradox of the fringe of science is in quantum mechanics.

The physical world can be understood quite well, namely because of the keystone laws of physics and chemistry. However, some of these laws have been shown to break down when matter is observed at subatomic levels. This sector of scientific studies is founded upon this theory or observation. One of the first lessons taught in quantum mechanics concerns the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principal. It basically states that you cannot know everything about a particle’s physical properties at any one time. As you learn more about one property, you sacrifice knowledge about another. This is related to the observer effect stating that the mere observation of a phenomenon alters the phenomenon, thus changing the measurable outcome. Calculations about the physical nature of particles use these principals and offer a probability that a particle will behave in a certain way.

I love it.

A division of science that exists on the periphery of understanding and it is accepted that you can only understand within some margin of error or uncertainty. Delightfully imperfect we are at knowing stuff.

Uncertainly Ourselves

Extrapolating Werner Heisenberg’s theory, we can take it into a subject you may think you know all about; you.

Knowing oneself is the all-important journey that we are all taking. Knowing oneself is invaluable in helping you choose a career, a car, a meal, a spouse, a journey, a drug, a flight, a whatever. The magnitude of the understanding of oneself depends on an exceedingly large number of variables with unfathomably complex interactions; personality, environment, financial status, religion, etc.

With such a complicated task to understand yourself, it might help to take a logical scientific approach; the scientific method. The first step of which is to admit to not knowing. Do some background research, use your memories to see what you did in the past. Form a hypothesis, how do you think you’ll behave in a given situation. Experiment, life is one big experiment, live it. Conclude on how you felt and behaved, was it fun? sad? happy?

Now it seems simple enough to begin to understand yourself, but I must bring in Heisenberg. This subject of self awareness, is in reality on the fringe of science. If it were completely understood, then everyone would be completely happy. Right?

In particle physics, Heisenberg says (basically) you can’t know everything about matter simultaneously. You must sacrifice one piece of knowledge to know something else. I’m thinking more specifically of the observer effect where your observation of something changes the object from an unadulterated state. Think about looking at a particle visually, the photon you see bounced off a piece of matter and changed that matter before you can interpret what you’re seeing.

Parallel this with self-analysis. The shear act of self analysis has already changed you. The time and energy you put into trying to understand yourself has taken away from time and energy you could have spent building yourself in another way. You are what you think. You could spend so much time observing yourself that you never do anything outside of that. You’re personality could change and become one of a nervous wreck never wanting to do anything for fear of having to spend so much time in analysis. Or, maybe you become so good at self analysis that your escape is to become a psychiatrist or a philosopher.

A system cannot understand itself. – W. Edwards Deming

How do we know?

Live, learn, love and teach.

Admit often that you don’t know, but use every drop of your energy to figure it out. Take pride in what you know and if you think it’s good, tell everyone about it. Embrace constructive criticism and ignore malicious comments.

I’m sure we’ll all figure it out one day.

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