“Only one thing do I know, and that is that I know nothing,” – Socrates of Athens
“All this has the disadvantage of being clean contrary to the observed laws of Nature,” observed MacPhee. The Director smiled without speaking, as a man who refuses to be drawn.
“It is not contrary to the laws of Nature,” said a voice from the corner where Grace Ironwood sat, almost invisible in the shadows. “You are quite right. The laws of the universe are never broken. Your mistake is to think that the little regularities we have observed on one planet for a few hundred years are the real unbreakable laws; whereas they are only the remote results which the true laws bring about more often than not; as a kind of accident.”
[C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength]
If one of the greatest of all philosophers and teachers regarded himself in that fashion, you’d think we lesser sorts would draw the moral. But it’s rather the other way around today. That might have something to do with the removal of all mention of Socrates from American educational curricula. Or it might have something to do with a seldom heard maxim: “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.”
No one has more than a little knowledge…a very little. And for most of us, what we think we “know” is largely a tissue of opinions and simplifications. Even such things can be useful, but to regard them as immutable truths of reality is dangerous.
One of the little digs one can hear from the scientifically inclined pertains to technological suggestions from less educated people. “That would be great…if it didn’t violate the laws of physics.” Usually the speaker will believe that he knows those laws, or a relevant subset of them. He’s nearly always wrong.
Virtually everything we mean when we speak of “the laws of physics” consists of a model of reality, whose applicability is bounded by limits of size, speed, and time. Today, physicists believe that the seemingly elementary law of conservation of mass-energy is violated at the quantum level, for periods of time short enough that we can’t detect the violation. When evidence of those violations was discovered, it shook the “conservation absolutists” rather badly. It also won Arthur Compton a Nobel Prize.
The wise man does not assert that he “knows” unless he can also predict with accuracy, within the applicable bounds on his knowledge. Such predictions flow from the mathematical models we have made of the behavior of matter and energy as we have observed them. But outside those bounds he must admit to ignorance. Not to do so displays arrogance.
We have a recent example of such arrogance before us today:
If you thought the last few years on planet Earth were bad then you’re in for another letdown – a scientist has now claimed that life after death is “beyond the realm of scientific probability”.
A professor who has dedicated much of his life studying the laws of physics and claims that the laws of the universe does not allow consciousness to continue to operate after we die.
Dr Sean Carroll, who is a cosmologist and a physics professor at the California Institute of Technology in the US argues that for there to be an afterlife, consciousness would need to be something that is entirely “separated from our physical body.”
And here’s the bad news – that’s a possibility that the laws of physics deny.
His conclusion on life after death is built on the understanding that “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood”, so everything occurs within the realms of this.
Dr. Carroll has omitted to consider that physics can only deal with what physical instruments can detect and measure. His assertion that “the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely understood” is itself absurd, when “everyday life” includes the mysteries of consciousness, self-awareness, and volition, none of which have physical explanations. But he’s not alone. Many scientists, though not all, are equally arrogant about things they cannot see, hear, smell, touch, or taste.
It’s a besetting fault of those who regard themselves as knowledgeable to think they know more than they really do. The trichotomy of human thought:
- Propositions that can be proved or disproved: mathematics.
- Propositions that can’t be proved but can be disproved: science.
- Propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved: religion.
…doesn’t enter into their considerations. If it were otherwise, they would speak in much more measured tones about matters in that third category.
Under the veil of Time, Man cannot know with absolute certainty that God exists, that human souls exist, that there is a second life after the death of the body, or many other things. These propositions are neither provable nor disprovable given our limitations. Indeed, there are things we cannot know about physical objects. For example, astrophysicists have been grappling with the gravitational closure of the universe for some time. At this time the consensus postulate is “dark matter,” which interacts gravitationally with normal matter but in no other way. It “makes the equations balance.” However, the universe is indifferent to our equations, which are merely models that describe the behavior of things we can see, hear, and so forth. For my part, I await developments.
What we can know is this: the spatiotemporal environment we call the universe exhibits a persistent sense of order. That persistence allows us to probe its properties. Even though at any given moment in the advance of human capability, we can only probe so far, the enduring consistency of our discoveries leaves us with a conviction that order prevails – that there are laws that reign, even if we can only know them partially and conditionally. James Blish stated the matter most succinctly:
May God bless and keep you all.