“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:

  1. Propositions that can be proved or disproved: mathematics.
  2. Propositions that can’t be proved but can be disproved: science.
  3. 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.


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    • Amy on February 11, 2022 at 12:40 PM

    And if someone did “prove” that there was no life after death, imagine the implications:

    “We know that we have no undying part,” said Nessus. “I will not speak for your race. I have not the right. My species has no immortal part. Our scientists have proved this. We are afraid to die, for we know that death is permanent.”- Larry Niven, Ringworld, chapter 8

    And now you know why the Puppeteers are cowards, and their entire society is based on cowardice…a fact that has consequence for, not just them, but other species in Known Space as well. (At least Nessus was willing to allow that humans might have immortal souls…)

    • Steve Walton on February 11, 2022 at 1:08 PM

    The “universe” (the sense in which I use that word is “all”) is static, and infinite. The order that we measure is simply a path we have chosen within it that makes enough sense to us that we can exist as self-aware entities. We are because we are (a statement of the obvious with no practical meaning except the perspective from which it is drawn). Our memories are the paths we have chosen, willingly or unwillingly as simple passengers.
    There is no life, or death, there is only memory of the path. One of infinitely many.

    1. You appear to have said exactly nothing. Was that your intention?

        • Steve Walton on February 11, 2022 at 2:43 PM

        No, but unfortunately it is very difficult to explain the concept. We tend to look at the universe as a physical model within which we move, through the mechanism of time and forces. But it can also be apprehended as a sequence of static frames at the quantum level, moving from one state to another (one choice of an infinite number). The only thing that matters to us is that this “motion”, this change in what is observed, make sense.

        It is one model which can explain the supposed contradiction between a known, predetermined universe and a universe in which there is free will. We are free to apprehend a path through what is essentially a completely static, infinitely-varied set of possibilities. We “choose” the “next” frame because it is infinitely-similar to the previous one, and differs according to rules that make sense to us.

        There is no reason to assume that “we” are simply self-aware algorithms, the favorite trope of the left. “We” are functioning memories of where we’ve been, in a universe that exists in our awareness only because it makes sense. Every single self-aware entity exists alone on his own path, though he is a member of a large tribe of entities that have arrived at similar points.

        Unfortunately, this is a completely useless philosophy, because literally anything can exist. We don’t apprehend those paths that make no sense to us, because we could not function as minds (or souls if you prefer) along such paths. It sounds like I’m describing a tail-biting nothing, but this is a failure of the language to express the notion. Or my ability to use said language.

        But this is how I’ve come to terms with an understanding of infinity, as a physicist and engineer. I don’t like paradoxes. If a paradox exists, then the framework of understanding is wrong.

        People have come to embrace the “multiverse” concept, but they tend to describe it as separate “bubbles” in spacetime, with different rules. I think it is much more fundamental than that. Once you understand that “infinity” really means infinite, things start looking a little different.

        1. That sounds like Berkelian subjectivism with a quantum-mechanical rationale. But quantum physics does not posit a static universe, not even in a “multiversal” framework. Indeed, its essence is so dynamic that we cannot even measure positions and velocities simultaneously to an arbitrary degree of precision.

          We do not choose reality. Reality is, and we are embedded in it. If it is larger than we are — and it most certainly is — that is no objection to its nature, only an observation of our own limitations. All else is froth and gas.

    • Steve Walton on February 11, 2022 at 6:08 PM

    This notion posits that there is no such thing as velocity or time, simply different frames of existence that imply such a relationship. But yes, “froth and gas”. Nice phrase.

    • Old Bill in TN on February 12, 2022 at 5:26 AM

    Francis, there is a parallel case that is one of my pet peeves; Lean Manufacturing (in all it’s pernicious forms).
    The American Business community is nearly unanimous in it’s adoption of Lean Manufacturing/Six Sigma/Just-in-time Logistics, etc. They all sound wonderful on paper; “Look at the margins!”, but they have killed more businesses than inflation. This is due to every one of these miracle theories being based upon the notion that every need can be predicted, even scheduled. Absurd as soon as you see it, but none of the spreadsheet & power point crowd do. 
    Meanwhile poor sods like myself (“Makers” in the parlance of my local overlords) have to try to keep running with nothing….. but I’m not bitter.

      • Steve Walton on February 12, 2022 at 8:23 AM

      I watched Lean Manufacturing and Six Sigma and all that garbage come in and ruin Boeing. They were implemented by fresh new MBAs recently returned from classes in Japan.

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