In yesterday’s paper there was an article about an anthropologist who argues, “Chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than to gorillas or other apes and probably should be included in the human branch of the family tree.” There followed the obligatory conflicting opinions of various leaders in the field regarding genus and family designations that illustrate the basic truth here: that anthropologists don’t agree on who goes on what family tree. In fact it’s rather arbitrary.
So, as with Elmer’s Bible of yesterday, we are constantly reminded that the Book of Knowledge is also open to interpretation, with these interpretations all too often colored by human limitations: desire for fame, professional competition, hidden agendas, outright mistakes, and the myopia of pride. But we find dogma in science, and like that of religion it can take a mountain of evidence and a new generation of thinkers to alter it.
So what do we know, and how do we know it? The other adherent, to the other Book, would appear to have a view of the universe that is less fanciful, grounded in fact, and supported by evidence. The scientific method, it is assumed, is the best and most reliable means toward knowing anything worth knowing. We examine the available evidence related to a known phenomenon, we create a hypothesis, and we engineer a series of tests to attempt to disprove this hypothesis.
In this way we arrive at “facts,” or those hypotheses that are not disproved. Some are easy – the Earth revolves around the sun – but some are not so easy. The Scopes trial illustrated that–until last year we still had school boards prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools. And come to think of it, the heliocentric theory took centuries to nail down. So the process by which we arrive at facts, sometimes even the most obvious of them, is in fact an evolution of its own. We “believe” one thing, only to have further study and refinement of methods show us, a few years later, that we were completely wrong. As a result, we alter our belief to fit the new evidence. A good example is our vast universe itself. In the past, various facts were presented about the known universe based on available observations that have since been greatly modified. For example, is Pluto a planet? It used to be, but now we’re not so sure. Uranus didn’t have rings before, but now it does. And beyond simple definitions of characteristics, we have the fate of the universe itself. Will it continue expanding forever until everything is a million light years away from everything else? Will it stop expanding and begin contracting into the so-called “big crunch,” followed by another Big Bang? Did that already happen? Will the universe “hit a wall” at some point and simply waver back and forth along a semi-permanent boundary? Did the Big Bang actually occur? The answers depends on what year it is and whose “prevailing theory” is in favor.
Science finds its limitations most readily in matters of great scale. Right now astronomers are attempting to look to the farthest reaches of the universe, back into time to the very moment of creation. Let me predict right here that they never will reach it. At the same time, they look deep into the atom to find smaller and smaller structures. Who will find that smallest of sub-atomic particles, and how will they know it is the smallest? My prediction: no one will, and they won’t know. Not all things can be revealed to the scientific eye. In fact, much of what it sees at these extremities of scale may be illusion. As Mr. Heisenberg so aptly pointed out: “The more precisely the position is determined, the less precisely the momentum is known, and vice versa.” In other words, absolute precision in sub-atomic measurements is not possible, because the thing being measured at such extremities of scale will not sit still for it. And for large scale structures such as the universe, we can never be certain of what we see beyond what we call the “known universe.” Some theorize, for example, that our known universe, with its billions of galaxies, may be one of billions of such universes. Fine, but how will anyone ever know for sure? No one ever will. But some, insulated in their laboratories, will believe it is so–or not so–and accept the idea as an article of faith–faith in the evidence derived from their observations, which themselves are derived from the imprecise human eye and interpreted by the fallible human mind. Yet without belief how can facts exist?
Even setting aside all of that, there remains an entire sphere of human experience that goes unaddressed by the Book of Knowledge. This is the sphere of spirituality, of questions dealing with the purpose and meaning, as opposed to the history and mechanics, of life. Here we have the very questions which all of us wonder about all our lives, and yet the accepted methodology for endeavoring to answer questions with a universal authority–science itself–will not even attempt an inquiry. Why? For the best of reasons: it is not equipped even to explore the question, let alone answer it. Science would sidestep the question and say, “There is no answer. It is a question all must answer for themselves.” But if there are any facts about the human condition as opposed to the human body – and I believe there are – then it is not that there is no answer but simply that science as devised by man is not able to provide one. It does not have the tools to measure and test the evidence in support of any theory. The evidence is in our minds. It flows among the living community. It is in the very force of life itself, the force behind every spring and every birth. It is unknowable as an observable phenomenon because it is beyond the physical world.
And that may be as it should be. In matters of the spirit we often come up against the idea of the ineffable. That which cannot be fully known or expressed in earthly terms.
The mistake of the Biblical literalist is to believe that an old book can provide all the best answers to life’s questions, and that anything it does not address is not relevant . The mistake of the scientist is to believe that if there is no way to answer a question with present science, then the question is not relevant.