It seems as if human beings are on the brink of knowing everything. Ours is the history of accumulated knowledge, beginning with fire and now extending to exoplanets circling suns many thousands of light-years distant. We’ve jumped from one understanding to the next, each built on the one before; with each leap of knowledge facts of history are discarded as fiction.
Our look backwards actually provides a view of ignorance, though past understandings represented the sum total of what was called knowledge at that time. Thus our senses once told us the world was flat, only to be proven wrong when we discovered the world was a sphere. Each and every leap in knowledge has been accompanied by such corresponding realizations of ignorance; in this sense ignorance is always a result of the search for or application of knowledge.
This history being the case, what are we to make of what we know now? Based on our record, it appears that much of what we today believe to be correct will one day prove to have been wrong. Conversely, that which we now conceive as not correct may turn out to right. Does this mean we should be skeptical about everything?
Scientific reductionism, the process of logically testing knowledge by forming hypotheses and subjecting them to tests of proof of validity, has captured the field at the moment. We eagerly await each new discovery, now increasingly technological in basis. The Large Hadron Collider in Europe, what we conventionally call an “atom smasher,” accelerates sub-atomic particles to near light-speed, records their collisions and thereby observes the bits and pieces such mash-ups produce. Through such processes, what we thought were atoms have proven to be made of smaller bits, and of those bits yet smaller and so on and so forth. That we observe it makes it so, unless and until it doesn’t.
This raises the topic of “mere appearance.” Whether through skepticism or reductionism, what we take to be reality keeps changing, which means that our knowledge is not absolute but simply has the mere appearance of truth. Accordingly, truth requires belief in truth, and belief as we all know requires no verification. The mind is unconstrained when it comes to belief; if we can conceive of something it can rise to belief. And what of that which the mind cannot or has not yet conceived? Our speculation includes only that which we can conceive; the nature of the inconceivable is exactly that, beyond comprehension.
We don’t know what we don’t know, but if history is any guide, we will go on to discover more than we know now. It is worth reminding ourselves that we are capable of forgetting, or at least we used to forget. Written and printed records were our way of preserving knowledge, based on the assumption that understanding written language is possible. The digital age has made memory more powerful, but rests upon the assumption that electronic media will continue to be accessible. We are constrained in memory by the limits of what we cannot predict, or in other words, what we do not know.
We inhabit the world of not, yet also not not – of is, yet also is not – an awkward middle ground of confusion that can’t be known but can be felt and which when transformed into wisdom enables us to carry on, despite uncertainty.