This essay is part one of “On What We Know”. You can find part two here.
There are very few facts human beings cannot ever know. In other words, there is minimal knowledge that is completely unknown and will likely remain unknown as long as humans exist. So far, I have come up with a list of only four details we cannot definitively know:
- If a god or gods exist.
- If there is an afterlife or some sort of alternate dimension than the one in which we exist.
- What will happen in the future.
- The full scope and detail of exactly what happened at all points in history.
What is it that makes these particular details unknowable? First, they are impossible to measure.
We can’t measure the existence of a god or gods (hereafter referred to as simply God). There are many people in the world who believe they have evidence of the existence of God. Still, there is no measurable way to verify such evidence.
The same goes for the existence of an afterlife. We have no way to measure what happens to the essence or “soul” of a person once they die. At the same time, we cannot know if there is some sort of alternate dimension outside of the dimension we know.
As for the future, it is impossible for us to measure, to the fullest extent, what has not actually occurred. We can, of course, shape the future through our past and present actions. We might intend for certain occurrences and hope for certain outcomes, but we cannot know them definitively until they occur.
Point four on the list is somewhat different when it comes to measurement. The full range of historical detail stands alone as something that was, at one time, measurable. Evidence existed at some point that could have told us exactly what happened at any given moment.
For many moments, though, the evidence has disappeared. This leaves us with no, or at least not enough, existing factual evidence to accurately measure.
I have a tough time admitting to impossibility, so it is not without extensive deliberation that I submit to the idea these details are impossible to know. In the end, though, all of these items require knowledge that does not exist in our physical world.
This is an essential point, as it is the physical world that is subject to the known laws of science. Those laws dictate what details are measurable, and thus known, and which are not. In short, the physical world around us provides us with facts.
The primary difference between unknowable details and all knowable facts is any proof of currently “unknowable” details lies outside of our physically known dimension.
Whether any answers to the question of God, and afterlife, and the happenings of the future could potentially lie in a dimension beyond the one in which we exist is, I will concede, theoretically possible. Still, we have no verifiable way of knowing this in the current state of humanity.
The Possibility of Knowing
A fair question to come next in this discussion might be, “Well what about other things we don’t currently know?” Such a list is, of course, extensive. If I were to provide a short, though pathetically meager one, it might include:
- The smallest particle in the universe
- The full size and map of our Universe
- Which came first, the chicken or the egg
- The full scope and detail of what another person is thinking at any given moment.
There is a significant difference between these details and the aforementioned unknowable details. These details are based on facts that exist within the physical world and are subject to the laws of science.
While we might not currently know the first two details on this list, we know the laws and pathways of facts that could tell us the answers. Conceivably, it is possible to know these details.
As for the chicken and the egg, we have no scientific evidence that a chicken has ever spontaneously appeared, but we do have an overwhelming mass of evidence that chickens come from eggs. The only choices we have here are to form a logical conclusion based on scientific evidence, or create a story based on unknown, nonexistent laws.
What about the thoughts of another person? Obviously, a person can tell us what they are thinking. However, there is a complexity to human thought that complicates the picture. Though we can receive a verbal report from someone, and we can glean some measurement from their actions, our brains can think on a scope that is seemingly impossible to fully express through words and behavior.
At this moment, I can tell you I am putting quite a bit of thought into this sentence and this essay, but what about all of the other thoughts swirling in my brain simultaneously.
My current physical needs (it’s kind of cold in here, for instance…and I’m hungry), my thoughts on later today and the distant future, my concerns from yesterday, and so on. And then, of course, there is what I am simply choosing to not tell you.
The only way to know such details would be to fully and completely reside within the brain and body of another. While we do not currently have this ability in the fullest extent, it is conceivably possible.
Thoughts physically reside in the brains of human beings. We do not, yet, have a full understanding of the complex neural pathways that construct and carry out thoughts, but we do know that thoughts come from a physical entity within the human body (the brain), and thus reside within our physically known universe. Therefore, thoughts are subject to the laws of science residing within our known dimension.
Yet, it is not an uncommon practice for us to attempt to dissect and guess at the thoughts of others. This brings us to the three ways we can “know” something.
Just the Facts
The first method of knowing something is through factual evidence. The scientific method gives us a process for examining any and all physical evidence in our physical universe. We ask a question, review available information, create a hypothesis if we want to test another variable, test that hypothesis, analyze our results, and then allow others to analyze what we find.
This tried and true method has given us a window through which facts can be discovered. Once those facts exist, they remain facts as long as they hold up to repeated testing.
The second method is through inference. When a full range of facts is not available, we have the ability to infer the truth from the existing facts around us. Historical facts are a perfect example of this.
Without the entire scope of factual evidence about a historical event, we are left with inferences. How did other such events unfold? How did the people involved act at other known points in history? We can build a picture of the most likely scenario from such details.
The obvious problem with this method is we have no proof. We do have evidence, but it is inconclusive and runs the risk of being erroneous.
Inference has to do with thinking we know something. Inference rides right in the middle ground of analyzing facts and trusting our “gut”.
The third and final method is through faith. With faith, we leave the realm of the known and enter the realm of belief. Given the fact that all that resides in our physically known dimension is knowable and understandable through the laws of science, there is no need for us to rely on faith in order to believe factual evidence.
Though there are some details we might not fully understand, those details are, in the end, fully understandable once we gather enough factual evidence.
We do not need to have faith that the Earth’s climate is changing by the hands of humankind. We can look to evidence.
We do not need faith to know that someone will not enter a public building in our hometown and shoot someone. We can use factual evidence to create a society where the chances of this occurring decrease to near impossibility.
I must conclude, therefore, that faith is reserved only for those details we cannot know. Is there a God? Is there an afterlife?
This all brings us, at long last, to the point.
To be continued…