Prose instead of poetry. The big questions in life, and my thoughts on them.
My mind was a timebomb that was set to explode,
so I packed up my cares, into the sunset I rode
a path to hell that's paved with good intentions
— Martin Walkyier
“All things are so very uncertain, and that’s exactly what makes me feel reassured."
— Too-ticky of Moominvalley
The quest for truth is a common theme in such disparate disciplines as science, philosophy, theology and even art. If for no other reason than to improve the chances of survival, the human brain seems hard-wired for categorisation and abstraction. This is simply fine, as we have neither long claws nor sharp teeth but instead our main tool is the ability to figure out ways to sculpt the environment to suit our needs. We do this primarily by the answering the question ‘how?’. How does something work, and how can we use it? I’ve been thinking about (trying to categorise, as it goes) the concept of various kinds of questions we humans can pose: What? Where? When? Who? Why?
It would seem to me that some of these words represent inquisitions that are inherently more fundamental than others, while at least one of them can lead our mind stream down some very slippery slopes. In a very literal sense, disregarding the various ways in which questions can be rephrased (I could as well have phrased ‘in which ways’ as simply ‘how’ here, for instance) the fundamental essences of interrogative words are tied to their respective domains of our perception, which themselves assume certain concepts of our reality to, if not be inherently true, then at least exist as some kind of absolute mental construct.
This is certainly useful as, for instance, in journalism and police investigations, the ‘five W’s’ are considered essential questions needing answering before an inquiry can be considered complete. Let’s see what happens if we think annoyingly reductionistic about this. With a little tolerance for convolution, it seems to me that all we need is the word ‘how?’. Now, I am not advocating any linguistic reforms, but rather attempting to clarify the quintessence of each of these words so they can be paired to their corresponding unique level of our perception and questioning of the world. Bear with me a while longer and what I am hoping to achieve here will become evident by the end.
Both the questions 'what?' and 'who?' answer the same question, only according to different frames of reference (impersonal vs. personal) – how is a certain concept configured in terms of definitions of individual constituents (be they concrete or abstract, material or immaterial, animate or inanimate)? This does not imply anything other than what an external observer can perceive with his or her senses: things are, stuff acts, and s*** happens.
Both the questions 'where?' and 'when?' also answer the same question according to different frames of reference (spatial vs. temporal) – how is a certain concept configured in relation to other concepts regarding its positioning in space and time? This does not either imply anything other than what an observer can perceive: things are, stuff exists, and s*** happens.
The question 'why?', on the other hand – how goes the reasoning behind this something? – is a bit trickier, as this line of questioning implicitly assumes agency or reason behind what is investigated. This is a bit of a rabbit hole, leading to all sorts of headaches such as ‘why do we exist?’, ‘why did you do that?’, ‘why does this always happen?’ and similar worrisome thoughts. My point is that there is no simple way to answer the question ‘why?’ in objective terms, or even in terms of consensus between subjective observations, as we fundamentally can never ascertain without doubt that there even is any reason involved. We can agree on somebody’s statements being highly probable or deduct a line of reasoning behind a certain action, but here we reach the limits to which extent we can truly ‘know’ something.
How then to reconcile this with the quest for truth? Do we limit our definition of truth to only apply to obtainable knowledge? I see two problems with this. First, that would obviously simply not be the whole truth, as it leaves out the fact about any conscious observer’s subjective experience. Second, is not the subjective experience of any one of us essentially differing pictures of personal truths? What can we really define as true, as opposed to false, without making any initial assumptions?
In logics and mathematics, we say that something holds true if it holds up to scrutiny based on some predefined set of axioms, which are assumed to be inherently true. There are turtles all the way down, here, I’d say. In physics, we might as well throw truth out the window to begin with, as what we agree holds true here is always shifting, always under threat from the next change in basic assumptions.
Speaking of physics, I could write for hours about what quantum mechanics seem to tell us about reality, but I’ll just note here that even according to the most grounded of interpretations, the probabilistic, non-deterministic nature of the universe would depend on ‘hidden variables’, i.e. factors that we not only do not know, but cannot know. This solution was favoured by Einstein, who declared that “God does not play dice”. This has since become a minority view, with Bohr reportedly advising to “stop telling God what to do” and Hawking stating that “not only does God play dice, but He sometimes throws them where they cannot be seen”. The point here is not which interpretation is right or wrong (if any one can be), but that even this perspective implies an essential, unavoidable lack of knowledge (or observability, as it is).
The thing is, that even should one believe in a kind of objective truth (meaning a truth that somehow exists separate from what we define as truthful according to the consensus of the current zeitgeist, more on this another time), the quest for this hypothetical truth is in essence a futile endeavour. Think of it like this: as one expands his or her current knowledge about the world, so also does one expand his or her framework for posing previously unaskable questions. For example, before it was discovered that the Earth is only one among billions of planets, nobody could reasonably have been equipped to ask questions such as ‘is there life elsewhere in the Universe?’, and by now, theoretical physicists have (as they are prone to do) taken it even further by proposing that even this Universe is only one among something like 10^500 possible configurations (that is a ‘one’ with 500 zeroes, mind you).
Science is useful for giving the best available current approximation to answering the questions ‘what?’, ‘when?’, ‘where?’ and ‘how?’, but it seems to be that a common misconception is that science is also supposed to be able to answer ‘why?’. This is the domain of theology, of religion, and while I am probably less opposed to such subjects than most scientifically minded people, that simply ain’t where we parked our cars.
The more we know, the more we know that we do not know. Ad infinitum, ad absurdum... My solution to this futile quest for truth is quite simple: forget about it, rejoice in the endless mystery of existence and let us lie down under the night sky in awe and appreciation of ignorance and uncertainty. After all, what would we do with our inquisitive brains if every conceivable question had already been answered? It would be damn boring, I suspect.
But what do I know?
“Only a few know how much one needs to know to know how little one knows."
— Werner Heisenberg