Knowledge has frontiers

Knowledge has frontiers

  • Our philosophy and our ideas of God moves forward when the data is available for to do so. Throughout history, philosophers have only been as good as the data available to them. This data relies on the tools that we construct. See new discoveries are at the edges.
  • But societal change, regardless of what it is based on, is rarely harmonious.
  • Picture a small island inhabited by a race that has not yet learned the art of making ships. Looking out across the ocean, it is rumoured, the smoke of fires had been seen ascending - though whether these fires are the work of man, no one can say. Now these islanders are very thoughtful people, and writers of many books with such resounding titles as 'The Nature of the Universe,' 'The Meaning of Life,' 'Mind and Reality,' and so on. When admiring their enterprise, I do not think we should take their conclusions very seriously - at least until they have gone a little further afield than their own coral reef.
  • The Challenge of the Spaceship, Arthur C. Clarke.
  • It is a part of adventure of science to find a limitation in all directions and stretch the human imagination as far as possible everywhere.
  • Richard Feynman, quoted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
  • The dogma of the impossibility of determining the atomic constitution of substances, which until recently was advocated with such fervor by the most able chemists, is beginning to be abandoned and forgotten; and one can predict that the day is not far in the future when a sufficient collection of facts will permit determination of the internal architecture of molecules.
  • Wilhelm Körner, Facts Serving to Determine Chemical Position in Aromatic Substances (1869)
  • Individuals, a local communities, and the species have limits on the knowledge available to them. The information available to individuals and local groups has, with the internet, rapidly accelerated to approach the limits of the species. The significance of this on global society cannot be underestimated.
  • At the same time, the edges of our understanding of the species are always being pushed out as we learn more and more about the universe. For instance, quantum mechanics, theories of black holes, and the big bang are on the frontiers of science, and thus of our understanding of the universe. It's extremely likely that there will always be hazy edges of our understanding of the universe. There's the principals of diminishing returns after all.
  • There are things 'in between' that we still don’t understand of course, such as dark energy, or really complicated things such as how the brain or ecosystems function, which are frontiers too, but in their own way; 'within' the bounds of what we already know about the universe. I suppose that it could be said that our knowledge would have to be represented not by a two dimensional shape with the very large on one side and the very small on another, but rather a three dimensional shape, where complexity and exotic matter gives it another dimension, and another fuzzy area on the edge of our maps for us to explore.
  • You may just have to get used to this limited knowledge, and marvel at what we can perceive in between these edges.
  • Major fields for growth include:
    • We do not know how gravity emerges from quantum mechanics. Same with dark matter and dark energy. In fact the latter two we know next to nothing about.
    • We do not understand the nature of the big bang
    • We do not understand the very small, and the Planck length is a huge number of magnitudes away from what our instruments can currently detect.
    • We can't see all that far into the universe in detail. Other planets are uncharted territory, as are their forms of life, and that life if it exists is would be supremely interesting.
    • We do not understand the very complex. Our brains, the body and the effect of many drugs, the sheer number of species, most ecological relationships, economics, etc. all consist of guesswork and approximations to varying degrees.
    • We're in great need of developing more efficient ways of storing large amounts of energy.
  • What is written in here is simply a reflection of our latest understanding - it will be refined and new depths are discovered as time goes on.

  • Science is to slowly work out the things on the fringes of the perception of our species, to piece together what the universe is.
  • It comes from small steps.
  • There are hundreds of thousands of people, if not more, as smart as Newton. It's all about understanding, combining, and organizing the information that is available to them.
  • Newton just combined the information available to him, and contributed what he thought was logical based upon this understanding. He allegedly called it "Standing on the shoulders of giants." This ability to think with 'logic' and uncover things is common. What's important is the quality of the information that is available to these people and their ability to organize it.
  • Generally, the more information that is available, the better contributions men of logic and science can make. Modern philosophers, physicists, and mathematicians can see so much further into the universe than ancient ones.

Realising how little you know is wisdom

  • Your knowledge will never compete with that of a committee of true experts in their respective fields.
  • One of the advantages of being an old man is that I can look back at myself 30 years ago, or 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago, and accept the fact that most of what I believed back then (about music and many other things) was pretty much bullshit. This experience has taught me that 10 years from today, I'll probably realize that most of what I believe right now is *also* bullshit.
  • So when you encounter someone who is spewing bullshit, it's a good idea to be polite about it, because the odds are very, *very* good that most of what you're spewing is bullshit as well - you're just a decade away from being aware of it.
  • Reddit community, How do you respond to blatant bullshit?

Even the wisest cannot see all ends

  • Our predictive power is limited.
  • When a path takes a downward turn, the number of potential outcomes is still enormous though difficult to predict. Many of those outcomes will likely be extremely positive.
  • The potential is always there but difficult to see, perhaps because we don’t have enough or don’t understand our information, or the situation is too complex.
  • JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
    • Deserves [death]! I daresay he does. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.
  • Terence, Eunuchus
    • Many a time… from a bad beginning great friendships have sprung up.
  • Looking to palaeontology, the extinction event brought on by the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs was objectively bad, but the eventual outcome was pretty good! Lowly rat-like animals evolved into the huge variety of mammal species alive today, including one species that invented language, space travel, and chewy chocolate chip cookies.
  • I’m sure that in ecology, small animals regularly have an unexpectedly outsized impact on their ecosystem.
  • Looking to history, Europe was a technical and intellectual backwater in the fifteenth century as opposed to China or the Middle-East, but it formalised the scientific method which sparked the Enlightenment.
  • 70 years after the Nazis, Germany is a democratic world leader and leads the EU.
  • John Lloyd & John Mitcherson, The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure
    • Leonardo was illegitimate, the son of a notary in the small Italian hill of Vinci, and that his mother, Caterina, was either a local peasant or an Arabic slave. His father, Piero, quickly married off Caterina to a bad-tempered local lime-burner and the young Leonardo found himself abandoned… He was prevented from going to a university or entering any of the respectable professions, such as medicine or law.
    • Leonardo's response was to withdraw into a private world of observation and invention. The key to understanding his genius isn't in his paintings—extraordinary and groundbreaking though they are—but in his notebooks. In these thirteen thousand pages of notes, sketches, diagrams, philosophical observations, and lists, we have one of the most complete records of the inner workings of a human mind ever committed to paper. Leonardo's curiosity was relentless. He literally took apart the world around him to see how it worked and left a paper trail of the process. This was firsthand research: He had to see things for himself, whatever that meant. He personally dissected more than thirty human corpses in his lifetime, even though it was a serious criminal offense. This wasn't motivated by any medical agenda: He just wanted to improve the accuracy of his drawing and deepen his understanding of how the body worked (he ridiculed other artists' depictions of human flesh, saying they looked like "sacks of nuts"). Out of the notebooks flowed a succession of inventions, some fantastical but others entirely practical: the first "tank," the first parachute, a giant siege crossbow, a crane for emptying ditches, the very first mixer tap for a bath, folding furniture, an Aqua-Lung, an automatic drum, automatically opening and closing doors, a sequin maker, and smaller devices for making spaghetti, sharpening knives, slicing eggs, and pressing garlic. It was here, too, that Leonardo recorded his remarkable insights into the natural world: He was the first to notice how counting tree rings gave the age of the tree and he could explain why the sky was blue three hundred years before Lord Rayleigh discovered molecular scattering.
  • John Lloyd & John Mitcherson, The Book of the Dead: Lives of the Justly Famous and the Undeservedly Obscure
    • Isaac Newton was the son of an illiterate Norfolk yeoman who could not even write his own name and who died four months before his son was born. At birth, according to his own memoirs, Newton was so small that he could fit into a two-pint pot and so weak he was forced "to have to bolster al around his neck to keep it on his shoulders." His mother married the Reverend Barnabas Smith when Isaac was three. Smith hated him on sight and refused to have him in the house, so he was sent to live with his grandmother.
  • A question: So it can be demonstrated that great things can indeed emerge from humble origins. But is it more likely that something great will come from something expected than from something unexpected? Is there something in the ebb and flow of circumstance that makes the have-nots a fiercer competitor than the have's? Machiavelli at least thinks so.]

Diminishing returns

  • Prepare for diminishing returns of knowledge the more in depth you get. There will be less and less 'big findings' and perhaps less and less epiphanies, or at least they will come at increasing costs.
  • Galileo more or less put together an organ pipe and curved glass to revolutionise our understanding of the universe, but now we have to build facilities such as the massive CERN collider to continue to push the boundaries.
  • We may find ourselves reaching serious practical and economic limits on the advanced instruments we can create. However, with manufacturing advancements like the Utility fog, this may not be for a long, long time.
  • But this may be negated by AI and enabling citizen science.

Sense and brain power are limited

  • The senses, and our mental processing power are also limited.
  • In almost all cases, our collective knowledge far outstrips what we usually see and can process in our day to day lives.
  • Moving towards closing the gap (between our senses and our mental processing power on one hand, and our scientific knowledge on the other) in our daily lives is what I believe the path towards enlightenment is.