What Do We Know (2.0)

By Alexander Greco

April 22, 2019

What is real? What’s just fantasy?

What is fact? What’s just theory?

What is true? What’s just fabrication?

What do we know about the world we live in, the people we live with, and the person we are?

Light comes in through the cornea, and is refracted into your pupil, then through a hard lens, where the light is focused into the retina. Our retinas capture this constant bombardment of trillions of light-waves/particles, and process this light with millions of special nerves called rods and cones. These rods and cones convert light stimuli, which are picked up by the optic nerve, and sent to the brain.

Your brain processes the optic signals with the limbic system first, where our brain scans for threats or rewarding opportunities. The limbic system first “communicates” with the Automatic Nervous System, which governs our fear response, our fight-or-flight instinct, and our sexual attraction instincts. If there’s an immediate threat, such as a snake on the ground, or a potentially rewarding opportunity, such as a person you find attractive, your brain and body begin responding before you know what you’re looking at.

Finally, the processed light-signals are sent to our neo-cortex, where we consciously “see” the light.

Similarly-complex sensory systems detect what we smell, what we hear, what we feel and what we taste, and this is the foundation of how we understand the world around us.

These senses alone are nowhere near what you need to actually understand what’s happening around us. Humans have an incredibly weak sense of smell, we can only detect a narrow range of light waves, our easily-damaged ears can only hear a certain range of sound, and we only see so far, or so close, with limited clarity. The parts of our brain that process these signals can misfire, or misunderstand what it’s looking at (optical illusions).

In addition, our senses alone don’t tell us how a thing works.

We only began to understand gravity in 1687 with Newton, then with Einstein in the 20th century, and we still don’t fully understand how it works.

In fact, we don’t understand how most of the universe works.

27% of the universe is made of Dark Matter, which constitutes 85% of the total mass in the universe. 68% is Dark Energy.[1] That’s 95% of the universe that we don’t understand. All the stars, planets, black holes, comets, asteroids and space debris make up only 5% of the universe.

But let’s go smaller.

The universe is much so much bigger than what we experience normally, we at least know what’s happening on Earth.

Do we?

As a species, we’ve all but mastered mechanical, electrical, optical, thermodynamic and nuclear physics… To a degree.

We now know vast amounts about of biology, evolution and genetics… Relatively speaking.

We have a deep and accurate understanding of psychology… In some ways.

And we’re more informed about the world around us than ever before…

Except we’ve learned enough to see how little we actually know.

We now know enough about quantum mechanics to know that the subatomic world is bizarre and nonsensical, and often violates “laws” of nature, such as the Law of Conservation.[2]

Not only does it violate the Law of Conservation, but quantum mechanics is incompatible with Einstein’s Relativity, and has led to decades of scientists trying to reconcile the two.[3] Decades later, we still haven’t reconciled the two.

Do we at least understand how people work? Why we are the way we are? Why we act the way we act? How we’ve come to be who we are?

Well… Yes and no…

To a certain degree, we understand how humans work. We understand what our bodies are made of, how our muscles, bones, cardiovascular system and so forth work, and how our nervous system works.

We understand that genetics and the environment affect our physical and psychological development.

We understand that genetics, our brain, past experiences, learned behaviors, hormones, psychological states, emotional health, and physical health all play roles in our behaviors and decisions.

We understand how evolution has shaped and changed us over billions of years into modern humans, and how epigenetic adaptations on the individual level.

We have a pretty solid, foundational understanding of how the human body works, but this foundational understanding has shown us the vast amounts of our genetics, biology, physiology, and psychology that we don’t know.

Let’s take something as simple as hair. We have hair follicles in our skin. They grow using nutrients from our body, and they grow according to chemical signals from our nerves.

However, everything is also controlled by our genes. Everything from the follicles, to the structure of each hair, to how fast each hair grows, is coded by genes. And, there can be multiple genes that code for the same thing. You can have multiple genes controlling the color, length and coarseness of your hair, or one gene that codes for several different traits. These genes can be turned on or off, they can perform different functions based on the hormones in your body, and they can also code other genes.

However, genes are only one part of the equation, and things like your diet or how often you exercise can affect individual traits. Everything in the body is interconnected, and it’s highly

We’re only just beginning to know the ins-and-outs of our body.

There are still mysteries to evolution, unanswered questions, and long-debated ideas.

There are still mysteries about genetics, how genes work, and how genes affect our anatomy and psychology.

And there are still mysteries about the brain. We’re still trying to understand all the ins-and-outs of brain function, of how we think and process information, and why we behave the way we do.

Consciousness is a perfect example. We still don’t even know what consciousness is, or if consciousness is real or an illusion. We don’t know why we’re conscious, or what causes consciousness. Yet, consciousness is one of the most important aspects of being a human.

But what about the basic world around us. What do we even know about something as simple as a desk-lamp?

It’s an object that “stands” on our desk. It has a “lightbulb” you can put in or take out. You can “turn it on” to make light come out of the lightbulb.

But how does it stand without falling? How is it constructed? What materials does it made of?

What even is a lightbulb? How does it work? Why does it work the way it works? What is it made of? Is it incandescent? Is it an LED bulb? How does an LED work?

Yes, you can take the time to answer all these questions, even down to what metals and gases are used inside a bulb, and the reasons why they are used, but can you do that for everything? And can you do that for everything all the time?

What is the desk made of? How is it constructed? What materials? Why does it even work?

What about a flash drive? Or headphones? Or your computer?

Why are we able to look out a window and see what’s outside? Why does one flower look prettier than another flower? Why are the walls of a room painted the color they are, and, for that matter, how does paint even work?

Yes, we can stop and explain everything around us, but how often do we do that? How much do we actually know, from one person to the next, about the fundamental objects of daily life? How much do we take for granted when we walk out the door, or even when we wake up in our bed?

Jordan Peterson has a great explanation of this. A car is a thing-that-gets-us-from-one-place-to-the-next, until it stops working. As soon as it stops working, it becomes a chaotic-object-of-anxiety-and-ignorance—a terrifying monster made of valves, wires, pipes, pulleys and gears. But as soon as the car gets fixed, it transforms back into a thing-that-gets-us-from-one-place-to-the-next.

Even more basic than basic objects around us, do we even know what’s going on half the time?

What’s happening on the other side of the four walls around you? What’s happening next door? What’s happening down the street? What’s happening in the next town over? What’s going on in your state, or your country, or the rest of the world?

Unfortunately, we barely even know what’s happening outside our front doors.

When we do see something happening, how much do we actually know about it?

If we see two strangers arguing, do you have any clue what it might be about?

What’s going on in those people’s heads?

What’s going on in anyone’s head, for that matter?

A friend of mine explained something called a “black box” in computer programming. A black box is a piece of code where you can see what information goes in and what information goes out, but you can’t see what happens inside that code. For example, you input X into the black box, and the black box outputs Y, but you don’t know why the black box took in X and put out Y.

Humans are a lot like this.

As I’ve already mentioned, we’re complicated motherfuckers. We barely know why we do the things we do, let alone why other people do the things we do. We barely even know basic information about people and their lives.

What was someone’s upbringing like? How did their parenting, their early experiences, their education, their environment, and so forth affect their personality? What’s their health like? What matters to that person? What does that person go home to each day? What goes on in that person’s head?

Even things like what a person ate on a given day, how much they slept, or the state of their gut bacteria on a given day can alter their personality.

So how much do you know about the person you’re talking to?

How much do you really know, and how much do you make up, or assume?

How often do we make assumptions about people we know? How often do we make assumptions about who they are, what kind of person they are, and the reasons why they behave how they behave?

How often do we project an easy-to-understand, cookie-cutter identity to a person? How often do we then treat them as if they were a cookie-cutter person, instead of treating them as the complex, dynamic human they really are?

The problem is, we can’t do this for everyone.

We can’t take the time to deeply understand each and every individual we come in contact with. We have to make assumptions about them.

At the very best, we have to make educated guesses about a person, but even these guesses can be way off the mark.

Let’s take it a step further.

How do we know how we know things?

How can we be sure we know what we know?

How can we be sure we know anything?

It seems almost stupid to ask (“You just know, you know?”), but it’s really hard to pinpoint how we can be sure of what we know.

Even asking, “What does it mean to ‘know’ something?” is a rabbit hole in and of itself.

We only know what our brain tells us to know. We only know this because our brain tells us we know this. Our brain can be wrong, our brain is forgetful, and our brain is biased. Our brain can be lazy, tired, confused, misguided, and deliberately irrational.

Beyond that, how sure can we even be about the things we “really” know.

There’s a thought experiment about a brain in a jar (which may or may not have originated with HP Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness”).

Let’s say you’re a brain in a jar, with all these wires hooked up to your brain. These wires send signals telling you what you see, what your body looks like, what you’re doing, and what emotions you have. As far as you know, you’re a person walking around in the world, doing your thing, but in reality, you’re a brain in a jar.

This sounds sci-fi-ish (it’s one of the ideas behind The Matrix), but there’s legitimate speculation in the scientific community about Simulation Theory. Simulation Theory states that we may be in a reality simulated by a computer-like technology, or some higher form of technology that transcends our knowledge of physics. We could be living in a computer-fabricated universe, dictated by lines of 6th-dimensional computer code.

We are reaching an age where our technology and our computing power will be so powerful that we ourselves might be able to create our own simulated realities. We already have virtual reality goggles, we can already create computer-generated realities and interact with these realities (video games), and people like Elon Musk are already creating technologies that can directly link our brains to computers.

What’s to say a civilization before us, or a civilization “above” us, or an indescribable entity in some multi-dimensional tangent of our own reality, hasn’t already created technology that can simulate a universe?

What’s to say some civilization hasn’t created our universe in one of their computers, and has made a simulation that is so sophisticated it replicated consciousness and physics? (Except it starts to fuck up in black holes)

We kinda don’t know.

Many great minds have pondered, many great minds have searched for answers, and many great minds still haven’t figured it out.

We simply don’t know. We don’t know a lot.

We know some things. We know coffee makes people (not all) hyper. We know some people shouldn’t eat gluten (actually, probably no one should eat it, but it’s whatever). We know monkeys and humans both get weirded out by direct eye contact.

We know the Earth spins, and we basically know why, but we don’t really know why gravity works, and we’re still arguing about how gravity works.

We know humans only live for a short amount of time, and then we die, but we know this is controlled by genes and our biology, and we’re starting to be able to control our genes and our biology, but we know enough about genetic editing to know we maybe shouldn’t fuck with our genes until we really, “really”, really know how our genes work.

We know enough to know we don’t know much.

We know enough to know the world is a crazy god-damn place. We know enough to know humans are crazy motherfuckers. We know enough to know the universe is stranger than fiction.

And beyond that, we don’t really know.

Which can be scary to think about. It can be terrifying to know that our world may not be what it seems. It can keep you up at night, thinking about all the people around you that you barely understand. It can be anxiety provoking to think about what will or won’t happen tomorrow, or in the next week, or in the next year, or what will or won’t happen before you die.

But it’s also kind of fantastic that we don’t know.

How boring would it be if we knew everything?

Einstein isn’t one of the greatest historical figures ever because he knew exactly how the universe worked. Einstein went down in history because he explored the unknown, even to his death. He relished in the things he didn’t know, in the things he couldn’t explain, and devoted his life to uncovering the secrets of the universe.

We don’t like spoilers because we want to find out the end of movie for ourselves.

We don’t like people telling us what to do or how to do it because we want to figure it out on our own.

We don’t like learning about the same thing over and over again, because it doesn’t get us anywhere.

It’s okay not to know things. It’s okay if there’s a little bit of fantasy in our reality. It’s okay if life is more theory than fact. It’s okay if we have to fabricate a few details along the way (so long as we can un-fabricate them at some point).

It’s okay, because what we don’t know is far more interesting than what we do know.

We don’t know where this ride’s gonna take us, and that’s half the fun.

[1] https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-area/what-is-dark-energy

[2] https://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae605.cfm

[3] http://m.nautil.us/issue/29/scaling/will-quantum-mechanics-swallow-relativity

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