Some time ago, I wrote about the importance of not knowing, of how a sense of mystery motivates the need to know. Behind this simple pronouncement there hides a choice that every human being makes: what to do when faced with the unknown. There are two alternatives: we can choose to believe in the ability of human reason and intuition to overcome obstacles to arrive at new knowledge, that is, at answers to previously unexplained phenomena, or we can choose to believe that there are inscrutable mysteries, the result of influences beyond the usual cause and effect relations that define normalcy. In other words, either we believe that there are natural causes behind all that happens or we believe in supernatural causes, that is, causes beyond the explainable.
Whenever I lecture on this topic, I get asked if there isn’t some kind of middle way, some kind of conciliation between the two alternatives: somehow, an acceptance that some of the world is natural and some supernatural.
I can’t see how.
I have argued before that science as we know it will never be able to provide all the answers about the natural world; there will always be new challenges, questions that our research and inventiveness will not be able to anticipate. If we imagine what is known as comprising the area within a circle and what is unknown as what is outside, as science advances and we learn more about the universe, life and the mind, the circle will surely grow. However, there will always be an outside, beyond the known. Science as a mode of knowledge, powerful and wonderful as it is, has its limits.
One reason for this is that much of what we know of the world depends on instruments, a point I also made here before. Without our telescopes, microscopes and particle detectors, our vision of reality would be much more limited. Technology opens new windows to the world. Still, as with our eyes, these instruments have limits. And thus, so does our knowledge of reality acquired through their use.
There are other kinds of limitations, such as the fact that we live within a causal horizon defined by the finiteness of the speed of light and the age of the universe: there is much more universe out there than we can possible measure. (Or so we presume!) Also, the Uncertainty Principle poses limitations on what kind of information we can gather in the world of atoms and subatomic particles.
However, these are limitations that depend on our current scientific knowledge and can change in the future. We cannot prove that the speed of light will remain an absolute limit, or that quantum uncertainty is the last word. All we can state with confidence is that from what we know today they are pretty solid limits.
The image that the unknown circumscribes the known can generate a lot of confusion. Worse, it can be manipulated by those who want to convince people that occult forces somehow control their lives.
It’s here that the two options I mentioned above come in.
Paraphrasing Lucretius, many people live their lives terrified by what they cannot explain. He’d claim that to be free is to be able to reflect upon the possible causes behind phenomena without blindly accepting unexplainable explanations, that is, explanations based on causes that cannot be explained. (Of course, I am living open the possibility that science will advance to embrace phenomena that today may look unexplainable through currently known causal relations.)
This choice demands courage. It implies in accepting that certain aspects of the world, even if unexplained, aren’t supernatural. It’s not easy to be coherent when something really strange or tragic happens, be it an amazing coincidence, or the sudden death of a loved one, or a premonition that proves true. But as the great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “I rather not know than be fooled.” And you?