TW Viewpoint | What Do You Know?

April 15, 2022 | Lorne Ketch

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We've all heard the line, "What do YOU know?" Perhaps, it has been directed at you. The situation is generally confrontational. It's an argument and emotions are running high. One person blurts out, "Well, what do you know?" Of course, what is actually being said is: "You don't know anything." The statement is being delivered in a negative way. Nonetheless, it's a valid question—what do we know?

It's easy for us to look at a technically sophisticated world and see humanity as having great knowledge and ability. Do we? Every earthly thing we learn comes directly from, or is built upon, someone else's knowledge. One person's knowledge trains another. We learn from others—both the good things and the bad. We learn from parents, friends, the neighbour next door, television, radio, the internet, formal teachers in grade school and universities and on and on. So where did these people get their knowledge? What does their training give us? It is interesting to meditate on this.

Every child quickly learns about gravity. It hurts when you fall off the coffee table. But what is gravity? It's a word coined hundreds of years ago to explain an effect we see: things fall downwards. But what is it exactly?

Science might be thought of as searching for better predictability rather than true knowledge. Inquiring people wanted to know why things rolling down a hill went faster and faster the further the object moved down the hill. It was studied. Mathematical models were developed to describe the motion. How well did the model predict the motion? Was it in error in some situations? How do we change the model to make observations fit better? A mathematical framework began.

In the 1600's, Isaac Newton gave a more complete mathematical explanation but his work was based on earlier investigations. Newton's understanding of the problem provided the basis of calculations that allowed men to land on the moon in 1969. Yet, long before that date, scientists understood that Newton's equations wouldn't work in all situations.

In the early 20th century, Albert Einstein refined Newton's work, looking at gravity from a different perspective. We now have GPS satellites that work because Einstein's equations give the extremely precise signal timings that are required to make them work. They provided better predictability. But we can still ask the question: What is gravity?

Will we humans ever truly grasp the cause of gravity? Perhaps it is, as Newton suggests, the power of a Creator willfully generating a force holding matter together, a force that man defines mathematically. Not a few scientists have alluded to this.

Karl Popper, whom Steven Weinberg has called "the dean of modern philosophers of science," once suggested that there may not be an ultimate theory for physics—that, rather, every explanation may require a further explanation, producing "an infinite chain of more and more fundamental principles." A rival possibility is that such knowledge may simply be beyond us. (B. Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything, 2004, p. 168.)

There are areas of science where predictability has been achieved, but where there are still big gaps in understanding. Quantum physics requires speeds above that of light, yet other areas of physics dictate that nothing can travel faster than light. Nonetheless, this paradox still yields predictability.

Einstein couldn't bear the notion that God could create a universe in which some things were forever unknowable. Moreover, the idea of action at a distance—that one particle could instantaneously influence another trillions of miles away—was a stark violation of the special theory of relativity. This expressly decreed that nothing could outrace the speed of light and yet here were physicists insisting that, somehow, at the subatomic level, information could. (No one, incidentally has ever explained how the particles achieve this feat. Scientists have dealt with this problem, according to the physicist Yakir Aharanov, "by not thinking about it." (Ibid., pp. 146–147)

Mr. Bill Bryson explained the current situation this way:

… we live in a universe whose age we can't quite compute, surrounded by stars whose distances we don't altogether know, filled with matter we can't identify, operating in conformance with physical laws whose properties we don't truly understand. (Ibid., p. 172)

What true scientific knowledge is may come down to a philosophical discussion, or, in the church, we might say a religious discussion. Perhaps the dearth of answers to explain how a complex universe resulted from a cosmic accident may cause man to again consider that it all might not have come to be by chance, but rather as a function of brilliant design and careful maintenance.

Our life consists of learning. Yes, we are highly dependent upon others to provide our training. An infant grows and accumulates knowledge and understanding through the teachings of others and their own life experiences. Learning wouldn't be very efficient if each newborn had to start from scratch. Part of the maturing process is to come to understand that not all "knowledge" is equal. The internet is full of information and it has some knowledge—but precious little wisdom.

At any point in our lives, we can always ask the question: "Well, just what do I know"?

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