The Unknow-it-all

Getting smart by being clueless.

Me. (Image credit: B. Danzig / Jesse Collins)

The more I read the less I know. I’m trying to see this as a virtue, because I have spent a stupid amount of money on books. I have recently become obsessed with physics. This is odd because I have a GED. In my feeble mind I imagined that I would do a quick check-in to see if any of the Big Questions have been answered yet. They haven’t. And instead of finding answers I am finding bigger questions. The anxiety of not knowing has fueled an Amazon shopping spree that is driving my wife up the wall. To justify my recent purchases I underlined passages where not knowing seemed like a good thing. It has given me some hope.

“It continues, it continues, teeming life, and death
Tender and hostile, clear and unknowable.”

Carlo Rovelli is a physicist that I find a lot of inspiration in. He sees mathematical models in Italian poetry. On Dante’s lyrical descent into the Inferno the universe is described as a point of light and a sphere of angels “surrounding, and at the same time, surrounded by the universe.” In his book, Reality is Not What it Seems, Rovelli says any physicist would recognize Dante’s verse as describing what is called a 3-sphere — Albert Einstein’s mathematical model for how a universe could loop back on itself to create infinite space.

How could it be that a medieval poet was able to visualize a modern understanding of our universe 400 years before physics? “Dante was free of the restraints upon our intuition,” Rovelli says, describing how our education is a paradox. It gives us a grounding in science to understand our world with greater clarity, but separates that science from the intuitive arts like drama, poetry, and even mysticism from which all of these things were once intertwined. Physics, as Rovelli explains, had not been conceived of in Dante’s time so he was able to visualize what he did precisely because of what he did not know.

“I believe that this example demonstrates how great science and great poetry are both visionary, and may even arrive at the same intuitions,” Rovelli says, once again invoking the word intuition, which is not often associated with science. “Our culture is foolish to keep science and poetry separated: they are two tools to open our eyes to the complexity and beauty in the world.”

The idea of intuition has surfaced a lot in popular science books I’ve been reading. Another physicist, Brian Greene, says in his book The Hidden Reality, that most of our understanding of reality will always be unknown to us. He believes that for science to progress, in spite of this vast unknowable space, it will require sharp calculation skills “as well as intuition.” Greene echoes Rovelli when he adds that those who lead this charge will combine “the best of rigorous science with artistic sensibility.”

Intuition is a latin word, which in itself is not unusual for a scientist to use. The Latin root tueri means ‘to look at’ or ‘to watch over,’ but the prefix offers an interesting juxtaposition. In- can mean ‘in’ as one might look inward or inside but it can also mean ‘not’ as how something unseen might remain invisible. It’s ambiguous. The word must conjure heartburn for left-brained thinkers.

Comparisons to religion are made, unfavorably Greene adds, by colleagues in his field who have a distaste for the theoretical fray of physics where answers to life’s biggest questions may forever lie beyond the reach of math. Many fear, as Greene says, that it “will lack the precision that for so long has distinguished physics from other disciplines.” And though they see these new developments as theologically tinged, Greene adds, ironically, they see this “as a battleground for the very soul of science.”

Here’s a parable from my own life: My wife and I had a dog named Emma who passed away this year. She was a good girl and beautiful soul. When I held her in my arms, and turned toward our reflection in the mirror, Emma refused to look. She would hear me talking close to her ear, then turn to see my face and hers doubled in an alternate reality and quickly turn away. It was funny but poignant. People do the same thing. Leonard Susskind, a proponent of Brian Greene’s ilk of mind-bending physics theories, says “those who ignore the possibility that we are part of a multiverse are merely averting their eyes from a vision they find overwhelming.” A multiverse is an infinite array of alternate universes — think of a mirror reflecting back on itself with incremental changes evolving along the infinite variations — the existence of these multiverses is unprovable. And the experience of what it would be like to live in one will forever be unknown to us — at least as far as math is concerned.

All of this is to say that the science which had hoped to have a theory of everything, knows little to nothing about the origins of our existence. And probably never will. Yet, where science despairs, I see hope.

I am a writer and the unknown is where I work. I have often arrived at truths in my writing that I did not set out to find. Whether for a client or my own fiction, I start every blank page facing the unknown. Yes, I research and kick around ideas in my notes, pitch lines to my wife and friends to see if I can pique their interest — I even outline! But there is no reliable formula. In the end what I set out to say never comes together how I think it will. My writing — and my thinking — are often better for it.

I had said that I was feeling dumb in spite of all the books I’ve read. To justify my incompetence I had begun underlining passages where not knowing seemed like a good thing. Hope came in an example that seemed to be the crucible for all the power of the unknown. It was a story elaborated on in Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, the book that kicked-off the barefoot running craze and possibly exists now as the Secret History of running. And I found the story picked-up again in Sapiens, a book by Yuval Noah Harrari, a deep thinker and intuitive futurist renown for his monk-level meditation.

The story is about how science and the arts were born in our mind out of persistence hunting. That we would chase down an animal that could run faster than us but not longer. We would track the animal through deduction and intuition. Paw prints, dung, and trampled brush would give us clues to where our prey might have run. Our intuition would fill in the rest. When we would lose the trail completely we would hunt by speculation alone, and throw our mind into the animal’s own. Pure fiction. The mind of an animal we could not know. And yet, in the end, we ate.

Nobody would ever mistake my scattered mind for that of a scientist’s. But I have lived long enough to trust in the power of my own intuition. To face a blank page — or life’s journey — with a shockingly empty head and find my way to something meaningful. To listen to my primordial gut when it tells me to love, to learn, and to unlearn where necessary, to find the answers to the big questions on my own. And to conjure truths from the unknown.