6. We drastically overestimate how much of the universe we understand

Every civilization in history has thought that they have it about 85% figured out, that there’s just some small cracks and gaps in their knowledge which have yet to be filled it, but generally they have it in the bag

Me, apparently

I read a quote to the effect of the above, once. I couldn’t find it today. Not being able to find it led me on a rabbit hole of figuring out how to make my browser history fully searchable, so maybe I’ll write about that soon.

The “it” I’m referring to in the quote is something like “understanding of the universe”, or “scientific knowledge”, or “general sense that we understand how things work”.

There’s a sort of civilizational hubris that I find pretty funny… yet also inescapable. We have confidence in our systems, in our science and research and mathematics. The bits we don’t have right yet seem smallish in comparison. Like, does it matter whether loop quantum gravity is right, or that string theory isn’t verifiable? Probably not, right? We broadly understand and are making incremental developments everywhere across science and technology.

But.. every civilization has believed this. The Romans believed this, and the Spanish believed this, and the people of the Qing Dynasty believed this, the British Empire believed this. And now we do too. Why are we different, what did they have wrong?

I think the scope of the problem changes. Like, the Romans lived without electricity, and probably circa 200 AD thought their civilization was basically reaching the global maximum of the possibility space of civilization. They had roads, plumbing, sewers, ice, exotic spices and fruits, games, baths, theater, music, etc. You could get on a ship and travel from one end of the (known) world to the other thanks to the Mediterranean, and you could be drinking wine from Spain and olive oil from the Levant on the journey. They did have it figured out. Rome and Byzantium fell apart for a bunch of reasons but skipping a few hundred years it turned out gunpowder was a thing, and there was a whole set of optimizations that could be made around that. Or eventually that electricity was a thing, and that created a whole new playground of R&D and understanding of the world that nobody thought could have existed. They didn’t know what they didn’t know.

What do we not know that we don’t know. We don’t know plenty of stuff that could turn our understanding of the world pretty sideways, at least in hindsight. We don’t know how to ‘do’ economics, for one. We can’t account for 85% of the mass-energy of the universe. We know relativity and quantum mechanics are true but can’t reconcile the two, so probably something is up, there. Definitely some paradigms to be shifted.

Probably the universe is at least understandable. But maybe even that’s wrong. Maybe it’s understandable but unfathomably incommunicable. The dao which can be spoken is not the eternal dao.

I’m part of the universe, can I communicate myself? How about you?

It seems to me that the “purpose” of us, of life, of this self-recursive component of reality capable of observing and understanding itself is to do exactly that. To bear witness. To introspect as to the nature of reality and experience, in not only the individual sense but also the cosmic sense, in a way that the sum total of all awarenesses introspecting forms a large cosmic awareness introspecting. By purpose I mean the धर्म (dharma), like the धर्म of a light bulb is to produce light. It’s what we gotta do if we’re doing what we gotta do.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this line of thinking. Maybe we figure it out.

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