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What Do You Know, Joe?

David Cowles

May 14, 2024

“...The less you ‘know’, the less certainly wrong you are. You approach truth by shedding error. What can I unlearn today?”

My six-year-old grandchild confronted my daughter, “Tell me everything you know.” And it got me thinking…what do we know? How do we know it? And how confident are we that we’ve got it right?

Riddle: How is knowledge like an onion? Answer: It makes us cry? 

Well, yes, that, but also, it presents as a series of concentric spheres: You peel it like sweet Vidalia! The outermost layer (‘Level One’) consists of practical, how-to knowledge: how to build a car, how to fly to the moon, how to repair a pothole (as if!). 

I don’t know about you, but I feel pretty secure about our knowledge at this level. Of course, we will learn to do stuff better, but I can’t foresee us concluding that a major part of this Level One knowledge is actually false. Level One Confidence: > 99%.

When it comes to ‘what works’, we’ve a pretty extensive library. Most of what we know at Level One, we learned merely by trial and error. Just imagine how much we don’t have to know in order to know that rubbing two sticks together can generate a flame.

Next level: Why does rubbing two sticks together, in the proper way under the proper conditions, make fire? Well, we’ve got a handle on that too…we think. 

We have a model of friction and kindling that accounts for the phenomenon of flame. It’s possible that it might get tweaked someday but it’s unlikely to be proven flat out wrong. Unlikely…but not inconceivable. Level Two Confidence: 99%.

After ‘friction and kindling’ things get interesting. If you’re thinking of serving ‘hearts of onion’ at your next lawn party, you’ll want to begin here. If ‘friction and kindling’ can account for flame, what do we need to know to account for the fact that friction and kindling can generate fire? 

What questions do we need our next layer of onion to address? Well, we need a theory of stability and change, of material and metamorphosis. 

We have sticks, we have motion, but why is it that sticks + motion generate flame? Once again, we have an answer: matter + heat. We feel good about what we know but now we’re just a little bit less certain. Maybe some new model will come along that we’ll like better. Probably not, but maybe. Level Three Confidence: 95%.

“Going down! Level Four, particles and forces,” intoned the elevator operator (c. 1960 CE). My favorite floor! Bosons, hadrons, and fermions, oh my! The so-called ‘Standard Model’ is like a Las Vegas buffet: “Three quarks for Muster Mark.” (Finnegan’s Wake)

Now it is likely (but not certain) that this ‘Standard Model’ will have to be tweaked. Much of the information we’re working with will carry over, but new details are likely to emerge. Level Four Confidence: 50%.

What’s next? What comes after Fundamental Particles and Forces? What’s more fundamental than ‘fundamental’? Surprisingly, this silly question has a serious answer; actually, it has a lot of serious answers: strings, n-dimensional spaces, topological twists, singularities, quantum gravity, branes, the multiverse…and that’s the problem: ‘a lot of serious answers’. Level Five Confidence: 10%.

But believe it or not, we’re still not finished. The most important question of all remains:  What’s it all about, Alfie? (Don’t say ‘42’…or ‘a ripe banana’) We have arrived on the shore of the River Styx, the ‘turn’ as we say in Texas Hold ’em, the place where physics and metaphysics meet, where cosmology and theology merge. What lies ‘behind’ all this, if anything? 

Our search now must take us to other realms: to scripture, poetry, and philosophy. To mysticism and music. To art in all its forms. We are no longer in the realm of the empirical. Given that, what’s our confidence level?

Sidebar: In the Divine Comedy, Dante and Virgil encounter Satan at the nadir of the Inferno; he is encased in a block of ice. As our travelers depart Hell for Purgatory, they look back and are surprised to see Satan hanging upside down. 

Dante and Virgil are traveling through non-orientable space. So are we! I would even go so far as to say we are ‘disoriented’, wouldn’t you? But it’s not just Dante, Virgil and us, dear reader. People have been disoriented for millennia. Like that time you took LSD in the ‘60s.

Or the time Alice was turned around in Through the Lookingglass. Trying to walk to the top of a nearby hill, she kept finding herself further away. Precocious child, she decided to walk away from the hill…and soon she found herself at the summit.

Now the math gets really interesting, because from here on, all values are negative:  the ‘more we know’ the ‘less we know’. Crazy? Crazy! But also true.  For example, suppose you claim to know all Level Six information with 100% certainty. Congratulations! But what you know you know with a confidence level of -100%. You don’t just know nothing; much worse: what you do ‘know’ is certainly wrong.

From here on, the less you ‘know’, the less certainly wrong you are. You approach truth by shedding error. What can I unlearn today? Teacher, unlearn me!

If you manage to get to a point where you fully understand that you know absolutely nothing on this level…then perception and reality meet again. You know nothing and you know nothing with a confidence level of 0%. Why 0%, not 100%? Because to be sure you knew nothing would be a kind of knowledge…and I can’t grant you even that. Sorry, old bean. 

So now, just imagine the plight of the poor philosopher, working all her life just to get as close as she can to knowing nothing and then knowing nothing with no confidence. Well, that’s you! (…and me).


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