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The Island of Knowledge: Science and the Meaning of Life

“As the Island of Knowledge grows, so do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown. Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.”

***

Common across human history is our longing to better understand the world we live in, and how it works. But how much can we actually know about the world?

In his book, The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, Physicist Marcelo Gleiser traces our progress of modern science in the pursuit to the most fundamental questions on existence, the origin of the universe, and the limits of knowledge.

What we know of the world is limited by what we can see and what we can describe, but our tools have evolved over the years to reveal ever more pleats into our fabric of knowledge. Gleiser celebrates this persistent struggle to understand our place in the world and travels our history from ancient knowledge to our current understanding.

While science is not the only way to see and describe the world we live in, it is a response to the questions on who we are, where we are, and how we got here. “Science speaks directly to our humanity, to our quest for light, ever more light.

To move forward, science needs to fail, which runs counter to our human desire for certainty. “We are surrounded by horizons, by incompleteness.” Rather than give up, we struggle along a scale of progress. What makes us human is this journey to understand more about the mysteries of the world and explain them with reason. This is the core of our nature.

While the pursuit is never ending, the curious journey offers insight not just into the natural world, but insight into ourselves.

“What I see in Nature is a magnificent structure that we can comprehend only
very imperfectly,
and that must fill a thinking person with a feeling of humility.”
— Albert Einstein

We tend to think that what we see is all there is — that there is nothing we cannot see. We know it isn’t true when we stop and think, yet we still get lulled into a trap of omniscience.

Science is thus limited, offering only part of the story — the part we can see and measure. The other part remains beyond our immediate reach.

What we see of the world,” Gleiser begins, “is only a sliver of what’s out there.”

There is much that is invisible to the eye, even when we augment our sensorial perception with telescopes, microscopes, and other tools of exploration. Like our senses, every instrument has a range. Because much of Nature remains hidden from us, our view of the world is based only on the fraction of reality that we can measure and analyze. Science, as our narrative describing what we see and what we conjecture exists in the natural world, is thus necessarily limited, telling only part of the story. … We strive toward knowledge, always more knowledge, but must understand that we are, and will remain, surrounded by mystery. This view is neither antiscientific nor defeatist. … Quite the contrary, it is the flirting with this mystery, the urge to go beyond the boundaries of the known, that feeds our creative impulse, that makes us want to know more.

While we may broadly understand the map of what we call reality, we fail to understand its terrain. Reality, Gleiser argues, “is an ever-shifting mosaic of ideas.”

However…

The incompleteness of knowledge and the limits of our scientific worldview only add to the richness of our search for meaning, as they align science with our human fallibility and aspirations.

What we call reality is a (necessarily) limited synthesis. It is certainly our reality, as it must be, but it is not the entire reality itself:

My perception of the world around me, as cognitive neuroscience teaches us, is synthesized within different regions of my brain. What I call reality results from the integrated sum of countless stimuli collected through my five senses, brought from the outside into my head via my nervous system. Cognition, the awareness of being here now, is a fabrication of a vast set of chemicals flowing through myriad synaptic connections between my neurons. … We have little understanding as to how exactly this neuronal choreography engenders us with a sense of being. We go on with our everyday activities convinced that we can separate ourselves from our surroundings and construct an objective view of reality.

The brain is a great filtering tool, deaf and blind to vast amounts of information around us that offer no evolutionary advantage. Part of it we can see and simply ignore. Other parts, like dust particles and bacteria, go unseen because of limitations of our sensory tools.

As the Fox said to the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s fable, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” There is no better example than oxygen.

Science has increased our view. Our measurement tools and instruments can see bacteria and radiation, subatomic particles and more. However precise these tools have become, their view is still limited.

There is no such thing as an exact measurement. Every measurement must be stated within its precision and quoted together with “error bars” estimating the magnitude of errors. High-precision measurements are simply measurements with small error bars or high confidence levels; there are no perfect, zero-error measurements.

[…]

Technology limits how deeply experiments can probe into physical reality. That is to say, machines determine what we can measure and thus what scientists can learn about the Universe and ourselves. Being human inventions, machines depend on our creativity and available resources. When successful, they measure with ever-higher accuracy and on occasion may also reveal the unexpected.

“All models are wrong, some are useful.”
— George Box

What we know about the world is only what we can detect and measure — even if we improve our “detecting and measuring” as time goes along. And thus we make our conclusions of reality on what we can currently “see.”

We see much more than Galileo, but we can’t see it all. And this restriction is not limited to measurements: speculative theories and models that extrapolate into unknown realms of physical reality must also rely on current knowledge. When there is no data to guide intuition, scientists impose a “compatibility” criterion: any new theory attempting to extrapolate beyond tested ground should, in the proper limit, reproduce current knowledge.

[…]

If large portions of the world remain unseen or inaccessible to us, we must consider the meaning of the word “reality” with great care. We must consider whether there is such a thing as an “ultimate reality” out there — the final substrate of all there is — and, if so, whether we can ever hope to grasp it in its totality.

[…]

We thus must ask whether grasping reality’s most fundamental nature is just a matter of pushing the limits of science or whether we are being quite naive about what science can and can’t do.

Here is another way of thinking about this: if someone perceives the world through her senses only (as most people do), and another amplifies her perception through the use of instrumentation, who can legitimately claim to have a truer sense of reality? One “sees” microscopic bacteria, faraway galaxies, and subatomic particles, while the other is completely blind to such entities. Clearly they “see” different things and—if they take what they see literally—will conclude that the world, or at least the nature of physical reality, is very different.

Asking who is right misses the point, although surely the person using tools can see further into the nature of things. Indeed, to see more clearly what makes up the world and, in the process to make more sense of it and ourselves is the main motivation to push the boundaries of knowledge. … What we call “real” is contingent on how deeply we are able to probe reality. Even if there is such thing as the true or ultimate nature of reality, all we have is what we can know of it.

[…]

Our perception of what is real evolves with the instruments we use to probe Nature. Gradually, some of what was unknown becomes known. For this reason, what we call “reality” is always changing. … The version of reality we might call “true” at one time will not remain true at another. … Given that our instruments will always evolve, tomorrow’s reality will necessarily include entitles not known to exist today. … More to the point, as long as technology advances—and there is no reason to suppose that it will ever stop advancing for as long as we are around—we cannot foresee an end to this quest. The ultimate truth is elusive, a phantom.

Gleiser makes his point with a beautiful metaphor. The Island of Knowledge.

Consider, then, the sum total of our accumulated knowledge as constituting an island, which I call the “Island of Knowledge.” … A vast ocean surrounds the Island of Knowledge, the unexplored ocean of the unknown, hiding countless tantalizing mysteries.

The Island of Knowledge grows as we learn more about the world and ourselves. And as the island grows, so too “do the shores of our ignorance—the boundary between the known and unknown.”

Learning more about the world doesn’t lead to a point closer to a final destination—whose existence is nothing but a hopeful assumption anyways—but to more questions and mysteries. The more we know, the more exposed we are to our ignorance, and the more we know to ask.

As we move forward we must remember that despite our quest, the shores of our ignorance grow as the Island of Knowledge grows. And while we will struggle with the fact that not all questions will have answers, we will continue to progress. “It is also good to remember,” Gleiser writes, “that science only covers part of the Island.”

Richard Feynman has pointed out before that science can only answer the subset of question that go, roughly, “If I do this, what will happen?” Answers to questions like Why do the rules operate that way? and Should I do it? are not really questions of scientific nature — they are moral, human questions, if they are knowable at all.

There are many ways of understanding and knowing that should, ideally, feed each other. “We are,” Gleiser concludes, “multidimensional creatures and search for answers in many, complementary ways. Each serves a purpose and we need them all.”

“The quest must go on. The quest is what makes us matter: to search for more answers, knowing that the significant ones will often generate surprising new questions.”

The Island of Knowledge is a wide-ranging tour through scientific history from planetary motions to modern scientific theories and how they affect our ideas on what is knowable.

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