Class Warfare Blog

October 20, 2019

The “Limits” of Our Understanding, Part 2

As I mentioned in my last post, I am reading a book whose subtitle is “The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning.” I just got started so I don’t have much to say about the book, yet, but I have an initial reaction to a couple of things (one of which was covered in the previous post). Another of these was a metaphor used by the author called the Island of Knowledge. Basically it likens our total knowledge to an island in a sea of the Unknown. As we learn, the island gets bigger and likewise has a greater/longer shoreline where it contacts the unknown. So, as we learn more, there is even more to learn.

As metaphors go, this is fairly accurate, but it is also misleading. If you take it seriously, the “shore” would increase as the square of the diameter of the island, so our acknowledged ignorance would increase at the same rate as our knowledge. Implied is that the more we know the more we need to know. Sounds a little depressing, no? (Interestingly, our acquisition of knowledge as a species is accelerating.)

Let’s consider an example—knowledge of the universe around us.

In early history we believed that the “heavens” were limited to what we could see and were controlled by various deities (depending on your religion/culture). Fast forward about 5000 years and the telescope shows us that there is more there than meets the eye and we no longer believe that the planets and stars move in “their heavenly courses” by being propelled by supernatural entities. It seems that Newton’s theory of gravity accounted for “everything” quite nicely with no supernatural help. Just one hundred or so years ago, we felt that our Milky Way galaxy was “everything,” only to find out that it is one of myriad (hundreds of billions at least) similar galaxies. Today, we know that the universe is unfathomably immense (possibly infinitely so), expanding, and billions of years old.

Some consequences of this are that the nearest star is 4.3 light-years away from us in space and time. The light we observe from that star was radiated out 4.3 years ago. This is the closest star, all of the others are farther away in both space and time. Our galaxy contains hundreds of billions of stars and planets (best estimate) and is 70,000 light years away from the next closest galaxy. That is a vast distance and also 70,000 years of time away from here.

So, you can see our expanding “Island of Knowledge” has introduced trillions of objects to us we know next to nothing about. Argh! However, the vast majority of those objects are too far away in space and time to have any effect upon anything happening here and now. So, our need to know anything about those objects is a matter of curiosity and not necessity. All “unknowns” are not equal.

Anything happening in that neighbor galaxy will take 70,000 years for us to find out, so “Meh.” But what if 70,000 years ago a ferocious gamma ray burst occurred . . . in our direction . . . and it will arrive in just a few months. (Such a burst, if intense enough, could sterilize if not kill every living thing on this planet.) The time gap between us and “them” precludes direct communication, trade, mining, etc. but that doesn’t mean that things that happened in the past and are just being perceived here can’t have some effect, no? Yes, . . . and . . . again the sheer distance protects us. As the distance between a source of electromagnetic radiation and us increases, the intensity of the radiation decreases by the square of the distance. Did I mention that the other galaxy is 662,000,000,000,000,000 km (70,000 light years in km) away? Squaring that number creates a really big factor by which to decrease the intensity of the radiation. (I focus on radiation because it can travel at the speed of light and matter only a tiny fraction of that.) This is why we can only see a few thousand star by naked eye in even the clearest night sky. The others are far enough away to be too dim to see.

As another example, consider in our own solar system, how the distance to the Sun controls the planetary conditions. Mercury is so hot metals can flow ion its surface. The outer planets are so cold that common gases here on Earth are liquids and solids there. The reason for this is simply that the Sun’s radiation is diluted (as the square of the distance) the farther you get away from it. (If you have ever sat around a campfire in cold weather, you know this.)

So, back to “The Island of Knowledge.” It is true that the more questions we answer, the more questions become possible. Absolutely true. But that certainly doesn’t mean that those questions become more significant. In fact, it seems that they become less significant in many cases. And, again, the Platonic thinking of there being “ultimate knowledge” or “perfect solids,” and whatnot can lead one to think pessimistically. But philosophically this is the equivalent to taking the question “If a tree falls in a forest and there is nobody there to hear it, did it fall?” and transforming it into “If a tree falls in a forest on another planet, in another galaxy, did it really fall?” The first question helps college students learn to think. The second question would only elicit “Meh.”


  1. Two scariest misconceptions: infinity and gravity…and liquid, solid and gas as constants. This is interesting, thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by And Or Theory — October 20, 2019 @ 9:58 am | Reply

  2. I forgot the actual timeline for this (it’s many, many, many billions of years), but there will come a time in the expanding universe that anyone born in our local cluster of galaxies will believe that cluster is the ENTIRE universe… and for them, it will be.

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — October 20, 2019 @ 4:19 pm | Reply

  3. Found it…

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by john zande — October 20, 2019 @ 4:25 pm | Reply

    • Since it is you, I will watch … (I generally consider videos to be an inefficient form of communication for most ideas.)

      On Sun, Oct 20, 2019 at 4:25 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



      Comment by Steve Ruis — October 21, 2019 @ 11:30 am | Reply

      • Kurzgesagt is superb. Truly, truly superb.


        Comment by john zande — October 21, 2019 @ 11:36 am | Reply

        • Well, his key attribute is in his name “kurz” being “short and “gesagt” being “said.” :o)

          On Mon, Oct 21, 2019 at 11:36 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:



          Comment by Steve Ruis — October 21, 2019 @ 12:02 pm | Reply

      • I’m with you, Steve. Not much for videos. Nevertheless, I started watching this one. And quit about 1/3 of the way in. Boring.

        HOWEVER, the first part contained something I think many (most?) people overlook — or even consider. And that is …

        Few humans truly recognize and consider how infinitesimally small we are in the “big picture” — and yet we carry on these ridiculous discussions related to religion and politics (to name two of the most popular) as though the entire universe might be altered by our opinion. We are truly self-absorbed beings.


        Comment by Nan — October 21, 2019 @ 1:36 pm | Reply

        • Interesting, I also stopped about that far through. It is clear that the big barrier to the step wise approach he is describing is that not all of the steps are the same size or take the same time. (This is the problem with illustrations that “wing it” … they are out of scale in distance and and time and hence are misleading.) Even if we wish to colonize the rest of the solar system, well, that seems withing our capabilities. But the closest star to us is 4.3 light years away, and the next is farther, and the one after that even farther. As to why we have not yet seen signs of alien life … well, how long have we been looking? There could have been myriad alien civilizations that are now extinct for all we know as we haven’t the tools to do remote archaeology. Science fiction writers have been concocting tales for centuries about what we might find. They range from nothing, to a few remains, to many, many, many remains, to being up to our asses in aliens species which have held off contacting us because of some compact or we weren’t ripe enough for the plucking, etc. Have any of those scenarios found favor in the science community? No. Ever wonder why? I’ll tell you … no fucking evidence!

          So, we have been actively looking for signs of life elsewhere for less than one century and so, far, having explored one planet extensively (Earth) and a couple of others microscopically. We have a hit rate of 1:1 for planets studied extensively and life being found. Great Filter my ass … distance and time, distance and time, baby! Patience is what we need, Grasshopper, patience.

          On Mon, Oct 21, 2019 at 1:36 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — October 22, 2019 @ 12:17 pm | Reply

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