Archive for March, 2012

Happiness: A Theory – Being Humble About What We Know

March 8, 2012



There is a circuit in the brain that snaps shut on the issue of knowledge.  What do I know, we ask ourselves, and then we decide, not unlike a shopper’s query about what to buy at the store today.   The further the question strays from our familiar, repeatable algorithms, the more likely we are simply deciding that we know something of which we know very little.  The brain seems unabashed about engaging in such posturing, with itself, let alone others.


A moment of contemplating our surroundings helps to illuminate the problem.  Within our galaxy, the Milky Way, there are some 200 to 400 billion stars.  Within the observable universe, beyond the Milky Way, there are some 80 billion galaxies.  There are some 30 sextillion to septillion stars out there, in the part we can see.


And yet, just to arrive at a single star, our closest neighbor to the sun, we must travel some 4.3 light years.  If you remember getting sick on a car trip as a kid, just imagine having roadside trouble during a voyage of this magnitude.  Imagine trying to turn around and find your way home.  Even if we could harness a transportation technology that came anywhere close to the speed of light, it is hard to imagine the brave souls who might attempt such a trip, all for the sake of finding a star with no earthlike planet.


Yet, earthlike planets surely are out there.  In a universe so vast, the numbers cry out for evolved life, including life with powers of perception that, by comparison, could make our own cortexes seem on the order of a slime mold.


The problem, however, is that whatever higher order knowing the universe may hold, it is likely so far away, it will flourish and wither in a sequestered capsule.  Yet, just as an ancient mathematician studied shadows on well walls in different locales at the same time of day to discern that our flat-seeming world was a sphere, we may intuit that there are levels of knowing in our universe far beyond our own.


And it is just such an intuition that may serve us to be humble about what we know.  To refrain from puffing ourselves up in a posture of certitude, when our humble circumstances warrant nothing of the kind.


There is a kind of relief available to us in admitting our limited ability to know.  It frees us to appreciate life as it unfolds, in the way it unfolds for us.