Saturday, December 18, 2010

Projectile Understanding

I want to talk about the nature of knowing what we know.  By the end I hope to have said something to people who are skeptics (and to people who can be smug in their beliefs).  In order to do that, I would like to acquaint you with a little bit of science.

So lets just get to it.

We know that there are certain limitations on our understanding when it comes to knowledge.  For example in the world of physics (of which I am almost completely illiterate), we know that we are almost completely ignorant of certain truths by nature of how limited our senses are.  Werner Heisenberg, a quantum physicist in the 1920's and 30's became famous in the philosophical world because of an observation he made in his area of expertise.   His assertion was just that you cannot simultaneously know the position and the momentum of a particular electron.  It became known as Heisenbergs's Uncertainty Principle.

Now I don't want to pretend that I am an expert on quantum mechanics, so I am just going to say that a fair summary of the uncertainty principle goes like this - 

The closer you get to knowing something is the further away you get from knowing it.   With electrons, Heisenberg said that in trying to observe the location of the electron, the energy you apply in observing it changes the momentum of it.  So you can't know both at the same time.  The closer you get, the further away you are.  Imagine trying to find something like your socks and every time you get an idea of where they are it affects the place where they are at.  Frustrating.

This applies in other areas of science - the very tools we use to observe something (like light) may affect the very thing we are trying to study (like, say . . . light) and thereby affect our understanding of the very thing we are trying to study.  Again, frustrating.

In a simplistic way, it is like trying to look at something on a window pane up close.  The closer we get,  the more detail we see but the closer our breath comes to the window pane, the more it fogs up the pane of glass.  

So there are certain things that will always have an amount of uncertainty because of how our senses function and what we use to observe the world.  It is ironic that the more we draw our hand closed on understanding, the more it eludes us in certain areas.  So the best we can do is to fill in the gaps on what we don't know with ideas of what we do know.  

This reminds me a little of the Kantian predicament - that we are not so much observers as we are projectors of information.  As we look more closely at why we know what we think we know, it gets kind of scary how much we really don't know.

For example, in the most simplistic sense (you have probably heard this one before) do we really know that the room has a nice tan carpet or is the color a value that I have projected onto the wavelength of light that is reflected to my eye? In this sense, I am not just observing, I am projecting what my mind associates with a specific wavelength of light.  I am no longer passively noticing things, but actively projecting values.  Is the smell really cinnamon that I smell coming from that candle or is this a value I assign to certain particles that are released from the man-made materials of the candle as it heats up?  The first two years of life we spend formatting our brain's hard drives so that our 'operating system' knows how to assign values to the things that we see and sense.

It is truly a marvelous function of design - that our minds develop as we seek to put tags on the things that come into our brains from the outside world.  It helps us to develop reason and manufacture meaning - two necessary items for moving through the world that we inhabit.

The problem is that we have done such a good job at projecting these values on such arbitrary things as carpet colors and candle odors that we trick ourselves into thinking that these things are 'real.'  In so doing, we push the 'real' nature of the outside world farther away as we move through life.  The true nature of the world is actually devoid of things like 'color' or 'scents' or hot or cold or rough or smooth.  These are values that the mind manufactures to make sure as humans that we survive in our world.  Projections.  At best they are survival values that enable us to manipulate our surroundings.  The true nature of the world (what Kant would call "the thing in itself") is lost to us - we can have no idea of what that really is.

In fact, the more that we try to grasp it, the more it moves away.

That is why people who believe in God or don't believe in God because of logic are sorely deluded.  Logic is a program that runs in our heads that creates the wonderful illusion of what we might call 'reality.' But that is all it is. 

I think that is why the Bible has a lot to say about pride.  Especially intellectual pride.  It is the uncertainty principle at work in the minds of mortals.  We don't realize that the closer we think we are, the further away it all is.

Intellectual arrogance blinds us to the fact that we might feel like we have all the answers staring us right in the face, but the truth is because of the inability for us to even know the "thing in itself" as Kant put it shows us just how far away we really are from any certainty.  You cannot put your finger on what you are after because the best knowledge we have as humans is approximations of what our senses can deliver to our minds.  Not only do we have the filter of the senses which are very narrow in bandwidth, but we have the very limited brain that always seeks patterns as a way of moving through the world.  Because of this, we will always project onto the world what we think we know, but we will never be closer to actually knowing what it is in itself.

Now imagine how all this impacts the God who is immanent . . .

The Bible describes a God who, among other things, describes Himself as present and wanting to be among us.  This immanence is unique among the world religions - a revolutionary concept for the middle to late bronze age.  Other gods in Mesopotamia were completely indifferent to the story of man.  It is the God of the Old Testament that breaks into history seeking man's good.  From telling Moses that "I will be with you" to the end of John's Revelation in which "they will be my people" - God is all about immanence.

To me, pride is not the sin that makes God angry because of our arrogance.  Pride is the sin that moves people further away from the truth.  Just as much as our projectile understanding pushes us further away from the truth about what is real, it is the misuse of our intellect that pushes us further and further from the God who longs to be with us.

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