The presumption that we can understand the universe seems to be the single most absurd belief that human beings have formulated. Part of the problem with the question seems to hinge on how the word “understand” is interpreted. For the purposes of this article I will be using the word in a similar way that Robert Heinlein uses the word “grok” in his book Stranger in a Strange Land. To grok something is to comprehend something with all of one’s being. I can understand that human beings have 10 fingers, but I grok what it means to have and be able to use those fingers myself. They are a part of me and I know them to be incontrovertibly true. I understand my fingers in a pre-verbal, visceral way that can’t and doesn’t need to be explained. When someone watches a game of basketball they may understand that the goal is to put the ball in the hoop or that they have to dribble when moving or the fact that there are two sets of five different players on the court, etc. If you asked a person who knew this whether they understand the game, they would probably say “yes”. However, they certainly do not grok the game in its fullness. They do not know what its like to make an impossible shot or look up at an official for a brief second with the anticipation of a charge or blocking foul or to dive on the floor for a loose ball or any of the millions of possible experiences that could exist in a basketball game. They may hear the words but they don’t feel the music.
This problem of “understanding” relates to how our culture and many others tend to interpret the EVERYTHING. Often, humans are given two choices as if they reflected the only possible paths to groking the EVERYTHING in its fullness. We get a choice of science/reason/rational thinking or faith/spirituality/belief. I find neither of these answers to be helpful. Science has brought us many creations and understandings over the years. Scientists have given language to experiences like gravity. This language has allowed us to change how we perceive life. Without these understandings, many of the wonderful things that exist in our world (everything from flight to the internet) would not exist. Reason has brought us to heights never dreamed of by our forefathers. It has also brought us terrors never before imagined (germ warfare, nuclear annihilation). For my purposes, neither of these points is relevant to the question. Science has brought us to a place where we never believed we could be and the power of its creation has made us think that its potential for discovery is as infinite. I believe that science has limits. Heinlein gets the limits of science perfectly when Valentine Michael Smith (the protagonist in Stranger in a Strange Land) asks “How can you grok a desert by counting its grains of sand?” Science can create marvelous tools to manage parts of the physical world, but to grok it in its fullness there seems to be a need for something more. The explanation that love or joy or sorrow are nothing more than a few synapses firing in different directions seems woefully inadequate to explain us, let alone the interplay of billions of sentient creatures. There must be more.
But is that “something more” a belief in something beyond our understanding (a higher power?). Many people believe that God is an all-powerful; omniscient being that controls the universe. But if God is all-powerful and omniscient how could flawed, miniscule beings ever expect to understand anything about this God? How can we possibly grok something that is admittedly beyond our understanding? The idea itself seems bizarre. People often chalk up experiences to being “part of God’s great plan”. But, if we don’t completely understand what God’s plan for us is how can we possibly understand that an action is part of the plan? Why do those of faith assume that there is a greater reason for the things they do not understand? Maybe there is and maybe they are right but how would they know? We are given a scant few highly conflicting religious texts. Can it really be assumed that everything a person needs to know about the universe can be summed up in the Bible or another religious text? Many people believe this. I think the mistake in this is to assume that this thing can be understood using a book. One book, millions of books, cannot sum the EVERYTHING up. It is still greater than the whole of human knowledge, let alone the contents of one book. Belief often seems to function as a great off switch in the mind. We see something so beautiful or horrible or absurd that the mind says “Uncle!” and we give ourselves over to a belief that there must be some meaning to it that we are missing. But, how do we know that anything actually has a meaning? We can hope, we can wish, we can pray, but we can never know. We just chalk it up to an act of God or the workings of spirits that we can never conclusively prove to anyone including ourselves.
What troubles me about faith is not its deferment to a higher power but its willingness to concede truths to those who have come before or us or to books written before our time. Sometimes I wonder if the worship of God is merely the worship of the past. Maybe we are just harkening back to an illusory time where a more pious people than ourselves who knew more than us were able to connect with some great force in the sky and reveal its truths. Some religious folks look back to Moses or Jesus or Mohammad or a cast of many other characters and assume that they knew enough not only to understand their world but also to understand ours. I have a hard time believing that any person can possibly understand the world they are thrust into. The thought that a person who walked the earth 2000 years ago can not only understand his world but also understand mine seems highly unlikely. What if they are right? It doesn’t really matter because I can NEVER know for certain.
The “central” question faced by human beings is not spiritual or scientific but epistemological. How can we ever really know what we know or that we even know it? We are given limited and barbaric tools, our senses, in which to meet the world. These senses are easily fooled and can be manipulated by inside or outside forces. Yet I can’t even say for certain that anything is an illusion. If I spent a hundred lifetimes, I don’t know if I could grok in fullness the experiences that take place in one moment in one American town. And yet, somehow, humans feel it possible to understand the wholeness of everything. Science and religion fail to give the correct answer because they are asking the wrong question. The question is often posed as “How can we understand the universe?” (….and we get to choose between spirit and reason or some hybrid of both). The question should be “Can we understand the universe?” I simply don’t know that we are capable of this understanding. If we are capable of this feat of comprehension I don’t know that we can ever, for certain, know that we are capable of it. How would we know? What is our point of reference? How would we ever no for sure that our beliefs are not based on illusions or misinterpretations? We don’t know for certain and, yet, so many of our institutions, be they religious or secular, function on the belief that we know for certain how things are going to work out if we take certain actions or do things a special way. This belief pervades our churches, our hospitals, our schools and our homes. Our value judgments, our morality and our understandings are constantly shaded with the haughty taint of false understanding. Really, we know next to nothing. Maybe the only thing it is possible for us to completely understand about the universe is that we don’t understand the universe.