The Terrible Knowledge of Not Knowing

I am pompous in the things that I know, there is no way for me to deny it. I spend a lot of time reading, learning, trying to understand the world and my place in it. Astronomy fascinates me, as it shows me that the universe is not a lonely place. Even if there is no other life, there is so much to see, to understand, to learn about… We don’t know a tenth of the physics that make our universe go. There are nebula that contain so much information, that look so beautiful, I could never be bored looking into them. I stare at the Hubble UDF–I’ve probably spent 50 hours of my life looking at that picture, just looking at it, and it is one of the only pictures I keep on the bookmarks bar of every Internet browser I use, at home or at work. Actually, without context, the UDF might just be another picture of space to you, so I implore you to read up about what you are looking at, if you clicked that picture. You can find the information here.

I am comfortable saying I know, to the extent that a human can know, a lot. I am no Ken Jennings, who has made it his profession to know things. I am no Neil DeGrasse Tyson, whose business it is to bring The Cosmos to the masses. I am just a man who tries as hard as I am able to try, to know everything I can know.

Thanks to the Dunning-Kruger Effect, though, I know that there is so much I don’t know that I can barely be said to know anything at all. I will die before we understand what makes the universe tick, I will die before we make contact with extraterrestrial life (though our current understanding of physics makes it, at the least, incredibly unlikely we ever will), I will die before we escape the prison of our own Solar System. It doesn’t matter how long I live, either; if I die tomorrow, or if I die in 70 years, the above statements will still be true.

We are, admittedly, making more scientific progress daily than we have in the vast majority of the last 6000 years (that number was carefully chosen, as readers of my blog may note), so perhaps I am just a pessimist. But this lends itself to two things; my complete lack of fear in death, and my terrible sadness at how much I will never know. When I die does not matter, of course, especially in the grand scheme of things; even in the history of Earth (let alone the universe), my life is so short that the planet will never know i was here, like a human aware of the presence of one particular ant. The Earth, as much as it can be said to be conscious (that is a metaphor) knows there are humans, but the details of any particular one of us are likely lost in the wash of billions of us.

I find it odd that no matter how far I cast my net, and no matter how hard I try to learn all that I can, I will always “know” less than someone who is confident in their religious beliefs. To that end, it can be said that I am jealous of people confident in their religious beliefs, despite the fact that I feel the Dunning-Kruger Effect is in FULL force on both sides. I know, through knowing as much as I can, that I know nothing. They know, through ignoring any information that would damage their religion, that they know far more than I do.

Who is right? Does it matter? Will it matter?

As I said, I am comfortable in the prospect of my own death. Mark Twain, a man whose “old man syndrome” I aspire to one live up to (the man was codgier than Scrooge, and seemed to take the happiness of others as a challenge), famously quipped “I do not fear death. I was dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and had not suffered the slightest inconvenience from it.”

That being said, to the outside observer, it looks like I am afraid–I scramble to know, to understand. I fight to find out the answers to the questions that drive the universe, and it has to look like I am scraping frantically towards something I will never reach.

The reason I want Heaven to exist is not to see my relatives, not to live forever. To me Heaven would be, in the last seconds of my life, knowledge. It would be knowing how the universe works, it would be knowing if there is other intelligent life out there. I mean, I have faith that there is other intelligent life out there, given the vastness of the universe, and the recent explosion of understanding regarding extrasolar planets, I find it mathematically unlikely that we are all there is… But I do not know.

Heaven to me, more than any other vision of it, more than the most romantic notion of the most imaginative religious adherent, would just be knowledge.

Hell is where I am right now, a permanent state not just of not knowing, but knowing that I will never know.

That, maybe, is why death is so easy for me to contemplate. Even if I never get to go to a Heaven (and, unfortunately, I believe I won’t), death is an escape from Hell.

This post is mostly just me organizing some thoughts in my own head. I won’t lie, the previous paragraph is a clearer understanding, for me, on my thoughts of death than I have ever had before. I get to leave hell when I die.

Isn’t that nice?

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