Do we know anything?

(Updated April 30, 2022)

I had a girlfriend in high school, Michelle, who once said to me, “Your problem is you believe everyone should think the way you do.”

She wasn’t necessarily being mean or snotty when she said this, but making an observation of one of my many character flaws. Over 40 years later and often remembering her words, she proved to be an intuitive young lady.

Pride—the wrong kind—is one of the worst and most destructive of character traits, for both a nation and its individual members; it’s listed as “numero uno” among the list of the seven deadly sins. Throughout my life, I have pondered its negative effects on my life and in the lives of others.

The opposite of pride is humility, and I’ve always desired this virtue in my life but realizing it is not one that is easily obtained. I believe we are born with it in our inner beings and must learn to be humble. Certainly no one has to teach us to be proud and arrogant; being humble, on the other hand, does not come easy and only seems to come when we are faced with situations that prove to us our abysmal imperfections, character defects, weaknesses, and limitations.

Pride—the wrong kind—is one of the worst and most destructive of character traits.

Most have heard the phrase, the “Ugly American.” It is a decidedly negative description of the behavior of Americans too often manifested when we are visitors to other countries and has often bothered me. To be fair, the citizens of other countries who have been blessed with unfathomable wealth also are guilty of the same behavior, but it hurts and embarrasses me to be guilty of this disgusting vice.

I’ve learned that advancing age, with all of its setbacks, disappointments, failures, and failed dreams, can provide those of us who struggle with pride some desperately needed perspective.

One of the eye-opening events which brought this needed perspective came when I became seriously interested in cosmology and contemplated the mind-numbing size of the Universe. Most know the Universe is gigantic, but it was only when I seriously began to think and visualize how big it truly is that a revolution began happening in my thinking.

What tipped me “over the edge” as far as realizing how little mankind actually knows was the Hubble “deep field” and “ultra deep field” photographs. Learning about these two photographs and the back stories of how they came to be changed my life-long perspectives on the extent to what mankind actually knows. And when we truly understand these photographs and what they actually mean, one conclusion is unavoidable: we truly know nothing. And this shook my world.

Ultra Deep Field

I clearly remember the first time—not that long ago—when I watched a video that told the remarkable story of how that tiny speck in the night sky was chosen by one scientist for Hubble to focus on: he wanted to have Hubble focus on one of the darkest portions of the night sky that seemed to contain little, if any, galactic activity.

And the results changed our view of the Universe as well as disrupted my own viewpoints on faith. For as I looked at that blown up speck in the night sky and realized there were at least 10,000 galaxies contained within that tiny portion, it dawned on me that, no matter how much knowledge man has managed to accumulate throughout our existence on this planet, in comparison to all the other galaxies we could see or calculate being out there, we know nothing—absolutely nothing at all. Perhaps even less than nothing.

What did this mean, then, for the Bible? It meant that whatever knowledge or wisdom it contains, it seems to be—in general—relevant to only what has happened on our tiny insignificant planet floating around in the infinitesimally great expanse of the cosmos. Isolated only to Earth, what possible eternal truths could we count on that would apply to those other portions of the Universe? Probably very little, if anything at all. Our understanding of the Bible—and, in fact, all other holy books—is relevant only to this small isolated planet that is completely swallowed up by the vastness of the Universe.

Even if the Bible is 100% true—even if all of the other “holy books” together taught absolute truth—combined together they all add up to nothing as far as the information we have about God, ourselves, heaven, eternity, our souls, an afterlife, etc.—even less than nothing.

If we take all the sand grains on earth and pile them in a heap, a gigantic, towering mountain, Earth would maybe represent one single grain of sand when compared to all the other stars and planets in the known Universe. Current estimates of the amount of galaxies (not planets or stars) in the known Universe are anywhere between 100 billion and two trillion. And all of our knowledge, wisdom and learning adds up to nothing in comparison to all the knowledge, wisdom and learning of these other grains of sand.

This was a life changing revelation for me that reverberates even to this day. One of the things it did to my thinking is this: I really don’t know anything, and whatever I might happen to know, it amounts to nothing.

I really don’t know anything, and whatever I might happen to know, it amounts to nothing.

This humbled me, taking the wind out of my sails for my arrogant, life long beliefs that I had opinions that mattered. My opinions, even if they are true (and I cannot definitively state they are), are insignificant to the knowledge and wisdom that the Universe holds.

Today (April 18, 2022), I watched the video posted above again. Beginning at timestamp 2:42, it shows an animation of traveling through this tiny portion of the galactic area shown in the Ultra Deep Field photograph. We slowly pass through vast spaces containing stars and galaxies. Each of those galaxies contain perhaps hundreds of billions—perhaps even trillions—of stars and planets. Just one of those galaxies we pass by would take hundreds of thousands of lifetimes and longer to explore if we had the capabilities to do so. Just one galaxy. And there could be two trillion of these galaxies out there, and possibly many more.

Imagine for a moment you are traveling in this animation, beginning at timestamp 2:42. You look straight ahead and to your left and right, passing by all those stars and planets. Each star and planet you pass by has a vast storehouse of knowledge that is incomprehensibly vast. This particular journey at timestamp 2:42 is nothing in comparison to the rest of the Universe! One might spend a billion lifetimes exploring just this tiny sliver of the cosmos and still, we would not scratch the surface of what is out there.

The mind is unable to comprehend this; it is impossible, beyond our ability. If we are unable to comprehend the size of our own galaxy, how much more incomprehensible can we understand all the knowledge and wisdom in the known Universe? Again, we simply cannot because it is impossible for us to do so.

To believe I am able to authoritatively speak on any spiritual subject—or perhaps any subject, for that matter—is a foolish endeavor. I would be self-deluded in doing so. The best I could present myself to others on any subject would be as an infant still learning to crawl.

My learning of the incomprehensible Universe is humbling, showing I am wholly insignificant in the grand scheme of things. This awareness is causing me to hit the pause button, to reevaluate my life and belief system because I realize, in the final analysis, I simply don’t know anything.

My attitude on spiritual beliefs should never be a dogmatic assertion of “this is the way it is” or “in this book is the pure knowledge of God.” Rather, the best I can humbly say is “this might be so—maybe.”

Michelle was right. She loved me enough to tell me the truth about myself and presented that truth in a gentle—even humorous—way. So subtle was her rebuke that I do not believe at that moment she was chastising me; I was so dense and uncomprehending of the meaning behind her words.

It’s a difficult process to step outside of ourselves and see us as others do. Self-awareness is a perspective each of us would benefit from, this ability to view ourselves from the way others might perceive us. We might be in a place of self-delusion, believing that others view us with a much higher opinion than they actually do. It’s possible people think we are arrogant jerks—maybe.

This is all part of the process of coming to that place in our lives where we realize how little we actually know: not only of the external world—the cosmos and nature—but also of our own individual internal worlds.

I often quote Socrates who said, “Know thyself.” This is such a profoundly deep statement that it often bears repeating. It has taken me a lifetime to try and understand exactly what Socrates even meant when he said it.

Knowing oneself entails much introspection. Part of this process is understanding our weaknesses as well as our strengths. One of the weaknesses I learned long ago about myself is my inability to self-regulate; this is why I rarely buy ice-cream, cookies, or snacks. Why? Because I will consume the entire gallon of ice-cream, pack of cookies, or the bag of snacks in a few sittings.

Know thyself.

Socrates

I’m unable to dole out a modest amount of ice-cream in a bowl and enjoy it for the day and put the rest off for later. No, I will finish the modest amount and want more—five minutes later. I know I should stop and be satisfied, but I can’t control my desire for more and will go back to the half gallon and dig into it again. Still wanting more, I return to the half gallon and continue to enjoy even more. It’s crazy. Within a few days the whole thing is gone.

Going through this process countless times in my life has shown me the best way to avoid this problem is not to buy these things in the first place. Then, I get to the point where I don’t think about sweets much and their absence doesn’t bother me: out of sight, out of mind.

Our lives are full of small examples like this one. Part of the process of “knowing thyself” is understanding where we are weak, accepting these weaknesses, and dealing with them. This is a small part in becoming a wise man or woman.