What We Know—An Excursion into Unscience

Make that what you know.  (I address these remarks to the mirror.)

Not much.

Science is Latin for “knowledge,” and we walk around in a trance of confidence that “science” understands the things that we don’t, and can and will solve all the problems.  This attitude is called “scientism.”

What, then, do you really know?

Let’s start with what you see when you open your eyes: light.  “Everything that is,” said Duns Scotus, “is light.”  What is it?  Particles?  Of what?  Waves?  Vibrating what medium?  Much debated.  If it’s particles, how does it get through glass?   If it’s waves, how does it reach us through ninety-three million miles of vacuum?  

Maybe it's dark matter, the Darth Vader hidden behind appearances—sort of a Zoroastrian evil twin!

The Wikipedia says, “light can be expressed as both particles and waves. This paradox is known as the Wave–particle Duality Paradox.”

You see?  There are people who understand.  But they don’t want to talk to you.

Note the word “paradox,” the language of the medieval Church.

OK, what about real matter?  Substance.  Stuff.  The hand before your face.  What is it?

You feel certain, I know you do, that it’s made of molecules and atoms.  If you want to get real refined about it, it comes down to quarks (James Joyce be praised!) and other “subatomic particles.”


You’ve been sold the fifth-century-BC Greek atomic theory.  And it’s still a theory.  If that little solar system with electrons orbiting a nucleus did exist, the nucleus, I understand (there, I understand something!), would be like a baseball on the floor of a cathedral, the electrons flies in the upper reaches of the vault. 


We live in a world of metaphor—“nuclear” power, “atomic” bombs, “electricity”—for what is electricity?  “A flow of electrons”!  A “current”!  Uh-huh.  Like a river: you can drink it, you can wade in it, you can pee in it, you can swim in it, you can boil pasta in it, but don’t ask what it is.  The information is not available.  Feels good though, as long as it doesn’t sweep you over the falls.

How about energy?  What is energy?  It’s the Greek word for “motion.”  That which moves has “energy.”  We fool ourselves with these words.

Gravity?  The force that holds it all together, keeps the moon in orbit around our own little ball, keeps us in orbit around the sun—what is it?  Gravity is Latin for “heaviness”: the apple falls because it’s “heavy.”  Heavy answer.  One feels, does one not, that one is being bullshat.

No, wait—gravity is electromagnetic!  If you wrap a wire around a piece of metal and send a “current” through it, the metal behaves like a magnet.  What’s a magnet?  It’s a stone the Greeks found in Magnesia that acts like that.  So gravity is an electric charge, because electric charges attract one another.  Why do electric charges attract one another?  Well, uh—

Here’s a shocking idea, but I’m afraid it’s true: no one has ever seen an atom, or even a molecule.  No one has ever photographed one.  That’s shocking because, in our imaginations, they’re what the world is made of.

What they really are, “atoms” and “molecules,” is numerical concepts that work. 

Paul Valéry, a poet much influenced by Francis Bacon, the inventor of scientific method, said, “Science means simply the aggregate of all the recipes that are always successful.  The rest is literature.”

But just because atoms are concepts doesn’t mean we can’t split one.  We can make a really big explosion (the first guys who did it stood much too close with their fingers in their ears, afraid they would set off a reaction that would destroy the world), but it doesn’t involve “atoms.”  Google how to make a nuclear device and what you’ll get is a chemical recipe.

Same for DNA: what Watson and Crick did was, not isolate a molecule, but construct a model of how such a molecule would look, and fit the data.  Search “DNA testing,” which gets so many innocent people out of jail, and you’ll find another chemical recipe.

Cultural icon as hood ornament
The molecule metaphor has been instrumental in persuading us that we know what we’re talking about.  So there’s another thing you don’t know—what you’re talking about.

OK, what about space?  Newton built his universe, the one we live in, in Euclid’s space, where the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, the three angles of a triangle add up to a hundred and eighty degrees, and so forth.  Newton’s idea of inertia was that if something is moving and there’s no force to stop it, it will proceed in a straight line forever.  Ergo the universe is infinite, and has no boundary: if there were a boundary, what would be on the other side?

But when our telescopes became strong enough (I treated this idea briefly in Greece versus the Puritans), and our cameras fast enough, to record the movements of galaxies, we saw that they did not obey Euclid’s laws.

Imagine three equidistant objects: easy. Imagine four: a pyramid on a triangular base. Imagine five: can’t be done. And yet it is so. Five hundred, five thousand galaxies where they shouldn’t be.  The assistant patent officer in Bern came up with a theory that would account for that, or at least describe it:

“Curved space” does not mean space is somehow bent; it’s a metaphor (always these metaphors!) taken from the curvature of the earth.  If you flatten the global earth into a two-dimensional chart, as sailors had to do, Nairobi and Mombasa are the proper distance apart, but not Moscow and Saint Petersburg; so you have to make a separate map of the north to take into account that the earth is curved.  So in space: we cannot construct a model of our universe in which the distances between the galaxies are in proportion: every perspective requires another model.

Typical understanding of curved space; the caption says, "Gravity causes space-time to curve around massive objects."  Oy.

Our universe is not Euclidian but skew; our imaginations, however, are Euclidian; we cannot think a non-Euclidian thought.  We cannot imagine our world.

And, get this, if this arrangement doubles the cosmos back on itself, it may, while having no boundary, be finite.


The geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

And let us have Vladimir Nabokov (a true scientist, Nabokov: his work on butterfly migration is just now being appreciated) on Einstein: “While not having much physics, I reject Einstein’s slick formulae; but then one need not know theology to be an atheist.”  (See Vladimir Nabokov and Twelve-Year-Old Girls.)

We don’t know why the moon keeps her face to us always, as in a dance.

We don’t know why the sky is blue, though there are people who will try to tell you.

We don’t know what’s at the center of the earth.

So much for space.  What about time?  Those who are willing to accept the skewness of space are not always ready to accept corresponding discontinuities in time.  You need perfectly continuous time, for example, to buy the concept of evolution.

Now, I apologize for this.  I wrote a piece called The Accidental Monkey and announced it on a LinkedIn group devoted to “science” (permit me the quotation marks), where it was attacked with a religious furor.  And that’s what the so-called “Theory” of Evolution (it is not a theory; a theory is testable—ask Bacon) is: a religion.  It is the medieval Great Chain of Being turned on its side and extended in continuous time.  It is nineteenth-century laissez-faire economics.  It is what Karl Popper said it was, before they started leaning on him: metaphysics.  (Physics, in fact, is metaphysics; one should speak more properly of a physics
—as we must, who hold Einstein in one hand and Heisenberg in the other.) 

But take away what people think they know and you can confront an angry mob.  (The furor of course was welcome.  You are aware of the game: get them onto my site where they buy my books and I don’t have to disappoint the landlord.  I can’t wait to see what happens when I post this.)

“That which has always been accepted by everyone, everywhere,” said Valéry, “is almost certain to be false.” 

In five millenia we’ve landed on the moon, put a vacuum cleaner on Mars and have a transmitter exiting the solar system, and you’re telling me that for two hundred and fifty thousand years we’ve been picking berries?  Please. 

To use the duc de Saint-Simon’s phrase, the Theory of Evolution is "supported by unanswerable reasons that do not convince." 

My favorite line in Billy Wilder’s The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes: Mycroft mocks his brother’s analytical powers by recalling that as a child he had deduced that babies came into the world in the satchels carried by the arriving midwives.  "As good an explanation as any," smiles Watson.  Mycroft scowls.

Popper’s ancestor David Hume, whom Einstein studied so carefully, and whose epistemology (the knowledge of knowledge) governs the approach in (forgive me if I call it) real science, forbids identification of one thing with another, forbids us to assume continuities—forbids metaphor.  Since Hume, philosophy has become mood music.  In the middle ages we were creatures of God; in the current mythos we are creatures of nature.  The possibility becomes distinct, in Hume’s light, that we’re not creatures at all.

But let’s not get cute.

Leave we, then, the subject of evolution, whatever the hell it means—it’s supposed to explain everything about us—with another remark from the butterfly chaser: "Perhaps the most admirable among the admirable laws of Nature is the survival of the weakest."

But then, if you’re not a neurotic monkey, what are you?  Who are you?


“Our ignorance of our nature,” as Jean-Luc Godard said, “is total.”

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? by Paul Gauguin

Speaking of addressing these remarks to the mirror, you don’t know what you look like, either.  Forget trying to find it in there, that’s not what other people see.  Same for photographs: even movie stars watching themselves on the screen can’t see what they look like, and, oh, they try.  Cary Grant said he quit making movies because he was afraid his double chin was showing.  Huh?

You don’t know what you sound like.  It’s a profoundly disturbing experience to hear your own voice.  Is that you?  Can’t be.

You don’t know your own style.  A compliment is always a surprise.

And you don’t know what it is to think.  I mean you do think—sometimes—but what is a thought?

Your inner abyss, which the outer one reflects, is an illusion, but an illusion that plays its notes on your body.  Your memory distorts the past, you can’t see the future, and your ignorance of yourself, and of what life is, reduces you to a child.

Real science, like real art, is useless.  It’s not technology, or electronic expertise, which the vulgar regard as science.  It’s a personal pursuit, for personal pleasure, of an addition to what we know.

Between what we know—hah! what do I know?—and the dark matter we are forced to hypothesize, comes the sharp point of intelligence.

Now, look, all you scientists (let us for the moment dignify you with the name), you who elevate a few clues into a policy, I can see you coming already with your torches and pitchforks to spit your ill-considered trite-isms at me: I like to answer all comments individually, but forgive me if in this case I ignore a few.

“Since no man of aught he leaves knows,” says Hamlet, “what is ’t to leave betimes?
But not just yet, my dear Prince, I'm enjoying this.


P.S.  Nabokov did agree with Einstein to this extent: "I confess, I do not believe in time."  At his old friend's funeral Einstein said, "Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics ['believe in physics'? it's a faith?], know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

P.P.S. Mediterraneans count by their fingers; you buy ten eggs here.  Nordics count by the moon: everything comes in dozens.  Why does the average menstrual cycle precisely match the moon's?  

P.P.P.S.  What is sex?  Is it electromagnetic too?


  1. “We can know only that we know nothing. And that is the highest degree of human wisdom.” ― Leo Tolstoy

    Nice work, Bob!

  2. Now.. I not only fill dumber , I have got a head ache, from trying to use my last two brain cells to understand it. But i had a good chuckle. thanks Robert.Here is my philosophy ,technology peeked with duct tape.And if at first you cant fix it git a bigger hammer. just saying it is worth a thought .Fair day to ya. Mike Rose Sr<Just a smiling old fool. Q.. WHAT HAS LIFE TAUGHT YOU? PROBABLY THAT YOU WOULD BE HAPPIER NOT KNOWING HOW IT WILL END. MOST OF US WOULD LIKE TO BE REMEMBERED FOR SOMETHING THAT MADE OTHERS HAPPY AND YOUR ON THE RIGHT TRACK ROBERT.

    1. Great to hear from you, Mike. I want to follow you on your own site but can't get in. Never mind, will keep trying.

  3. I love this! Love every word. Fabulous thinking. You've revised the age-old wisdom and turned it into truth: "He who knows not and knows that he knows not is a wise man."

    1. That's always been my alibi, Winslow. Thank you, my darling.

  4. Wow, I thought I would give in after the first few paragraphs, but the more I read, the more enthralled I got! I try not to think (too much) about infinite space because it hurts, but I have just enjoyed a full brain workout.

    Cheers Cuz

  5. Bob, one of the world's most eminent scientists has concluded that dark matter is really irony which, of course, explains a lot. To some he's solved the equation for the Holy Grail of science, the Unified Field Theory. You can read about him and his theory here: http://miamivisionblogarama.blogspot.com/2007/09/erectvs-equation-dark-energy-is-irony.html

  6. I agree science does not know much but most good scientists know this, and that is one reason i like them, they are humble. A scientist doesn't even know what theory is (it doesn't have to be what a philosopher of science says it is). The world is full of know-alls, why pick on the poor scientists?

    1. Ah, but my dear Milto, so many people think they're scientists, and so many people believe them! (By the way, I met Kiki in Kolonaki Square the other day, and we reminisced about being three friends together.)

  7. Hello, Robert, and I am once again enthralled by this current Post. I enjoyed every single word. And ending with Hamlet is always a plus. I can't call myself a rocket scientist; I knew this back in the second grade when fiction took over my world, so imaginary physics grew in importance, the science fiction worlds . . . and I eschewed taking Physics but bowed to Chemistry simply because of my love for Frankenstein. Your writing is filled with power, and I salute you. I also hope you are finding a bit of time for yourself over there (and more film backers too -- is that right?). Best always, Justin

    1. Thank you, Justin. You're a man of taste, and your comments are always welcome; this one, however, made my day.

  8. Apostolos TsitsonisMarch 15, 2012 at 5:27 PM

    Hello Robert,

    As you know, I am a rocket scientist, now working with other C.E.R.N. scientists to prove the Oscillating Universes Theory that goes beyond Quantum and String Theories on the fundamental principles of how things work.

    Science is discovering the nature of our surroundings, in order to invent aid to our handicapped human nature in Applied Science and engineers our technical evolution. Thinking scientifically, promotes our mental evolution to a higher knowledge of ourselves and our practico-intuitive process in the space-time entropy of real events unfolded in a hyper symmetry of action and reaction between what is and its compliment to a singularity.

    If we could only use more of our brain capacity and be omnipotent!

    Cheers, Apostolos

    1. Apostole, really! This is the kind of kaka I'm making war on! But I love you anyway.

    2. Apostolos TsitsonisMarch 19, 2012 at 8:20 AM

      "A raposa e as uvas" ("The Fox and the Grapes" [Aesop]) e "Fortuna favi Fortus". "All warfare is based on deception" (Art of War). Kaka? But I love you anyway.

    3. Apostolos TsitsonisMarch 19, 2012 at 8:47 AM

      By the way, everything that you have quoted and your thoughts are subject to an endless action-reaction philosophical argument, that promotes science. You may consider scientists as Sophists rather than Philosophers, but philosophy is embedded in a Sophism as partial truth that makes the sophism a believable lie.

    4. Apostolos, calinihta! Do you have twitter or blog? I like your clear thinking ))

  9. Bob,

    You've outdone yourself! This is the wittiest and most telling take I've read in a while on the mirages created by taken-for-granted science metaphors. Somebody (not you, you're too busy) should do an animated version of this! Alfred North Whitehead meets Lewis Carroll. Bravo!

    1. Thomas, you're one of my favorite readers. Glad you're liking it.

  10. uhm, Robert, gravity is not electromagnetic,
    and the DNA structure isn't entirely a metaphor - I hope you know about Xray crystallography. Check your facts with your editor, pedantic readers like me can be pain in the arse. Like the humor though :p

  11. Love your thinking, I am always questioning the known, and the never ending fact that the more I learn, the less I feel I know. So humans stepped out of caves and decided to build a pyramids. Cave Art supposedly 10000 years old in Libyan caves in the middle of the desert show men riding Ben Hur Chariots. The bible says we all showed up 4000 years ago, a;; calendars seemed to have been created about that time so makes sense, but how did everyone show up in rest of the world 11000 years ago. THe Mayan Calensar ends Dec 21 2022 started in 3144BC, but the Hopi Indians say this will be end of 5th world. So we must have been around for about 26000 years, the approximate length of the great year. So how they heck did they know this? Then again in reference to Planet of the Apes "human doll" where are all the buried artifacts from these previous worlds... Ok back to knowing nothing again...

    Oh yea meant to ask, you mention telescopes seeing things they shouldn't see, from what I have seen its just fuzzy malformed galaxies, which actually would seem about right if we were seeing back in time... Oh wait time doesn't exist, so I am confused again... So maybe like men in black, we are all just a world of people living in a locker in an airport...

    Thanks again, great post

    1. Thanks, Robby. I don't know any more than you do, which is probably lucky for both of us.