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?