David M. Brown's Blog

February 8, 2010

Compared to what? Cows?

Filed under: Philosophy,Science,Society and culture — davidmbrowndotcom @ 5:08 am
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A reader over at Wired.com opines, with regard to humanity’s growing but still scanty understanding of the planet or sub-planet Pluto: “We don’t even know what’s happening on a planet on our own Solar System. We, as a species, know almost nothing.” Gee. Perhaps we, as a species, could get a library card?

Such flat assertions about our allegedy paltry cognitions are commonplace, but would not be as persuasive as they apparently are if they were attended by any sustained explication and apologia.

To be omniscient would be to possess an infinite amount of knowledge; to possess merely a finite amount of knowledge, however impressive that body of knowledge might be, must certainly fall infinitely short of said infinitude. In comparison to the infinite body of knowledge, the finite body of knowledge can indeed only be “next to nothing” in magnitude. By the same reasoning, it is clear that the strength of a bear or the speed of a cheetah can only be “next to nothing” in comparison to infinite strength, infinite speed; that every attribute of every entity we will ever encounter must fall infinitely short of their infinite if non-existent counterparts.

Sadly, every bit of the entire contents of the universe obviously falls far, far short of the astounding if inert achievements of inane unrealizable fantasy. Every speck in the universe falls far, far short of what it could have been if only it were so much more. The whole universe is a dud, clearly. Spectacular at times, often engaging, but ultimately something of a letdown. At least when you compare it to nonexistent infinity. Frankly, the only advantage that finite but existing things have over infinite but nonexistent things is that the former exist whereas the latter do not.

Hey, wait a minute. Isn’t that advantage a fairly substantial one? Isn’t any actual entity in all its finitude rather superabundant when compared to your standard nonexistent infinity?

“As a species” we know a lot more about electron orbitals and Pluto than the whole rest of the animal kingdom put together…even if the non-physicists, non-astronomers, and non-Jeopardy-winners among us have to double-check what “we” know in an encyclopedia whenever there is occasion to make use of this knowledge. Off the top of my head, I can tell you that Pluto is planetarily puny and far out, that it goes around the sun, that it has been demoted. I can tell you that electron orbitals are associated with energy levels, and that oxygen is an electron hog, which is why it is so likely to oxidize weaker atoms. I can tell you that knowing something is not the same as knowing almost nothing, and that nonexistent things do not exist and therefore cannot offer practical service as contrast objects.

We do know stuff, and it ain’t nothin’, it ain’t even almost nothin’. Even a baby who has just learned to walk and say “ma” and “pa” has already mastered quite an impressive body of work.

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