Things we can’t know
t’s so very human to think we are the center of the universe. And, so, the scientific community—such as it was before the sixteenth century—believed the sun and planets revolved around Earth. It wasn’t until Polish astronomer Copernicus came along that we learned all the planets including Earth revolved around the Sun. The idea was so controversial in its day that Copernicus kept it under wraps for thirty years, releasing his research two days before his death.
If you took a physics class in high school or college, you likely learned science based on a set of assumptions sometimes referred to as “deterministic.” It’s grounded in theories espoused by leading scientists including Einstein over a hundred years ago. And, like the predecessors to Copernicus, Einstein’s science is based on a hard and fast assumption—that the speed of light is a constant (approximately 671 thousand miles per second).
Einstein’s theories have helped us understand space, time, and the effects of gravity. But, there are limits to what we can observe, even using the most powerful scientific instruments. Using the most powerful telescopes, the light we see requires time to travel from the far reaches of space to Earth. So, there is always a horizon beyond which we can’t interact.
Another boundary crops up on the other end of the scale. Our best microscopes don’t allow us to see into the center of atoms—beyond protons and electrons—into the quarks. We have lots of theories about the behavior of these particles. However, many of those theories can’t be tested. Shine a light on them and the observer effect kicks in. Light imparts energy and that energy changes the behavior we’re trying to observe.
Laymen like me, therefore, have an understanding of the natural world based on a set of assumptions that don’t explain the natural world. So, despite it being generally accepted, for example, that there cannot be parallel universes or that we can’t go backward in time, we can’t know for sure. What if all these assumptions are—like those of Copernicus’s predecessors—fallacious?
There could be parallel universes where we haven’t fought wars in Vietnam or Iraq. Or, where Al Gore won his Supreme Court case and served as president. It’s the stuff of science fiction. "For All Mankind" speculates on a world where the Soviet Union was the first to land a man on the moon. "The Man in the High Castle" posits that the Axis powers won WWII.
The latter, based on a book by the extraordinary Philip K. Dick, ventures into the realm of parallel universes. Indeed, one might wonder if the world we’re living in--this world of animal, vegetable, and mineral—is nothing more than a computer simulation. The players might take the form of Vladimir Putin or Volodymyr Zelensky. The rest of us might just be NPCs (Non-Playing Characters).
Perhaps a master programmer—a supreme being--introduces chaos into our universe to see what happens. The attacks of 9/11, the pandemic, or even the election of Donald Trump might all be fun and games. “Let’s see what happens if I introduce climate change,” he, she, or it might say. Or, “how would these mere mortals react to a UFO?”
The shared experience of human beings throughout our existence has led to common beliefs, customs, and rituals. But, one must ask what if the rules by which the universe works are beyond that shared experience? What if the phenomena we can’t understand define a world that flies in the face of everything we believe?
The world’s great religions have in common a belief in a supernatural being—a master programmer. We have relied upon religion to explain things that science can’t explain. In a world where we can’t know all the rules, religion might be all we have. And, what we believe might be completely wrong.