BREAKING NEWS: We don’t know everything…

I took a bus ride to Manchester yesterday to see an art exhibition. The bus was very full and I had no option but to sit upstairs, at the back, near a testosterone of teenage boys. The journey took me twenty minutes and during that time one of them hardly paused for breath, the main theme of his presentation was ‘I can read your mind’.

As a psychologist, I am fairly sure that he can’t, especially based on the evidence that if he knew what I was thinking then he would have had more to say to me. Many people like to use this manipulation tool to gain power over others, a kind of ‘I know what you’re thinking’ or ‘I can read people’, and this was no exception. The boy was trying to overpower his friends (and the rest of the passengers) with his ‘knowing everything’. It’s a common strategy in a world where expert knowledge is valued as truth.

The logical next step to wondering why people do this is to examine knowledge and how we use it in day to day life. Knowledge is power, and connected to truth. Once something that was formerly just ‘something proposed’, or a theory, is taken up by a group of people in authority, it becomes knowledge. This can happen in two ways: it can be ‘proved’ – that is, observed by our sensory system materially or in language, or ‘believed’ – that is taken up by people anyway, without being observed by our sensory system. The words ‘proof’ and ‘belief’ are heavily loaded with emotional difference for some people, as they understand them as different concepts, but the end product is similar: a piece of knowledge is constructed and it acts as a rule which many people follow. This knowledge is often the core of how we live, such as a moral code or the way we manipulate the world around us. We do it so well, and, let’s face it, we do need rules and guidance to live in our complex world, that when something emerges to challenge the rule, we dismiss it automatically until wee see it for ourselves.

In the last few days an experiment at CERN has challenged the laws of physics. CERN has issued a statement  . The basics of this is that something can move faster than light, and this queries Einstein’s theorizing about matter. One counter statement is here in the Guardian. It probably wouldn’t matter so much if we were arguing about the correct amount of flour to use in a cake, or if a vegetarian diet is better than eating meat, as these are largely down to personal choice, but this is a concept that underpins the whole of civilization:  E=MC2  . If this was proven wrong, think of the endless books devoted to it that would need to be rewritten. The tshirts and records. The films. The websites. Were all my advanced maths classes simply wasted on some guesswork theory that had never been ‘proven’? Oh, the humanity.

It came as no real shock to me, as I have been living in a more uncertain world for a long time. Since the moment I took up science over fifteen years ago, rather that becoming more rule-bound, I became more free in the knowledge that physical science is tightly bound around psychology, sociology and philosophy and many other concepts that we either have no name for, or cannot explain. This is never more sharply pointed out as in the question of decoherence. It was theorized and measured, but never actually observed by the human eye because, as soon as we try to observe the waveform collapses, that  it was possible that a particle could be in two places at one time. We can measure the process and end result, but we can’t see it. The Schrodinger’s Cat thought experiment  illustrates this. So, according to quantum physics, until we actually see something, the possibility of it’s position/speed/location/size is infinitely uncertain. This is counter-intuitive, as for most people, ‘seeing is believing’. We need some kind of proof, either material or language based, to set up a power dynamic for belief.

However, if we consider the sensory perception of a bee, it’s not difficult to grasp that there is a whole visual world right in front of us that we are not experiencing right now! So maybe what we see is not the definitive ‘truth’?

So, to get to the point, our sensory system is what we base our proof and belief, or ‘truth’ on, is only one perception of how the world can be. We narrow down the infinite possibilities with our own experiences of the world, predicting away the possibility and uncertainty and replacing this with probability, and using language, in this case maths, to ‘prove’ via our sensory perception. The possibilities are endless, but to live in the world we need rules and knowledge, and, getting back to the boy on the bus, power. Of course, he couldn’t know what people are thinking, he could make a guess based on probability through behavioral clues, or language, but he can never ‘know for certain’. His stating that he does know is his own power game, where the and physics and biology of material survival in the world meets the psychology and sociology of power and knowledge, and even philosophy, just as stating that something is definitely right or wrong is merely a point of view based on the sensory knowledge we have at that cross section.

We don’t know everything. The things we don’t know, and CERN’s and many other individuals and organisations work strive to find out, may appear weird and the opposite to our current belief systems, and a little bit scary for people who have invested their whole life in ‘truth’ as we know it. But for me, science builds upon itself and previous theories remain intact, a basis for how little we once knew. The knowledge remains as a belief option, but if it is disputed, it’s not the knowledge that disappears, but the expert power claim of the people who called it truth.

It’s another day in a world where anything is possible, and indeed probable, and where there’s so much to learn.