The Wonder of Knowing Very Little

I constantly tell my students that human knowledge is always subject to emendation. That’s the beauty and curse of living in a rationalized, post-Enlightenment age. Our greater understanding of the world has, perhaps paradoxically, left us with fewer reliable facts.

Like most things in life, this existential conundrum is perhaps best explained via a cow. Back in the Middle Ages, long generations before Darwin, the question of how, say, the local milk-cow came to be wasn’t a difficult one to answer. From the village idiot to the aristocrat holding the feudal cards, everyone knew without doubt or hesitation that the cow was created, fully formed in its grass-munching state, by the voice of God. Indeed, they knew that this had occurred only a few thousand years earlier, probably somewhere in the East. In the medieval world, this was fact.

While there are still those among us who are determined that the Judaeo-Christian story of fully formed Creation remains operative fact, it’s no longer the only game in town. It’s probably not even the leading game in town at this point: We now have the theory of evolution, which may not directly address the question of the existence or non-existence of God (a common misconception) but certainly has quite a lot to say about why that cow has hooves and a four-part stomach:

Many people will harp on the word “theory” when it comes to evolution, but I’m afraid they don’t really understand the word: a theory isn’t smaller than facts, it’s bigger than them. A theory attempts to explain facts.

At any rate, for the evolutionist, true “facts” are few and far between. The cow is a fact, of course, but that fully-formed-at-the-moment-of-creation “fact” has gone the way of the dodo. In its place is a long series of propositions about development that are constantly being tweaked as new knowledge comes to light. This is the primary reason, by the way, that evolution remains a “theory”: not because it isn’t operatively true — far from it, the mechanics of evolution is undeniably operative in the world — but because it is not yet fully understood and probably never will be.

And, when it comes down to it, the same is true of any branch of human knowledge. Yesterday we got an announcement from researchers that they’d unlocked another piece in the daunting puzzle of quantum physics. On the same day, water was found on the moon. These are new “facts,” I suppose, but they bring with them new questions and new unknowns. And the same is true — thank goodness — in the humanities, as well. Our knowledge of our own history, for instance, which we like to think of as static given its completed state, is constantly being adjusted as new discoveries come to light. In my mythology class yesterday we talked about many of our unanswered questions when it comes to even something as well known as Classical Greece (like, for instance, the historicity of the Dorian Invasion). I mentioned, again and again, that everything we think we know about the past could be up-ended, at any moment, by some new discovery stumbled upon by someone stumbling through the sticks.

Today, as if on cue, comes word of what appears to be the most significant find of Anglo-Saxon materials since Sutton Hoo: a treasure hoard found not by a professional archaeologist but by a fellow walking around Shropshire with a metal detector. We don’t know yet what will we learn from the over 1300 items that were found, but there’s the chance it could significantly change what we know about medieval England — even if it doesn’t address the milk-cow.

And that certain uncertainty, my friends, is why I love what I do.

Comments are closed