We’re still learning how to gain knowledge. It’s hit-and-miss.
In some scientific areas our hard data is almost complete. We can rattle off every element’s properties (well, almost every element; oddly enough, we’re still not sure about the melting point of radium). In other areas our ignorance is almost total. Animals all have consciousness, and yet its nature is a profound mystery.
Unknowns are usually acknowledged, and that’s the end of the matter. The subject of today’s column is when the “unknown” becomes a central issue in its own right.
Take, for example, the mystery of why the universe seems so perfectly fine-tuned for the existence of life. Some 200 physical parameters such as the strength of gravity and the electromagnetic force Alpha have precise values that permit life to exist. It’s a Goldilocks universe. The issue is, why? It seems extraordinary – and may scientifically imply an overarching Intelligence.
Bob Lanza and I, in our Biocentrism books (a new one is coming out in May), show scientifically that the universe is correlative with ourselves as observers. A universe that is conscious “explains” why the values of physical constants must be favorable for life. How could it be otherwise?
But now consider a counterargument for a dumb, random universe. This uses string theory, widely regarded as a failed theory because it hasn’t explained or predicted anything. Indeed, it offers 10-to-the-500th-power solutions, so that it’s essentially a theory where anything is possible. And a theory that allows anything explains nothing. But some string theorists are trying to make this very lack of substance into a selling point.
They say that, since string theory says that 10-to-the-500th-power universes are possible, it means that they must actually exist somewhere. Even though none are observable, and their existence is unknowable, they nonetheless say that if these almost-infinite other universes do exist, random chance would dictate that virtually none of them has the physical properties that support life. But a few universes would have favorable conditions, and we happen to live in one of them. By this reasoning, the existence of our (rare) life-friendly cosmos is nothing that requires any sort of explanation. This view among some cosmologists is based on string theory’s absence of information.
Another area where uncertainty is despised is climate change. Because climate-deniers sometimes use uncertainty to argue against mitigating fossil fuel emissions, many left-leaning and even mainstream media are reluctant to mention any unknowns lest they be used to create mischief. In truth, our growing atmospheric CO2 may ultimately cause a small and manageable global temperature increase or an enormous one that wreaks catastrophe. It depends on complex feedback loops and other factors that lie beyond our present understanding.
Since this is our home world we’re talking about, it makes sense to reduce carbon greatly, no matter what. But how fast must we do this? If a huge temperature increase is likely, then fast, drastic steps are reasonable. This might include a steep carbon tax so that fossil fuels immediately get more expensive, making people abandon them.
Should commuters be forced to pay an extra dollar a gallon for their gas? This will make working people poorer, which is undesirable. But maybe it’s necessary. Solving this conundrum requires knowing exactly how global temperatures are going. Yet we don’t know this. It’s uncertain.
You want certainty, but you can’t have it. In some circles, like carbon-tax advocates, there’s a tacit hostility about airing the unknowns.
If you like puzzles whose solution involves working around an “unknown,” try these: my all-time favorites. They are not easy, but are fully solvable. Answers next week.
If you like puzzles, try my all-time favorites
Puzzle No. 1
Three women enter a room containing five hats; three of the hats are black and two of them white. Without being able to see any hat, each woman picks one and places it on her head. They then walk out of the room in single file, facing straight ahead. They cannot see any hats except the ones on the heads ahead of them.
The last woman in line says, “I cannot determine the color of the hat I am wearing.” After hearing that, the middle woman says, “I also cannot tell what color hat I am wearing.” The first woman, who can see no hats at all, then says, “I can tell what color hat I am wearing!”
What color is the hat? Explain your logic.
Puzzle No. 2
Two women meet after many years. The first woman asks, “How old are your three daughters?”
The second woman says, “The product of their ages is 36.”
The first woman: “But that’s not enough information.”
Second woman: “Well, the sum of their ages is the same number as the apartment you and I shared.”
First woman: “That still is not enough.”
Second woman: “The oldest one has brown eyes.”
First woman: “Thank you, now I know the girls’ ages.”
What are the ages of the three daughters? (Don’t give up. This one took me a full hour.)