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To Know, or Not to Know: That Is the Question

In: Philosophy and Psychology

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To Know, or Not to Know: That is the Question
Phillip Nelson
Upper Iowa University
Abstract
Carl Sagan has a way of explaining very complex scientific facts and theories on a layperson level. In demonstrating that it is possible and desirable to know the universe, Sagan fails to address what it means to really “know” the universe in his essay titled Can We Know the Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt. The word “know” is an action verb with both transitive and intransitive meanings. It is the intransitive form that lacks explanation. Science can explain the “how” and the “why,” but it cannot bring meaning to either. Science and faith are both required for a complete picture of the universe.
To Know, or Not to Know: That is the Question I have been a student of Carl Sagan since my youth. His way of explaining very complex scientific facts and theories spoke at my level. I can still remember how he compared human civilization to the age of the universe: if the age of the universe were a 12-month calendar year, recorded human civilization would be represented as the last 10-seconds of that year. Wow! I could get my brain around that idea. This seemed to be the answer to all the science, mathematics, and English questions I had as a high school student trying to make sense of it all. Once again Carl Sagan applies his ability to bring the very complex to the level of the average junior scientist in his paper titled Can We Know The Universe? Reflections on a Grain of Salt. In his essay, he uses a single grain of salt to illustrate that there are more sodium and chlorine atoms in that grain of salt then there are neurons in the human brain. There are some 10 quadrillion atoms in a grain of salt, but only about 100 trillion neurons in the human brain. The implication is that it would be impossible to know all 10 quadrillion atoms intimately. But since the atoms are arranged by nature in a predictable and learnable fashion, it is not necessary to learn each individual atom, but rather to understand how the atoms are arranged and then apply this to all the atoms in the grain of salt. In this way it is possible for the human brain to understand the intricate and complex world of a grain of salt and it would also be possible to understand the intricate and complex universe in which we find ourselves (Sagan, 1979). In demonstrating it is possible, indeed desirable, to know the universe in which we live, I think the question that Carl Sagan fails to address is what it means to really “know” the universe. The word itself—know—is a verb. A verb denotes action. Sagan is using the transitive form of the word know. Transitive means that the action word has a direct object to act upon (University of Ottawa, n.d.), in this case the universe itself. For one to know the universe is “to apprehend immediately with the mind or with the senses” (Know, 2012). An example of this definition is to understand the scale of the universe. The star nearest the Earth, aside from our own sun, is named Proxima Centuri and is located in the Alpha Centuri system, a mere 4.2421 light-years away (Research Consortium on Nearby Stars, 2012). A light-year is the velocity of light and is approximately 186,000 miles per second or 670 million miles per hour. This means light travels about 5.88 trillion miles in one year; therefore Proxima Centuri is about 24.9 trillion miles away from Earth. The fastest spacecraft built by human hands is the Voyager 1. Even now it is speeding away from the Earth at over 38,000 miles per hour (Space Travel, n.d.). A spacecraft traveling at this speed would take nearly 75,000 years to span the distance between the Earth and Proxima Centuri. The universe itself is thought to be billions of years old and still expanding at the speed of light. In this sense Sagan is using the term know, to discern the universe in terms of quantifying its dimensions and learning its boundaries. The universe, after all, is that thing to know. Like us beyond the structure of that grain of salt, what is beyond the structure of the universe? But the verb “know” has an intransitive form; a form that is an end unto itself. As an intransitive, to know is “to have cognizance, consciousness, or awareness of something: be aware of the existence or fact of something” (Know, 2012). Intransitive means that the action word lacks a direct object to act upon (University of Ottawa, n.d.). In this case it is not to discern the universe in terms of its contents, dimensions, and vastness, but to be acquainted with the universe in terms of our own realization. In this sense, to know the universe is to see between the meager figures and numbers and to see further then the confining boundaries of science. The universe cannot be trapped and restrained inside the confines of a textbook. Like Carl Sagan, I too like a universe containing unknowns, those things yet to be uncovered. But unlike Sagan, I leave room in the universe to be aware of those things that escape natural law and defy understanding. Science can lead us back to the very beginnings of the universe, to the “Big Bang” that ignited the expanding process of our universe, but no further. In our minds however we can go further to a time, to an existence, to a God that precedes all else. Science can describe and prove the existence of atoms that form the structure of a grain of salt. Science can describe and prove the existence of stars, quasars, and galaxies that form the structure of the universe. However, it is at this point that the uniqueness of human beings pushes aside science to embrace those ideals of faith and hope which lie just outside the boundaries of science and proof. So, can we know the universe? This is a very appropriate question for our age with our heavy reliance on technology and engineering and a science that cannot seem to save us from ourselves. Science can explain the “how” and the “why” of knowing the universe, but it cannot bring meaning to either. Science and faith are two sides of the same coin. For a complete picture of the universe, an understanding and an appreciation of both are required. In the words of Albert Einstein, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” To attempt to know the universe without both is being lame and blind.
References
Know. (2012). Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Retrieved from http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com
Research Consortium on Nearby Stars. (2012). The one hundred nearest star systems. Retrieved from http://www.chara.gsu.edu/RECONS/TOP100.posted.htm
Sagan, C. (1979). Can we know the universe?: Reflections on a grain of salt. From Broca's Brain: Reflections on the Romance of Science, pp. 13-18. New York: Random House.
Space Travel. (n.d.). What are the fastest spacecraft we’ve ever built? Retrieved from http://io9.com/5786083/what-are-the-fastest-spacecrafts-ever-built
University of Ottawa. (n.d.). Transitive and intransitive verbs. Retrieved from http://www.writingcentre.uottawa.ca/hypergrammar/trnsintr.html

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