It’s True, Isn’t it?
Have you ever had an experience like this? Something peculiar started happening to me during my last year at university. Course by course, I suddenly began to realise that the things I was being taught were not inherently true. Up until that point I naively thought that somehow, through attending a major American University, I was being taught the hard facts, but it started to dawn on me one day that what I was being presented with were merely conceived working models of reality that weren’t, in a deeper sense, True.
It started one day in my archaeology class. My passionate and well-regarded professor one afternoon had us pass around a rock – a smooth stone that had been discovered in a nearby stream adjacent to an ‘archaeological dig’ where ancient human fossils had been discovered. Not only had the team accepted that this stone had been used as a tool – to me it just looked like a smooth stone – but also and more importantly, a lot of the historical theory of the evolution of mankind had been based on shared agreement that the stone was in fact a tool. Like an avalanche I suddenly glimpsed how precariously the theoretical timeline of our human ascension was based on conjecture and agreement – truth, as I believed I was being taught, wasn’t really that steadfast.
Similarly in my quantum mechanics class one day I realised that atoms weren’t in fact the solid balls of matter that I had imagined in previous Newtonian Physics classes. Instead they were swirling orbitals of energy without any real center. Beyond this, when we studied quantum equations I learned that we could only predict the probability of discovering an electron in a certain location in time. This did not actually insure that the event would happen at all. If atoms were so unpredictable, how solid was truth?
My process of discovery continued in the field of psychology where I was made to languish thru a semester-long course taught by one of the faculty who had written a book dedicated to predicting the complexity of human motivations and behaviour with only three variables. This reductionist theory, I cognised, was sorely limited and mundane given my prior experiences. I had begun to understand that even some very popular theories within the field of psychology were just that – theories – and not actually ‘true’.
“We adopt sets of categories which serve as handles, as ways of managing phenomena. The most fully developed products of this tendency are ideologies, the systems of ideas that rationalize, justify and sanctify our lives. Nationalism, communism, existentialism Christianity, Buddhism – all provide us with identities, rules of action, and interpretations of how and why things happen as they do…The concepts are taken too seriously; they are used as tools to solidify our world and ourselves.” Chogyam Trungpa, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism
Like bowling pins, in one class after the other I began to see thru an illusion, mysteriously grasping the limitations of not only my education but also of the world of accumulated knowledge. What was in fact more important to me was my growing thirst to question what I had so far taken for truth and fact and focus on an emerging interest in discovering meaning far beyond what I had been taught in school.
We recognise patterns, we can test hypotheses, but truth is always bigger than what we can grasp with our limited faculties. The biggest breakthroughs seem to happen through intuitions, as happened with Einstein quite often. An ‘aha’ moment that mysteriously emerges from beyond the limits of our understanding. But sometimes they also appear in unexpected discoveries, like in Georgia.
Our Archaeological Record is Up for Grabs
Recently a new archaeological discovery disrupted the established lineage of mankind in Africa. A complete, 2 million year old hominid skull was found in Dmanisi in the Republic of Georgia. The fossil remains are thought to be an early form of Homo erectus, the first of our relatives to have similar body proportions to a modern human. The species arose (it is believed) in Africa around 1.8m years ago and may have been the first hominid to harness fire and cook food.
Throughout Africa, different sized skulls have been found and up until now they’ve been commonly understood to all be distinct species: H erectus, H rudolfensis, H gautengensis, H ergaster and H habilis. But now, as I understand it, this controversial new discovery in Georgia challenges that assumption of species evolution over time – instead scientists are now arguing that all of these variations were possibly just one species of H. erectus co-evolving with lots of variations. Perhaps evolution is not so linear after all.
Searching for a new Quantum Theory
We now know that the quantum world behaves very differently from a linear mechanical science previously believed. Electrons aren’t limited to a small orbit traveling around a nucleus – according to probability, they can potentially be found anywhere between an orbit circling the nucleus and as far away as the edge of the universe. And beyond that, physicists have discovered that electrons can exist at 2 locations at the same time. They actually have an intelligence of their own. Such is our mysterious and chaotic world!
Quantum theory is certainly imposing. But an inner voice tells me that it is not yet the real thing. Quantum theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the Old One. I, at any rate, am convinced that He (God) does not throw dice. Albert Einstein, On Quantum Physics, Letter to Max Born, December 12, 1926
I find the challenge in our human desire to discover knowledge is that we mistakenly believe knowledge to be hard and fast, when in fact it is fleeting. Like electrons, Truth is something that appears and disappears as fast as someone asks a new question, and unveils itself in unpredictable ways.