Craving for explanations (#154)

“Is there is a meaning of life?”

Many people naturally ponder on the meaning of life question. As humans who are thirsty to understand the world, we crave explanations for our existence. What’s the purpose of life, we ask? Why did the Universe happen? What does it all mean? We want to make sense of the things around us.

So we create stories. That’s how we create all our knowledge. Knowledge does but consist of stories, theories, or explanations about what exists in the Universe (which is what we seek to explain). Sure, many of our stories cannot be any farther from the Truth, but a few aim to and very well do explain the Universe we find ourselves in.

We don’t know Truth. We may never come by it. Dictionary definitions say truth is “that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality”. That’s fine but how do we know something is in accordance with fact or reality? Do our eyes tell us? No, they are limiting and deceiving. Who would have thought only with their eyes that that white, shiny, once in a month appearing round-like thing placed upon the seemingly endless ceiling was actually the cause of tides in the ocean—our Moon? It’s again not our eyes that tell us this but we know that what we see through our eyes is actually a whole process of light turning into electrical signals that get processed into images we are able to see. What happens is something you may have learned in high-school biology class: light hits off some object and that passes through the cornea and lens of the eye that gets turned into electrical signals due to the photoreceptor cells (rods & cones) in the retina which then travel to the brain and the brain turns those signals into images we are able to see. So all said, our eyes don’t tell us the truth. They can’t even see light in different electromagnetic spectrums like the Ultraviolet or the Infrared, but only in the Visible spectrum.

If not our eyes, then what? Do sacred books tell us? Some accept that whatever is written in a religious text is true. If it says the Earth is 6,000 years old, then it is. That cannot be disputed even upon finding evidence to the contrary because… why, well, it is written. It is fundamentally true. Some of these sacred scriptures are based upon certain “beliefs” that are inherently true (and they really need not need any rational basis upon that belief; that is just The Way, they think). We will not need to look very closely to find out that sacred books that are assigned supernatural meaning are not aligned with the Truth. Why? Who am I to tell them wrong?

For that we need to understand our craving for explanation. How do we quench this thirst for explanation? How do we understand the world? Because it sure seems to be true, if we could not understand important things like gravity and thermodynamics, we would not have been able to send humans to the Moon and send rovers onto Mars. If Einstein didn’t teach us general relativity, we probably would not have Google Maps as well. So how are these laws/theories/stories created?

What we people as being universal explainers do is, we create explanations about the Universe to understand it. Nature does not speak in our language. We try and explain It. We are seekers of Truth. We choose reasonable “guesses” to ground our explanations upon and there’s selection and replacement of these “stories” we create for us to better understand the Universe through experiment and the stories’ implications.

How are we to know what is true? We guess. Then we criticize those conjectures (or simply guesses) with new, better guesses (they can also be worse guesses so then we criticize those bad “criticisms”). We never attain final ultimate truth. Only our best explanations suffice in understanding the Universe. We don’t stop at our best explanations. Our best explanations can be refuted any time a better explanation pops up. And then that replaces the spot of the previous explanation for something. We always seek explanations. And the growth of knowledge consists in correcting misconceptions about our “stories”.

We have become a species that is universally able to explain things. We are not bounded by what evolution had in store for us. We can create new knowledge and understanding of the Universe through our explanations.

Our craving for explanation has led to humanity’s progress. We ought to always be having this desire to better understand. And not accept any dogma that inhibits progress and comes toward a giant possibility of stopping it (a great way to put an end to our species’ torch).

But we shall conclude optimistically. Chris Anderson (head of TED) recently interviewed Elon Musk about “a future worth getting excited about”. In that interview, Chris asks: “There’s a whole generation coming through who seem really sad about the future. What would you say to them?”

Elon’s answer is inspiring: “Well, I think if you want the future to be good, you must make it so. Take action to make it good. And it will be.”

One of my favorite Karl Popper quotes is from his The Myth of the Framework (1994) which explains why it is our duty to fight for a better world:

“The possibilities that lie in the future are infinite. When I say ‘It is our duty to remain optimists,’ this includes not only the openness of the future but also that which all of us contribute to it by everything we do: we are all responsible for what the future holds in store. Thus it is our duty, not to prophesy evil but, rather, to fight for a better world.”

We must seek explanations. We must remain optimists. We must keep humanity’s torch alive.

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