The Limits of Knowledge
How much do you really know about your daily life?
Good morning. This is working theology.
We know very little about our daily lives. If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll see that most of the activities you do throughout the day are nearly automatic, built on assumptions about reality that you rarely investigate. Here’s what I mean.
Think about your routine in terms of the following story. Assume the questions below are not rhetorical. Do you really know the answers to many of these? If so, you’re far ahead of me.
You roll over to turn off your alarm at six o’ clock in the morning. But wait a second, why is it “six” o’ clock and not some other number? Who decided our clocks should run on twelve-hour periods? Or that they should start at that particular time? At what point did they—and who is they?—say, “Thus begins midnight, the start of a new day”?
Even the date of “today” is questionable. Say it’s Tuesday. Who decided when Tuesday was to be stamped on the eternal record of time? The calendar we use in the West is very different from the calendars in the East, for example. Do rural towns in China know it’s Tuesday in the year 2020? The Chinese calendar, in fact, argues it’s the year 4718, if I understand it correctly.
You see, most people don’t even know why or how we count our time, on which our whole day is based. And before you think that Year Zero is when Jesus was born, think again. First of all, there is no Year Zero; we began at AD 1. Second, most scholars believe Jesus was likely born around 4 or 3 BC, so our whole system is off anyway. And there are discrepancies between the Gregorian calendars and Julian calendars, among others, depending on which empire ruled when and on which pope said what.
Did you know that the earth revolves around the sun not in 365 days but in 365.265 days, which, every four years, accounts for a whole new day called leap day? Of course you did. But did you know that the earth spins on its axis not in 24 hours but in 23 hours and 56 minutes, which also slows down, meaning that each new day is longer than the previous one? Isn’t that fascinating? Instead of saying we’re open 24/7/365, we should say we’re open 23.93/7/365.265, but our brains are inherently lazy.
Do you know how they—the mysterious they again—calculate the date of Easter? Some God-blessed, ancient system called “computus,” which, if you can understand, God bless you.
Let’s move on.
Now you’re in the kitchen preparing a pot of coffee. You turn on the coffee maker and grab your bag of beans or tub of ground coffee. Where does that coffee come from, by the way? Is it from Arabica beans or Robusta beans? What’s the difference? What region of the world is it from, or who were the farmers that grew it? Who knows.
The coffee maker clicks on, but from where does it get its power? Electricity, of course, but what even is electricity, and how does it get there? Is it from coal, nuclear, solar, or hydroelectricity? Maybe natural gas—what’s “fracking” again?
Many people talk a lot about climate change and moving away from fossil fuels, but do you know the exact breakdown of Americans’ energy usage? It turns out that over a third of our energy comes from coal, a third from natural gas, a fifth from nuclear, and the rest comes from renewable sources like wind and solar. So, to move away from fossil fuels (because they pollute) and nuclear (because it’s dangerous), we have to replace over 85% of our country’s energy system, which, as you can imagine, isn’t easy.
By the way, solar power represents only 0.6% of our energy production in the US, so it’s not likely to replace coal anytime soon. . .
The coffee brews.
You open the fridge to get some milk, but oh no, you’re out! You need to go to the store. Where does the store get its milk again? Is it a local farm or a big corporate farm? Does it matter? Is it pasteurized or not? What does that mean? 2% of what? You hope the store has some milk.
There’s a fun concept from the economist Friedrich Hayek called “spontaneous order.” Essentially, the economic order of society comes about as millions of individual entities act in their best interest to provide goods and services to everyone else in society. “Your grocer doesn’t know when you’re coming or what you’re buying,” the saying goes, “but if he doesn’t have what you want, you’ll fire him.” This concept is best illustrated in a short film called I, Pencil, which describes how these entities unite to create the ordinary goods we use every day.
Speaking of the economic order, suppose you bring your milk to the cashier to buy it. You pull out a credit or debit card to swipe it into the machine. How does that machine recognize the money—yours or the credit card company’s—to approve the purchase of the milk? In a split second your bank runs millions of algorithms against a vast dataset to ensure that you are who you say you are, you do have money available, and you’re not purchasing something fraudulent based on your past activity, but how does it do that? The financial system is unfathomably complex.
What even is money anyway? Your card just transferred “money” from your institution to the grocer’s, but that “money” is just electronic signals and numbers in a database somewhere in “the cloud.” Or suppose you pay with cash—even then the “paper” money (which is actually made of cotton and linen) isn’t inherently valuable, right? It’s just a claim on assets that someone owns somewhere, but who? And where? It’s not gold, right? Who invented “money” to stop using shells or beads or whatever else it was at the time? (My economics lecture says no one, that it in fact evolved over time like language or culture.)
In our modern world we’re just exchanging credits and debits in an ever-growing, infinitely complex system of transactions that no one can really predict or understand. That’s why economists are so often wrong about what to do for the economy.
So, after you leave the store you check your bank account on your phone to ensure the transaction processed. That’s when you stop in the parking lot to wonder how your phone accesses your bank account information. “It’s through the internet,” you think. Of course! The internet, which is, like, what again? And how does the internet get to your phone? LTE, right? A cell tower somewhere? Or is it a satellite? How does it reach down here? And how does WiFi work, exactly?
Eh, let’s get back in the car.
You turn the key to ignite a series of millions of tiny explosions in the engine block that somehow transmits a mixture of compressed air and gasoline pumped from some unknown land into a force that powers a crankshaft and gearbox to magically rotate your tires across the surface of the earth, held to the road by a mysterious weight of gravity caused by the mass of our planet and its revolution around a ball of nuclear fusion millions of miles away.
Isn’t the world so magical and wondrous? I have so many questions about the most basic functions of my day, and I haven’t even made it to breakfast. I recently read a paper by Friedrich Hayek called “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” in which the Nobel prize winner argues that we know very little about our world, and what we do know can hardly be explained. We live in a veil of ignorance.
That’s why I’ve concluded that most of us don’t have a clue what we’re talking about when we talk about politics or the economy or technology or biological diseases plaguing our species. I can’t even explain the mechanics of what I’m doing before I even eat breakfast, let alone the history of states’ sovereignty and constitutional law or the myriad downstream effects of financial stimulus on inflation or GDP.
So, for all the “data-driven” readers out there—how was your data constructed in the first place? And how do you know it’s an accurate depiction of reality? A new article in the MIT Technology Review shows that our erratic behavior in response to COVID-19 (which is what again?) messes up all our predictive algorithms, throwing our most basic institutions out of whack. Changes like these to our “data-driven” world once erased a trillion dollars in the stock market in just 36 minutes. . .
Lately, my wife has been asking me, while we’re quietly lying in bed or driving down the highway, why my hands are sweaty. “I’m thinking,” I respond.
“What are you thinking about?” she asks.
This. This is what I’m thinking about, Christine. I suppose in some ways I wrote this for you. It’s hard for me to explain, but this is what is going on in my head all the time, and why it’s so hard for me to be present, just there, existing. I question the very nature of existence while we’re careening down I-30 in a 3,000-pound missile. (I mean, who calculated how much a “pound” weighs in the first place, am I right?)
These questions led Aristotle to wonder about form, matter, and substance, and which is the primary thing of reality. Ludwig Wittgenstein called these basic facts “atomic facts,” facts with which language is concerned. His Tractatus argued that all philosophy is simply arguments over matters of language. C. S. Lewis, too, spoke of the world’s “quiddity,” or “whatness,” from the Latin word quid. We must always “rub our noses into the quiddity of each thing,” he wrote in Surprised by Joy.
The world is so full of magic it’s hard to sit still, even in your mind. What even is your mind? These little synapses of what exactly firing inside a ball of matter inside your skull, a system so complex that the world’s most advanced scientists really have no idea how it works.
If we’ve ever been in conversation and at some point I stop to ask, “Yeah, but, like, what is it?” this is what I mean.
Do you think like this too, or is it just me?
Thanks for reading.