Richard FeynmanHow Much Can We Know?

We open our eyes, we see the world, we discern patterns. We theorize, formalize; we use and rationality and mathematics to understand and describe everything. How much can we really know, though?

To illustrate what I mean, let me use an analogy. I wish I had the imagination to come up with it, but it was Richard Feynman who did. He was, by the way, quirky enough to compare physics with sex.

Let’s imagine a swimming pool, a happening pool, with lots of people diving in, swimming around, generally having fun in the water. There fun is creating a lot of waves in the water. Let’s say there is this little insect sitting at one corner of the pool, sensing the waves on the water with its antennae or whatever. Let’s also say that this insect is blessed with formidable human-level intelligence. Do you think it will be able to figure out what’s going on in the pool, who is diving in or swimming where, all from its perception of the waves?

Let’s listen to the great man himself.

When there’s lots of people have dived in the pool there’s a very great choppiness of all these waves all over the water and to think that it’s possible, maybe, that in those waves there’s a clue as to what’s happening in the pool. That some sort of insect or something with sufficient cleverness could sit in the corner of the pool and just be disturbed by the waves, and by the nature of the irregularities and bumping of the waves have figured out who jumped in where and when and where what’s happening all over the pool. And that’s what we’re doing when we’re looking at something. Uh, the light that comes out isis waves, just like in the swimming pool except in three dimensions instead of the two dimensions of the pool it’s they’re going in all directions. And we have a eighth of an inch black hole into which these things gowhich, uh, is particularly sensitive to the parts of the waves that are coming in a particular direction it’s not particularly sensitive when they’re coming in at the wrong angle which we say is from the corner of our eye.

Our perception is an incredibly limited subset of the wealth of information out there. And consequently, our knowledge is an unimaginably tiny projection of the vast reality out there. How much could we, intelligent insects that we are, know? Enough to keep us busy for a lifetime, to be sure. But still precious little, compared to what’s there to know.

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