Unknowable

I am thinking right now about how there are things that we can’t know.

This is not something I like. I prefer to know things. People have observed this about me, probably because it gets on their nerves. I like to find things out. We’ll be watching something on TV and somebody’ll look familiar and I’ll say, “Where do we know him/her from?” and then I’ll be all over imdb.com trying to find them, and whether we’ve seen anything else in their filmography. Which gets a little embarrassing when I get interested in a particular actor. Combine “wanting to know things” with “extremely good memory”, and suddenly I’m pulling the most bizarre trivia out of nowhere and it starts to sound a little creepy. “I’m not a stalker, honest! I just… know things…”

And I know things, too. I love exploring. I go driving and try to figure out which road leads where and how. I take stuff apart. I listen attentively when things are explained, and again with the good memory, I can pull it out of nowhere when the subject comes up again. Which leads to the unfortunate problem of sounding like a know-it-all, and having to bite my tongue so as not to annoy people with facts. It still bugs me that I never really got the hang of trigonometry, ’cause here is this thing which I do not understand and I want to work it out.

And there is so much to work out! We’ve got this whole enormous universe to explore. We’ve got physics and math and chemistry and biology, we’ve got art and history and literature and music and how all those things work together. There’s reams and reams of data out there, libraries of books and millennia of cultures. Not to mention that we’ve got people, and they’re like a whole universe inside each one. Perspectives and pasts and emotions and desires and talents and beliefs, all in this mind-bogglingly complex brew, with new little bits coming up all the time. There is just so much to know. So much more new stuff to discover, figure out, and learn.

So it is all the more frustrating when I run into things I can’t know. Wham, hit a wall, not allowed in, not because it is forbidden or wrong, but because it is simply not possible.

We cannot know the thoughts that everyone thinks. We barely know all the thoughts we ourselves think, and there is no way into someone else’s head. We cannot know the past. We can extrapolate the past, and most of the time we can trust what we come up with, but we can’t know. We cannot know the places where we cannot look. If everything we believe about time and space and light is true, then we cannot know what is going on in the universe now, only what was happening when the light we see left it. We cannot know what happens after death. (Hold off, Christians, we’ve got our evidence, and I believe said evidence is trustworthy and true, but I have yet to die. I’m talking personal, first-hand knowledge here.) And worst of all, we cannot know the future.

Boy howdy, do we want to know the future.

Why shouldn’t we? It’s sitting right in front of us all the time. We’re constantly going into it. And we can know some things about it, because we are intelligent creatures: we can work out how things that have happened will affect things that will happen. We can make plans and set schedules and draw up calendars. Working out the future off the present is a method that has stood the test of time. But that isn’t all the variables.

Because there is a limit on what we know. There’s a limit on what we understand. If for instance the universe is the finely-tuned clockwork that Newton envisioned, we still can’t know because we can’t see all the gears. We can’t see where they come from or where they’re going. If we don’t know what the guy next to us is thinking, no amount of science is gonna help us. Suddenly this pendulum out of nowhere comes flying through and knocks everything over. It’s source and purpose are right outside our knowledge – it had one, we just didn’t know what it was, so how could we know it was coming? If only we could see the future as well…

Except we would know too much.

Because of the future is mutable, it’d wouldn’t be worth knowing. We’d have one more input to add to our sprawling network of if/thens and not/therefores. We still wouldn’t know all the factors that led to the future we saw, nor how they all worked, and we really wouldn’t know what would happen if we did change things. And if the future is set? Say goodbye to free will.

To know a mutable future would be to saddle us with a responsibility we are not built for. If we knew a mutable future, we might start thinking about how we can mess with it based on actions independent of their morality. So I do this bad thing, knowing it’ll work out. So I do this horrible thing, knowing that good will come of it. So I become an abomination, because of the great virtue and right that grows up to destroy me. Or we find out that some kid is going to grow up to be a soulless genocide. Should we kill him?

To know a set future destroys all our responsibility. We were always going to do that horrible thing, and there was no escaping. How is that our fault?

We can’t know the future. We mustn’t know the future. It isn’t our responsibility because we haven’t the wisdom nor the authority to use that knowledge. We can’t know how our paths will go on, we can’t know when they’ll circle back or when they’ll take crazy turns. We must learn the things that are in front of us, and make choices on what we do know. The things we cannot know because they are impossible, we must leave to others – or to God. We must trust to a design greater than our own, and an understanding we could never grasp.

And maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we’ll travel in time someday, and learn all the spoilers. But hey, I can’t know that either. I will learn that when I get there. And I will make the decision when the decision must be made. Because these things must be done in order.

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