Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.

I‘ve seen this quote attributed to everyone from Edmund Burke to Albert Einstein, but have yet to uncover a reputable source. According to Good Reads, Edmund was supposed to have said this in his “Preface to Brissot’s Address to His Constituentsas” as far back as 1794, but unfortunately the transcript available on Project Gutenberg does not include it. I can find no mention, as yet, of where precisely Einstein is believed to have either coined or quoted the words, and considering the culture of misquotation on the internet, I’m inclined to lean toward Edmund.

In any case, I love the sentiment and take those words in the same vein as another of my favorite quotes:

“Believe those who are seeking the truth;
doubt those who find it.” – André Gide

(Fortunately, Quote Investigator backs me up on the source for this one.)

Far be it for me to espouse a belief that the pursuit of Truth is pointless or impractical. I am firmly committed to the endeavor of grappling toward the Truth, however strenuous or unpalatable the journey. I’ve never (or rarely) worn eye makeup, but consider me an honorary “Goth” in that regard; I’m the gloomy kid who sits in the corner and considers the context and consequences of things that others are desperately rushing to escape from remembering. I’m the one asking how we got here, whether we should be here, and what we can do to change it. I’m not going to tell you that the effort is erroneous, even when I’m bleeding from the eyes. I am, at least in theory, a red pill kinda guy.

But here’s the “but”. Human beings instinctively abhor uncertainty and the unknown. Not all of us or all of the time, but there is a natural and justifiable repulsion to untested ground. What you don’t know can hurt you, so it is better from the standpoint of survival to cleave to the familiar and demonstrably safe. In a wide variety of cases, this serves us well. It keeps us at home, among friends. But of course, eschewing the woods for fear of what lurks therein does not help us prepare for the contingency that the woods may leak into the village, or necessity may force us into the woods. This is why we study and research and try to comprehend the foreign and incomprehensible. The more that we can understand, the better we are equipped to navigate the proverbial chaos.

What troubles me is the trend toward certainty, even among seekers. How many times have we read a new scientific study that upends the standing assumption among experts? How many people have related their belief system in unequivocal terms; this is the one true path to enlightenment…?

Let me be clear: it is not that we should resist adopting a position based on the best information that is available to us. It is merely the rhetoric which implies that we have arrived at The Final Answer which unsettles me. It is every article that has ever declared, “the one thing which separates us from the other species”, when we know far too little about ourselves and all the other species to draw any such definitive conclusion. It is every author who declares, “there are only x possibilities”, when the possibilities are multitudinous and most lie too far outside our frame of reference to even be fully or partially conceived. It is any histrionic headline which screams that science has solved the problem once and for all, and any individual who insists that they’ve found the one true key to salvation, or that a phenomenal experience has only one explanation.

As a species, we have achieved remarkable things. But let’s try to remember our minisculity in the face of the universe. Every thought, action and expression of human kind is translated through the narrow lens of human experience, like a telescope we cannot set aside. We interpret the world through our senses, and as such our bodies generate a perception of the world which is entirely shaped by the design of our particular senses – which are shaped, in turn, by the environment which gave rise to them. We are an instrument which is finely adapted to precise wavelengths of information, while utterly insensible to anything which lies outside these perimeters. We are helpless even in parts of our own world without adapting our instrument, and we can only adapt it to that which our senses inform us of, and by emulating those which are better adapted to those environments. We are a three-dimensional entity, able to infer from our observation of lower dimensions that there may be higher ones, but limited to speculation about how deep the rabbit hole goes with any assurance.

Sticking to the familiar isn’t the only thing that has enabled the continuance of our species. Curiosity is another virtue which has conserved at least as many cats as it has killed. We should foster curiosity and continue penetrating deeper into our universe, but do so with humility, and an awareness of our limitations. We must, inevitably, draw our conclusions from the best quality of data that we have access to, but we should take care not to presume that the key opens only one door, or the door opens for only that key.

How do we know without knowing? Merely by reserving certitude. It is an oft-repeated criticism of science, at least among certain American conservatives, that science is only theory. This, however, is by design. It is an acknowledgement that we may never have all the data; that we can only extrapolate the most likely answer based on the data we have, and that the answer may change as more or better data become available. Many religious adherents prefer to find certainty in holy tomes, despite the enigmatic admission that these beliefs are founded on faith. It is difficult to reconcile both the admission of ignorance with the superiority of conviction that some laud over others as a matter of pride. But no one is immune from the sin of pride in any arena, particularly one they have sacrificed much to understanding.

Nonetheless, the moment we presume we have reached the pinnacle of knowledge is the moment we become blind to other and better alternatives, and paralyze the course of progress. It’s the moment that we swallow the blue pill and wrap ourselves up in the warm blanket of mindless confidence and persistent illusion. And somewhere outside the unbroken womb of known reality something small shifts, a new wrinkle emerges in the tapestry of fate, and the gods are laughing.