on knowable unknowns
A forum discussion today, about astrology, Tarot cards and other charlatanry, brought out my pedantic streak with a vengeance. I had to water down what I was trying to say, but it’s still probably too much for the audience. I’ve had no time for any of this, haven’t had any since I learned some astronomy and cosmology, back when my shoe size was bigger than my age.
It’s important to grasp the difference between the unknown and the unknowable, about the universe we live in. In my experience people vastly overestimate the size and importance of the latter: if you start listing all the things we know we don’t know, you can usually find reasons why you don’t know: space-time, the limits on our vision, our capacity to absorb and process huge volumes of information, or just apathy – because the questions are not that relevant to our lives. These limitations make us who we are today, but it’s not necessarily going to stay that way.
If you haven’t read The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, by Douglas Adams, go out and get the first book (or radio series) at least. Man’s place in the universe – the illusion vs. the reality – is a key concept, from the first chapter, when the Earth is thoughtlessly demolished to build a hyperspace bypass. But the most relevant part to this discussion is the Total Perspective Vortex, a chamber that strips away all your illusions and shows you exactly how important you are in the scheme of things: i.e. not even slightly important. The universe does not know or care about you – no matter if you wish otherwise. Most egos do not survive the experience. *
Meanwhile, back down to Earth: our brains have evolved in to good “pattern matchers”. Our ancestors could examine the prints and signs left by animals, and build up a mental picture of the animals and their actions. An evolutionary advantage, since it made them better hunters. We still have this skill: our ability to project meaning from random events or vague signs is understandable, and even entertaining. People have written whole books about the meanings of Yes lyrics – words cobbled together by Jon Anderson to sound good (he happily admits)!
Our ability to spin meaning out of nothing may even lead to useful self-examination and insight, but does it tell us anything useful about the future? Enough to make us spend money, make personal changes, to make demands on other people? If you interpret your horoscope as saying “leave your partner”, do you listen to that, or to your partner’s wishes? Who wins, the vision or the reality?
All I mean by that is: as with religion, I can understand people looking for comfort and reassurance in any way comfortable to them; I just hope the people remember that it’s 100% personal, and confers no rights over other people, over their time and other resources. You say “jump”, I say “why?” Since I don’t believe in the stars, or the planets, or angels watching from above, those ideas have no authority over me, and neither do the people who do believe in them. Sorry.
* Yes, Zaphod, I heard you the first time.