Knowing How You Know/One World
As we explore from our earthly outpost it is audacious to expect that the laws of physics we are endeavoring to understand extend unchanged throughout the vastness of the universe. None-the-less no exceptions have yet been found. All life forms discovered so far live together on our single planet, circling our sun, in our humble place in the universe. The universe is vast, yet it is all one world, and we all live together on this one planet we call Earth. All that we know of, all that we have ever experienced is enabled by the same laws of physics. Remarkably, the entire world as we know it has emerged from those fundamental building blocks.
Because we all live in the same universe, our understanding of that universe must eventually converge toward one coherent description. Each phenomenon we observe must fit into a single coherent and integrated description of our universe. Either the description must evolve to accommodate each new observation, or our understanding of that observation must be interpreted consistently with that unified representation. This is the principle of consilience, a “jumping together” of our variety of experiences into an integrated understanding of the one world we live in. Currently this coherent model is most fully understood within the disciplines of physics and chemistry along with the engineering applications of these principles. Geologists, meteorologists, and biologists are making good progress integrating their observations into the unified model. The complexity of human endeavors and the variety of human experiences challenge the efforts of neuroscientists, physiologists, medical professionals, psychologists, sociologists, economists, political scientists, ethicists, and other social scientists to fully integrate their work into the coherent model.
As physicists strive to understand how the universe behaves, they have discovered several powerful explanatory principles. These physical laws include: the physical constants and the elementary particles that are used to describe: time, space, gravity, other forces, motions, electromagnetic radiation including visible light, radio waves, electricity, and magnetism. These fundamental mechanisms explain and can predict our familiar experiences with: falling apples, motion, temperature, heat, light, energy, electricity, radio, the structure of the solar system, and other astronomical observations. Engineers apply physics principles to solve practical problems, including: building ships, machines, engines, locomotives, automobiles, airplanes, telephones, light bulbs, radios, televisions, computers, space craft, the Internet, and smartphones. Astrophysicists look outward into the vast universe to ascertain the nature of the heavenly bodies as they refine and expand our understanding of all that exists. Particle physicists look inward to better understand the structure of atoms, nuclear particles, force fields, and the finest structures of matter. Evidence gathered from these ongoing experiments challenge existing scientific theories and continues to refine our fundamental understanding of the universe. Because inconsistencies can bring us to the threshold of insight, physicists vigorously search for inconsistencies and carefully examine them. To maintain consistency, any observations that conflict with the current unified understanding of physics are closely studied and ultimately result in a new understanding of the observation, or some refinement of the model. Such ongoing careful study brings us ever closer toward a shared understanding of our world.
Everything in the known universe is composed of only the elementary building blocks identified by physicists. All reliable evidence supports this claim and no verified evidence has ever falsified this remarkable statement. Emergence of various phenomena in the universe is illustrated at a high level in a diagram, which may be helpful to study along with this essay.
As we endeavor to fully understand the laws of physics, it is helpful to recognize that all of chemistry emerges because the mechanisms of physics enable the formation of the chemical elements. Similarly, physics allows atoms to form bonds, combine into molecules, and create chemical compounds. Capture or release of energy propels each of the many chemical reactions that are constantly taking place in the laboratory, kitchen, factories, atmosphere, waterways, the materials that form the earth, and within all living organisms. Chemists are increasingly able to understand how their many empirical observations emerge from the laws of physics.
Geologists study the solid earth, the rocks that compose the earth, and the processes by which they change. Rocks and minerals are identified by their chemical composition and crystal structures. Geologists use seismology, computer modeling, mineralogy and crystallography at high temperatures and pressures to gain insights into the internal composition and structure of the Earth. The development of plate tectonics provided a physical basis for many features of the solid Earth. The power of the theory of plate tectonics lies in its ability to combine many observations into a single theory of how the lithosphere—the outermost shell of the earth—moves over the convecting mantle. Geologists are successful in applying the laws of physics and chemistry to understand the structure of the earth, and explain the dynamic creation, erosion, and destruction of the earth’s features.
Meteorological phenomena are observable weather events that are explained by the science of meteorology. These phenomena are described and quantified by the variables of Earth's atmosphere: temperature, air pressure, water vapor, mass flow, the variations and interactions of those variables, and how they change over time. It was only after the laws of physics became understood and the development of the computer enabled the automated solution of a great many equations that model the weather that significant breakthroughs in weather forecasting were achieved.
Meteorological phenomena, including weather, storms, and rainbows are examples of complexity and emergent phenomena. Rainbows are real, because we can see them, but they remain elusive, moving away as we seek to approach them. This is because a rainbow does not exist at one particular location. Many rainbows exist as droplets of light illuminated by the sun; however, only one can be seen depending on the particular observer's viewpoint. All raindrops refract and reflect the sunlight in the same way, but only the light from some raindrops reaches the observer's eye. This light is what constitutes the rainbow for that observer. Rainbows are dramatic, beautiful, and unexpected effects of sunlight refracted by raindrops.
Biologists study life and living organisms, including their structure, function, growth, evolution, distribution, identification and taxonomy. In general, biology recognizes the cell as the basic unit of life, genes as the basic unit of heredity, and evolution as the engine that propels the synthesis and creation of new species. It is also understood today that all organisms survive by consuming and transforming energy and by regulating their internal environment to maintain a stable and vital condition known as homeostasis.
Amino acids and DNA are particularly interesting to biologists, because these molecules enable life to emerge. The natural process by which life arises from non-living matter is called abiogenesis. The phenomenon of life is an emergent property of chemistry analogous to, but much more complex than, the emergence of rainbows from many droplets of reflected light.
The tree of life, formally known as a phylogenetic tree, shows the inferred evolutionary relationships among various biological species based upon observed similarities and differences in their physical or genetic characteristics. The taxa joined together in the tree are implied to have descended from a common ancestor. Evolution of life on earth proceeded from unicellular organisms, through the emergence of photosynthesis, more complex cells including a nucleus, known as eukaryotes, sexual reproduction, and then multicellular life over an almost unimaginably long time period of approximately four billion years. As each species is added to the tree of life, care is taken to ensure the placement is constant with all the observed evidence.
Humans are a recently evolved species currently located on a terminal branch of the tree of life. Although bipedalism is an important adaptation, most importantly the human species developed a much larger brain than that of other primates—typically 1,330 cm3 in modern humans, over twice the size of that of a chimpanzee or gorilla.
The increase in brain volume over time has affected areas within the brain unequally—the temporal lobes, which contain centers for language processing, increased disproportionately, as has the prefrontal cortex which has been related to complex decision-making and moderating social behavior.
Neuroscientists study the connections between the biological structures of the nervous system including neurons, neurotransmitters, and neural networks, the information processing of the nervous system, and the various functions such as sensory perception, motor control, memory, emotion, cognition, language, and other behaviors that result.
Big brains cause humans to be social animals with emotions, language skills, consciousness, imagination, planning, reasoning, abstract thought and other characteristics of human nature. Because humans are so complex, it is difficult yet essential to comprehend that every human, and even every human action, is ultimately the result of the laws of physics and chemistry. Remarkably, psychological phenomena emerge from the neurobiological phenomena of living things. Furthermore, sociological phenomena emerge from those psychological phenomena; however the causal linkages have yet to be understood in much detail.
Creative and bold humans have produced a remarkable variety of beautiful art forms. Painting, sculpture, music, singing, dancing, storytelling, poetry, and drama are common artistic pursuits.
Beginning with simple stone tools and the controlled use of fire, creative humans have invented a remarkable collection of useful tools. Each new tool is typically developed as some refinement, combination, improvement, or extension to the previously existing tools. Perhaps more important than the remarkable collection of gadgets, humans have combined language, creativity, and influence to create an unending stream of social constructs.
Social constructs are agreements among a particular group of people to endow certain symbols with agreed upon meanings, within a defined context. In short, a social construct is a collection of agreements that X has meaning Y within context C. As a simple example, consider a team sport such as soccer. Players and officials who agree to play a game of soccer agree to follow a set of rules. Those rules establish the roles and responsibilities of the players and officials, along with the conditions for scoring points, assessing penalties, ending the game, and identifying a winning team. It is only when players, officials, and fans agree to abide by the rules of the game that the game and it roles exist, or have any relevance at all. The passion exhibited at a typical soccer match demonstrates the power such a social construct has over the lives of the participants.
Social constructs are so common that we often fail to identify them as constructs. Games, governments, laws, courts, money, committees, memberships, titles, awards, contracts, property ownership, land deeds, religions, marriage agreements, codes of ethics, bylaws, financial transactions, debt, taxation, national boundaries, treaties, corporations, officials, authorities, and even languages are all social constructs.
Religion, government, judicial systems, and financial systems are social constructs having particularly important impacts on the lives of most humans. Because social constructs are human constructs, they are the few processes in our universe that can be changed. Furthermore, many of the controversies we are most concerned about are the results of social constructs.
The many languages, cultures, and social constructs existing on earth make it difficult to comprehend that we are all part of one world. Because each of us can experience only a tiny fraction of the entire world we each have our own unique viewpoint, and those individual viewpoints can differ greatly. Although we each have our own unique view of the world, every one of us must insist that we are all seeing the same world. We are each like one of the blind men who examine the elephant. Fortunately we are encouraged and guided by the principle of consilience, the unity of knowledge, and we know we must hold the unshakable conviction that it is all one elephant. Hold onto the knowledge that we all share one world, and work to understand how your viewpoint integrates into that one world. Work to understand the relationships that are allowing today’s phenomena to emerge from all those phenomena that cause it.
Sometimes the appeal of coherence, and the allure of a compelling narrative, can cause us to construct simplistic echo chambers where false ideas are shared and reinforced by others embracing the same misconceptions. Although this is comfortable and easy, it is a mistake. Our worldview must be both unified and comprehensive. Adopt a global perspective. Every reliable empirical observation must be explainable within the single coherent model. Reliable epistemologies—ways of knowing—converge toward this unified representation. Epistemologies that diverge are unreliable.
- Everything in the known universe is composed of only the elementary building blocks identified by physicists.
- Most, if not all, of what makes up our world emerges from prior causes rather than from deliberate design.
- We all live in the same universe; therefore as we continue to examine our universe more and more closely, we can agree on a larger set of facts about our universe. Reliable epistemologies increase our shared common knowledge.
- Our knowledge of the universe is always incomplete. The detailed nature of most cause- effect relationships is presently unknown to us. However, the understanding that is emerging (partially represented here) is that those causal links exist. Much of the search for knowledge focuses on understanding those links.
- The impact of social constructs dominates much of today’s human condition. Because social constructs are agreements among people, they are the few rules in our world that we have the opportunity to change and improve.
Because we all live in the same universe, every phenomenon we observe fits into a single coherent and integrated representation of that universe. The universe is vast, yet it is all one world, and we all live together on this one planet we call Earth. “A united system of knowledge is the surest means of identifying the still unexplored domains of reality.”
Continue to seek real good.
Students wishing to learn more about the emergence of phenomena in our coherent world may be interested in reading the following books:
- Dawkins, Richard (August 24, 2010). The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution. Free Press. p. 496. ISBN 978-1416594796.
- Ridley, Matt (October 25, 2016). The Evolution of Everything: How New Ideas Emerge. Harper Perennial. p. 368. ISBN 978-0062296016.
- Wilson, Edward Osborne (March 30, 1999). Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Vintage. p. 384. ISBN 978-0679768678.
- Harris, Sam (September 13, 2011). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. Free Press. p. 320. ISBN 978-1439171226.
- de Waal, Frans (March 10, 2014). The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates. W. W. Norton & Company. p. 320. ISBN 978-0393347791.
- Searle, John (January 12, 2010). Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization. Oxford University Press. p. 224. ISBN 978-0195396171.
- Searle, John (January 1, 1997). The Construction of Social Reality. Free Press. p. 256. ISBN 978-0684831794.
- Wells, Spencer (February 17, 2004). The Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey. Random House Trade Paperbacks. p. 240. ISBN 978-0812971460.
- Pinker, Steven (August 26, 2003). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. p. Penguin Books. ISBN 978-0142003343.
- Brown, Donald (January 1, 1991). Human Universals. McGraw-Hill Humanities. p. 160. ISBN 978-0070082090.
- Although dark matter has not yet been directly observed, its existence and properties are inferred from its gravitational effects. Similarly dark energy is hypothesized to permeate all of space tending to accelerate the expansion of the universe, but has not yet been directly observed. Neither of these is yet explained by physics.
- See for example, Consilience, page 291: “The central idea of the consilience world view is that all tangible phenomena, from the birth of stars to the workings of social institutions, are based on material processes that are ultimately reducible, however long and tortuous the sequences, to the laws of physics.”
- Consilience, page 326