You read that right. All that humans had ever seen or sensed — from the tallest mountain and brightest star to the tiniest speck under the most powerful microscope; everything weighed, measured, mapped or compassed; the entire cloud of humanity’s common database — amounts to only about 5 percent of the universe. Peebles, building on the work of others as all scientists do, transformed the way we understand the rest of it: dark energy and dark matter.
Far be it from me to explain this stuff. In terms of physics, I’m hard-pressed to explain to a child why people on the opposite side of the Earth aren’t upside down and why they don’t fall off. But while I don’t begin to understand the astonishing work of Peebles, I am nonetheless deeply moved by it and by what it says about the human condition.
For all our theories and discoveries, all our certainty and convictions, we never know the whole truth, and much of what we think we know is likely to be proved wrong somehow. Though the human brain is an awesome tool — the most powerful tool we know of — this curious and observant organ spent many thousands of years in total ignorance of almost everything. Not just run-of-the-mill brains in the heads of ordinary Joes and Janes, but the great brains of history: Aristotle’s and Bacon’s, Newton’s and van Leeuwenhoek’s, Curie’s and Copernicus’s. What Hamlet said to his school friend could be said to even the greatest minds of every age: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
The history of knowledge is taught to children as a sort of dawning — an enlightenment, if you will — in which the amusingly benighted theories of the past are steadily corrected, and the mysterious corners of existence are unlocked and explored. I remember thinking as a boy what a shame it was that I missed out on pioneering. All the great adventures had been ventured and every sight had been seen. Yet at that moment, the Einstein Professor at Princeton was working out theories of energy and matter many times more abundant than the whole of my dreams.
Isn’t it likely, then, that we are closer to the beginning than to the end of learning and discovery? It’s not only possible, it’s probable — a near certainty — that ages from now our descendants will marvel at the extent of our ignorance, the crudeness of our instruments, the barbarity of our conduct, the childishness of our superstitions — just as we marvel at those of our forebears.
Perfect knowledge is not just around the corner, and yet we must act as though we know what we’re doing. Paralysis is not an option. The attitude of mind that balances these opposites — the awareness of our limits, on one hand, and the urgency of decisions, on the other — is humility.
It’s in short supply these days. From the blustery billionaires of Silicon Valley to the bully currently occupying the bully pulpit, few of us today dare to say: “I may be wrong, but . . .” Doubt is weakness in the age of the elevator pitch; nuance never trends on Twitter. As a people, we seem to demand of our leaders a certitude at odds with the gaps in our knowledge. And what gaps there are — in our knowledge of human behavior, of economic systems, of the origins of hate and violence, and so on. The questions underlying public policy are as imperfectly understood as matter and energy, pre-Jim Peebles.
Imagine how much happier and more productive our national and international debates could be if we all approached them with the humility of a genius professor (the Einstein Professor!) asking, “what if we’re missing most of this picture?” We’d be more open, more respectful, more inquisitive, more inclusive — all virtues that flow from the principle virtue: humility.
One of the things I don’t know is whether President Trump was being serious or joking when he referred on Monday to his “great and unmatched wisdom.” But seeing the word “wisdom” so prominently brandished reminded me of a line in T.S. Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” This masterpiece of ruminative poetry might be described as the distilled insights of a man who, over years of philosophical combat, came to see that he knew far less than he once thought he did.
“The only wisdom we can hope to acquire is the wisdom of humility,” Eliot summed up. “Humility is endless.”
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