10 unanswerable questions that neither science nor religion can answer
Friday November 17, 2017
By Thomas Frey
The DaVinci Institute
A few years ago I was taking a tour of a dome-shaped house, and the architect explained to me that domes are an optical illusion. Whenever someone enters a room, their eyes inadvertently glance up at the corners of the room to give them the contextual dimensions of the space they’re in.
He went on to explain that since domes have no corners, that from the inside they appear larger than what they really are, and from the outside, they appear smaller than the space of another house with a comparable footprint.
This notion of context has followed me throughout my life, into virtually every topic I’ve come to wrestle with. Once I can find the “corners of the room,” I can begin to make sense out of whatever subject I’m dealing with.
However, when we dive into the “why” topics of how time and space began, and even the size of the universe, I find myself struggling to even formulate good questions.
Perhaps this is nothing more than a form of therapy for me, but I’d like to take you along on a rare inner personal journey into how I think about the biggest of all big picture issues. And it all starts with one simple question. “Why are there exceptions to every rule?”
The Feud Between Science and Religion
Even before the time of Copernicus, scientists like Philolaus and Aristarchus of Samos had proposed something other than an Earth-centered universe.
While evidence of this line of thinking had been building for centuries, with Nicolaus Copernicus publishing his landmark book “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres” in 1543, it wasn’t until Galileo made his mark in 1615 that the rift between science and religion would reach death-sentencing proportions.
The Galileo verdict caused a rift between science and religion that continues even today.
However, there are some seemingly unanswerable questions that neither science nor religion can offer a reasonable answer to, and I’ll do my best to keep this balanced so I don’t come across favoring one side or the other.
With this in mind, I’ll start with a rather unusual question.
1.) Why are there exceptions to every rule?
Why is it that all of our rules, theories, maxims, and models all have an exception? This is precisely the way the world works, except when it doesn’t.
In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have any exceptions, or would we?
On the surface this seems like a rather trite question, and if you ask the average person on the street, most will simply smile, shrug, and move on. But in a world where scientists have spent countless billions to research and understand such topics as the relationship between matter, energy, particles, and waves, everything has to make sense, except it doesn’t.
Even with our basic understanding of math, 2+2 does not always equal 4. It depends on what type of measurement scale you are using. There are four types of measurement scales – nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio. Only in the last two categories does 2+2 = 4.
So why do exceptions matter? Exceptions matter because nothing comes with 100% predictability. Yes, we can count on such things as buildings existing from one day to the next, the Earth traveling around the Sun in the same orbit, gravity holding us down, and the speed of light remaining reasonably constant. In fact, most of the world around has been created around natural forces that can be predicted with high degrees of probability.
For this reason, there is no such thing as absolute certainty, except our certainty that nothing is certain…maybe.
2.) Why do logic and reason fail to explain that which is true?
In many scientific circles, the only truths are those that can be explained with logic and reason. Religious people use a different metric, but they, too, have a way of calibrating their truths with logic and reason.
So why are logic and reason such miserable tools for explaining the world around us? It’s as if the world around us was perfect, and then someone divided by zero. Everything perfect has a touch of that one secret ingredient known as chaos.
Is order more perfect than chaos? Or is chaos just a higher form of order? How will we ever know if we can’t explain it with logic and reason?
3.) Is the universe finite or infinite?
If we were able to travel to the outer edges of the universe, what would we find? Perhaps we would run smack dab into another universe, but how would we know? Would the other universe somehow come in a different color, operate with a different set of rules, or smell slightly like almonds? How would we know?
I’m imagining a large sign that says, “You have reached the end of Universe A! Welcome to Universe B, where proximity is not an issue!”
How much is infinity plus one?
4.) Why does anything exist?
Before there was something, there was nothing. And out of nothing, how did we get something? What existed before the Big Bang, before creation, and before God?
Yes, it becomes very confusing when we throw in theories about other dimensions and non-linear time, but all of these theories fail to answer this most fundamental of all questions, “Why does anything exist?”
We know things exist, but why?
5.) Why does time exist?
Time is the sound of a metronome ticking in our heads, the beat of our heart, the blinking lids on our eyes, the mental waves in our brains, and all the circadian cycles that govern our lives.
Much like fish that can’t understand water because they’re in it all the time, we have a very poor grasp of our most immersive of all substances -- time.
Each of us thinks about time differently. To some, it is a tool to be leveraged, to others a setting sun, a theory of physics, a philosophy to be debated, the hands of a clock, a lengthening of a shadow, or the grains of sand dropping in an hourglass.
And yet every truth we have about the existence of time comes with a counterbalancing exception to the rule.
I love Albert Einstein’s comment that “the only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.”
What Einstein may have been alluding to is the existence of other dimensions outside of those governed by time. But whenever he made the comment, it always ended with a smile, the universal sign for “no further explanation will be forthcoming.”
6.) Why do humans matter?
We are born as a baby, struggle our entire life with everything from finding food to eat, homes to live in, educating ourselves to gain more understanding, staying healthy, making friends and relationships, raising a family, earning a living, and then we die.
If we have more accomplishments in life, earn more money, have more friends, raise a bigger family, and somehow do everything better than anyone else, we will still eventually die. Right?
In a world teaming with 8.7 million different life forms, how do humans fit in?
Every past civilization, with their manmade structures, machines, systems, and cultures, has eventually succumbed to Mother Nature. Plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi methodically remove every trace of what we leave behind.
Why are humans important?
Does the fact that we can ask questions like these, ponder the unponderable, think the unthinkable, and accomplish things that no other species can accomplish, somehow give us a higher purpose?
Are humans destined to become the guardians, caretakers, and eventually the masters of the universe? If so, then we have to ask…
7.) Why are humans so fallible?
Humans are the bull in every china closet, the off-center bubble on every level, the mystery behind every hidden agenda, and the blunt instrument whenever a precision tool is called for.
We are both our greatest heroes and our most feared enemies. We are praised for our accomplishments and castigated for our failures.
Of all species on planet Earth, humans are the least predictable, most destructive, require the longest nurturing period, and consume the most food. At the same time, we are also the most curious, most aware, most innovative, and the most likely to waste countless hours playing video games.
Yes, we may have better developed brains than all the other animals, but that doesn’t explain why we are so unbelievably fallible.
8.) Do human accomplishments have long-term meaning?
If you do a search of mankind’s greatest accomplishment you come up with lists that include the building of the great pyramids, landing on the Moon, the invention of the telephone and light bulb, amazing artworks, and the composition of countless music scores. But are those things that humans consider to be great accomplishments really significant in the bigger scheme of things?
Perhaps today’s human accomplishments are a stepping-stone to what comes next?
We live in a world driven by prerequisites. A machinist needs to understand a single-point lathe operation before he or she can advance to multi-axial milling. Engineers need to understand the concepts of mechanical stress and strain before they start bending a cantilever beam. Metallurgists need to understand thermodynamics before they attempt phase transformations in solids. Physicists need to understand quantum mechanics before they can understand a standard model for particle physics. Mathematicians need to understand nonlinear differential equations before they can understand strange attractors.
Are all our accomplishments just stepping-stones to something else that we don’t know or understand yet?
So what is it that we don’t currently know that will make tomorrow happen?
9.) Why is the future unknowable?
While I’m well aware of the notion that a “known future” will strip us of our drive and motivation, understanding the consequences still doesn’t explain why the future isn’t knowable.
I like to think of the future as a force so massive that the entire universe is being pulled forward in time simultaneously. We have no choice in this matter. The future will happen whether or not we agree to participate.
Currently, there are no known techniques for us to speed it up, slow it down, or even try to stop it. The pace with which the future is unfolding is constant, and at the same time, relentless.
Will the future always remain unknowable?
10.) What is the purpose of death?
Shortly before his death, Steve Jobs said, “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share.”
But why death?
Couldn’t we just dissolve into a pile of ash, fly out of our skin, step into an invisible elevator preprogrammed to go to the highest of all floors, or just mentally fade to black.
People fear death. We spend millions on vitamins, health food, fitness programs, and doctors all to avoid the unavoidable. Or is it unavoidable?
Why are we so terrified of the unknown?
People who surround us today are part of the present and will also be part of the future. For people who are intellectually enlightened and “tuned in,” it’s easy to discount those who have a different perspective.
Yet the future is being created by all of us. If we believe we have a purpose, then so does every butterfly, pocket mouse, and beam of light.
We have all experienced things that we would consider extra-dimensional, such as thoughts that spring from “nowhere,” words that come from our “intuition,” and ideas that torture us relentlessly.
Regardless of your beliefs, start with the most basic of all questions: Why does anything exist?
It’s rather ironic that our first impulse is to use logic and reason to come up with answers, an approach that has historically only been able to answer questions about the tiniest of all fractions of the knowable universe.
If you were expecting me to have all the answers to life’s most unanswerable question, then this column will certainly disappoint you. It has been a lifetime journey for me just to formulate the questions.
That said, I would love to hear your thoughts. Am I asking the right questions? Do you have answers to these questions, even one of them? Here’s your chance to weigh in.
UPDATE: I first want to thank everyone who has tried to answer these questions. However, I’m much more interested in mathematical proofs rather than theories or opinions.