What Do You Think You Know and Why Do You Think You Know It?
Many people who like to think they take a pragmatic view miss out on the reality of the way things actually work. Many of the most useful ideas are also the most bizarre.
It is through the improbable that we achieve the practical.
Take GPS, for example, which is an amazing application of cutting edge technology for everyday use. It makes our lives easier and improves our productivity in countless ways by giving us incredibly accurate readings of distance and projecting those estimations onto a map.
However, GPS only works the way it does through the rejection of the concept of distance itself. Ironically, it is, in fact, the denial of certainty that makes the measurements so reliable.
To see how, let’s look at the chain of thought that began in the late Renaissance and led through Hume and Einstein to give us the technology we enjoy today.
Will the sun rise tomorrow?
His major work, A Treatise of Human Nature, argued for the primacy of experience over rational thought and is considered the greatest exposition of empiricism. Although Hume rejected the Cartesian rationalism that was still influential at the time, he did accept Descartes’ assertion that our perceptions are unreliable.
In other words, he believed that all that we know we get from our experiences, but that our experiences don’t tell us much. The consequence is radical skepticism. Hume argued that even our expectation that the sun will rise tomorrow is the result of habit and expediency rather than of certainty.
We do, as a matter of practice, accept many ideas without actually knowing they are true. People tell us things and, if they don’t directly conflict with our experience, we tend to believe them. That doesn’t mean that we really know what we’re talking about.
One of Hume’s most ardent fans was Albert Einstein, who counted Hume among his greatest influences. It was his adoption of Hume’s skeptical view that allowed him to question the concept of absolute time and space.
Once he was able to discard what his immediate experience told him was true, he was able to achieve insights that would reorder the universe into a place where time and space are relative. He showed that much of what we regard as hard fact is actually a matter of perspective. The measurements we use here on earth don’t hold sway in the rest of the universe.
This gave way to even more bizarre discoveries that defy common sense. Gravity doesn’t pull, but pushes. Time travel is possible. Teleportation is actual (first performed at IBM laboratories in 1993). We advance our society by bringing unreality into everyday life.
How GPS Works
GPS is a network of satellites that orbit the planet. For any given point, three satellites are used to triangulate the position and send the information to computers here on earth. There is a direct line from Hume to Einstein to thousands of other very smart people that makes it all possible.
Relativity only seems strange to us because we are a special case. We live in a world where objects are neither very big nor very small and nothing moves even close to the speed of light. We don’t need to account for relativity in everyday life.
Of course, we also do not run into GPS satellites walking down the street. They don’t care what we “know” to be true. GPS depends on incredibly accurate clocks which do, in fact, run slightly slower than the ones down here on earth at precisely the rate that Einstein’s equations predict.
If that difference isn’t allowed for we would be hopelessly lost.
The Crazy Ones
It is our natural inclination to rely on our experience that leads to our misguided tendency to believe everything we think. If the world really worked the way we suppose it does, then further advancement would be impossible. In our ignorance lies the promise of better things.
While practical men achieve practically nothing, it is “the crazy ones” that are willing to believe the unbelievable who move us forward.
So the next time you’re rushing to a meeting and can’t afford to get lost, you can gain some comfort from the device that will guide your way. It will not only lead you to your destination, but hopefully to an important question.
What do you think you know and why do you think you know it?