Asymmetries of applied knowledge: Do we know enough to save ourselves?

During a recent illness, which necessitated a time of relative immobility for recuperation, I passed many hours watching scores of YouTube videos on topics I have followed as a layman for many years: cosmology, particle physics, and astrophysics. Roughly speaking, these generally superb videos—from the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Ontario (Canada), from MIT, from Stanford University, from Arizona State University, from Imperial College, London, to the World Science Festival in New York, to name a few outlets—explored in multifarious and fascinating ways, the attempts of some of the most intelligent people of our species to understand the most fundamental mysteries of nature: the birth of the universe (or multiverse?), gravity waves, a grand unified theory incorporating quantum mechanics and relativity, the very nature of time, our accelerating universe, the theory of inflation following the Big Bang, the discrete or continuous nature of space-time—and on and on.

One cannot help but marvel at the fact that our collective effort in these sciences has produced such breath-taking results. With the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, the Higgs boson has been detected and subatomic particles are being probed with ever higher energies sure to produce significant further results.

However, to know has for so long been an accepted part of the great intrinsic virtues of humankind, that knowing itself, embodied by the various sciences, has become an unquestionable quest. But knowing has from the very beginning of scientific effort, been invariably associated with power: a control over Nature herself. Virtually every discovery in physics has been put to some practical advantage, and these discoveries have enabled what we may conveniently call our privileged 21st century lifestyle: instantaneous communication via the Internet, high-speed bullet trains, GPS for everybody, the harnessing of electric and nuclear power, etc.

When William Gladstone (1809–1898), British Chancellor of the Exchequer, asked the great experimental physicist Michael Faraday (1791–1867) what use there was to his discoveries, presumably about electricity, Faraday is alleged to have replied: “Why, sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!” (W. E. H. Lecky, Democracy and Liberty, 1899). The rest, as we say, is history.

At the same time humankind is faced with what is euphemistically termed ‘climate change’—the insupportably exponential warming of our very Earth; ongoing warfare, overpopulation, widespread poverty, the potentially irreversible degradation of our natural environment, and the ever-increasing threat of nuclear annihilation given the large stockpiles of weaponry and turbulent political situation.

One may, therefore, rightly ask: how much more do we need to know?

Let’s take a leaf out of Einstein’s book and conduct a kind of thought experiment.

What if no further knowledge of the natural or physical world could be gained; what if nothing truly novel could be discovered; what if our technological capabilities were limited to those we now enjoy, and those alone?

What if, therefore, our world today, comprising all of our applied scientific discoveries, would be the world of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow? What if our planes and cars could travel no faster, our beloved Internet capable of no greater transmissive ability, and what if our energy extracting technologies could not be enhanced?

This appears to be the most pressing and profound philosophical question of the day, and here’s why I believe this to be so. If we as a species are limited to existing technology (control over Nature), do we have sufficient resources to be able to address the glaring social, political and practical problems of humanity?

We do, unequivocally. The greater challenge that remains is how to form a just and equitable society given these resources, without diverting wealth and intelligence to the inevitable appropriation of scientific discovery for the uses of the State.

You can be assured that the massive governmental funding provided to these scientific domains is not the result of a cheerful democratic open-handedness and generosity. It is instead with the well-understood proviso that new results will be used by governmental militaries to prepare the next generation of weaponry or human surveillance and control.

I am no Luddite, and I glory in the magnificence of cosmological and astrophysical and particle physics achievements, achievements that allow speculation about the origins and fate of our world. And believe it or not, I also enjoy using my cell phone occasionally, with its GPS functionality. But without a more just and sane world of men and women and countries on Earth, our days of wild and beautiful contemplation will be numbered.

To learn and explore and to try to know are indeed characteristics of our species, but there is a selection that fuels the direction in which learning and exploration and knowledge proceed. Our mastery of the physical world far outweighs our mastery of the socio-political realm; yet the elimination of poverty is well within our technological reach, as is the disestablishment of weapons that threaten the very existence of earthly life.

Perhaps it is time, in this most precarious of times, to direct human ingenuity towards solving the most pressing problems of human co-habitation.

If not now, when?

Dr. Garcia is a Philadelphia-born physician and author who now resides in New Zealand. He may be contacted at

4 Responses to Asymmetries of applied knowledge: Do we know enough to save ourselves?

  1. Secondly, you hit the nail right on the head. I’m not a worrier about such things, per se, yet am deeply troubled that we are hellbent on destruction of Mankind and our planet, since our genius has created the means to do so. While mankind has always fretted over the impending end of days, never have we actually created such means to physically bring that to fruition. I am an optimist by nature, yet stubbornly realistic and not afraid to face grim realities. It seems that we have painted ourselves into a dark and narrow corner, where one fateful false move (or even no move at all) could spell doom.

    Of course, I believe that we must vigorously live our lives in the face of, and despite these realities, but they are sobering issues to face and advocate against. To think that we could be the generation that is responsible for the End is too overwhelming to comprehend, yet we live with that every second. Not in a few hundred years, not in a hundred years, but now! Yet we cannot become depressed or fatalistic; in point of fact, those emotions are not very useful except to be a catalyst to mobilize all our resources and those in others to give our species, all other species, and the incomprehensibly precious gift we have been given of this Earth to change the vector and redirect it to a more positive and sustainable direction. And we must be singleminded and relentless in this pursuit. Is it too late? No one knows, but do we really have any choice in the matter?

    Bruce S. Zahn, Ed.D., ABPP
    Professor, Director of Clinical Training
    Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine
    Board Certified in Clinical Psychology

  2. As usual, Doctor Garcia’s thoughts are worth reading, and acting upon.

    As the Buddha observed: The two greatest enemies of man are superstition and ignorance. I would add evil to this couplet.

    Some are in awe of creation, while throwbacks want to chop of your head because their so-called holy book tells them to do so.

  3. Many of our benefits from technology are what I would refer to as trickle down benefits in that they have come to us through experience on the battlefield. It is disheartening to know that improvements in medicine, air travel, communications, and other fields, would not have reached us had they not been invented to aid the military.

    We evolved from hunters to form complex societal structures, and yet we have not satiated our desire to hunt; we hunt each other and have learned to do it with such expertise so as to be able to destroy our species. We hunt the earth with equal relish. We have attained enough control over nature to destroy it, in fact, we have already begun to do so.

    I agree with the author when he says that “To learn and explore and to try to know are indeed characteristics of our species.” What I have come to realise is that our quest for knowledge is lopsided in that we engage in discovery without considering the long term results. It is a pity that there can be no scientific research merely for the sake of science. It’s a shame that scientists who want to engage in research are compelled to accept funding from governments and corporations who then appropriate the results for military gain.

    Why not indeed focus our intellectual capacity to address socio-political issues? Let’s call for a worldwide truce; let’s set other things aside for and concentrate on obtaining knowledge regarding how to eliminate poverty and disease, how to dismantle weaponry.

    Certainly, such explorations will be ridiculed by all states because all states are oppressive and seek to keep their subjects under control.

    But I think a small beginning and a few seemingly harmless questions asked can create an intellectual spark, an intelligent understanding, a renaissance of socio-political thought from which there is no going back to our current status quo.

    That which is equitable and that which is humane: we have a grasp of these concepts, therefore let’s cultivate them. Our life, our liberty, and our future happiness depend not on what is good for the few but for what is equitable and humane for the many.