When the ancient Greeks first uttered the dictum “Know thyself,” they had another choice. They could have said “Know lots of other things.” In one direction the investigation goes inward; in the opposite direction the investigation goes outward. “Know thyself” stands for something that, as far as we know, only human beings possess: self-awareness. “Know lots of other things” also points to a unique human capacity: curiosity about the outside world. I think it’s unarguable that the investigation of the outside world, as pursued by science, has gotten much, much further than self-awareness. Scientists have probed Nature in every dimension, while self-awareness hasn’t even stopped humanity from the impulse to destroy itself.
The gap between “Know thyself” and “Know Lots of other things” was sharply drawn by a current post from the back-page editor of Scientific American, Michael Shermer. Reading his piece, “At the Boundary of Knowledge,” one comes away with a sense that science is totally triumphant. Not only has science achieved huge successes in acquiring facts and data that led to the overwhelming dominance of technology in the world. It has done something much more difficult. Quoting a recent book, The Big Picture, by Sean Carroll, a physicist from the California Institute of Technology, Shermer claims that now we can be almost certain about how all knowledge is attained. “All of the things you’ve ever seen or experienced in your life—objects, plants, animals, people—are made of a small number of particles, interacting with one another through a small number of forces.”
From this position, which we can call hardline materialism, Shermer reaches the following conclusion: “Once you understand the fundamental laws of nature, you can scale up to planets and people and even assess the probability that God, the soul, the afterlife and ESP exist, which Carroll concludes is very low.” I haven’t read Prof. Carroll’s book, but you can see Shermer, and many of his readers, dusting off their hands with a satisfied sense of “Well, that’s that.” If they are right, science has eliminated the need for “Know thyself” simply by swallowing up the whole issue of self-awareness and packing it away with particles and forces, having scaled up to planets and peoples, God and the soul. Continue reading