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A little boy was once told by his older sister that the Earth is shaped like a ball.
He thought about that. 'But what does the ball sit on?' he asked.
'The back of a turtle,' came the surprising reply.
Another moment's reflection. 'Then what does the turtle sit on?'
'And that turtle?' the boy persisted.
'Another turtle and another turtle,' his sister replied impatiently. 'It's turtles all the way down!'
Yesterday, reading about time, I felt I was being offered the turtle explanation.
'I'm often asked,' a scientist wrote, 'what was the universe like before it existed.
'The question is irrelevant because time didn't exist. Time is only measurable by its effect on matter. We see matter growing or dying and we conclude time is passing. Without matter, nothing happens, therefore time didn't exist.'
Gee, I'm glad he sorted that out!
Considering that argument, I was reminded of a magic box I heard about years ago. It was painted black, the size of a matchbox and had a small button on the side. Press the button and you heard the sound of whirring machinery. The lid of the box slowly opened to reveal a small arm. A hand groped its way to the button which it switched off and the arm drew back into the box, closing the lid with an angry snap.
And that was it!A machine that one started only to turn itself off.
The scientist also offered a glib answer to any of us who wondered if time travel was possible.
'Impossible,' he concluded, 'otherwise we would have records of people coming from the future to visit us.'
Yes, assuming that the time machine has already been made. Assuming the visitors appear in some recognisably human shape. Assuming they want to communicate with us. Assuming that our present time interests them, rather than a time perhaps a 100 years into the future. Assuming that if they appeared in the past, their visit was recorded by some group whose history is still available to us and not part of the many human civilisations of which we know little or nothing. And so on.
I'm more persuaded by the argument that if a time machine is possible, it can only move forward in time because it's logically impossible for a machine to transport people to a time before the machine existed. I sense there's something faulty with that reasoning, but haven't figured out what.
Going back to the era before the Big Bang of creation, I would argue that time is in fact passing because even if billions of years drifted by without anything happening, you're always drawing closer to the singularity when chemicals reacted to form matter, and an explosion occurred that led to the creation of life. Why are scientists adamant nothing was happening? We don't know enough about the events that created the Big Bang. Perhaps millions of individual steps were necessary or billions of failed attempts occurred before the explosion.
Recently, a scientist averred that all the great questions of evolution have been answered. He clearly subscribes to a different book club than myself! I still wrestle with the concept of natural selection and the survival of the fittest.
If we imagine the precursor to today's giraffe, it's quite feasible that a long necked version of that animal would eat better than an animal competing at the same height as other grazing animals, but does that really mean that all the less successful versions gradually died out? Even if they did, why was it necessary for the giraffe's neck to develop such an extravagant height? What is the mechanism driving genetic development? How is that as soon as one creature develops an elaborate defence, then its enemy develops a way to circumvent that defence? After all, we're discussing often fairly primitive life forms that are able to transform their physical ability to better protect or feed themselves. Clearly, they do, but how? Perhaps the greatest unanswered question of evolution lies in the barely explored field of DNA sequencing.
For a while, we thought we had all the problems licked. Two centuries ago, respectable scientists were predicting mankind would shortly solve the last of creation's unanswered questions.
All we discovered was that there were a host of scientific fields, none of which had been imagined, much less studied. Later, we decided that while many questions were far beyond the capacity of human minds, we might be able to design vast computers to do the job.
Is it possible to develop a machine, perhaps a neural computer that will answer every question? No, because there are vast areas of knowledge we can never access.
We can never answer many of the simplest questions about the past. Many of the questions millions have about Jesus, for example, will forever lie in the realm of supposition and faith, because there's simply insufficient historical information about the most important man who ever lived. One of the most unintentionally cruelly funny lines of the New Testament is when St.John concludes his brief account: 'But there is much else that Jesus did - so much, that if it were written down in detail, I do not suppose the world itself could hold the written records.'
The longer I study this line, the stranger it seems. Is John (assuming we're not reading a later gloss) seriously suggesting that Christ within three years of public ministry was able to complete so much that all the libraries in then world couldn't contain a full account? The sentence is hyperbole, out of character with the straightfoward tone of the rest of the account. It's a fairy tale ending, like 'and he was never heard of from that day to this' or 'they all lived happily ever after.'
John would doubtless argue all we need to know for salvation is contained in his account, but the New Testament's four sketchy narratives of Christ's life are deeply unsatisfying for any reasonably curious person, much less those who try to follow His example.
If we accept we'll never understand as much as we'd like about the past, is it possible by crunching all the numbers we can devise solutions to most of the world's most intractable problems? I doubt it, because many actions flow from irrational and therefore often unpredictable choices. An exhaustive study of the causes of war can never guarantee the peace.
Increasingly, commentators are accepting the possibility we may never know the answers to every question. One suggests that as soon as we've finished fully exploring one floor, a trapdoor springs open and we plunge down into another unchartered region. Asimov suggests knowledge is fractal. The smaller things get, the less we can ever hope to know.
In 1940, Belloc concluded his hilariously improbable description of 'The Microbe' with the lines:
'His eyebrows of a tender green:
All those have never yet be seen
But Scientists, who ought to know,
Assure us that they must be so...
Oh! let us never, never doubt
What nobody is sure about!'
As we try, through science, to understand God's mind, I wonder if God isn't equally curious about the mind of humans. Maybe satisfying this curiosity is the main reason we exist. If you were a restlessly creative force such as God, wouldn't it fascinate you to observe how humans, given free will, rationally or irrationally order their world?
I think it's sensible to continue seeking the answer to every problem, because while we will encounter many failures, the answers we find have already and will continue to transform our world in myriad positive ways.
Perhaps it is as well we will never know all the answers.
Many years ago, a short story was written about man's sometimes dangerous search for truth.
It's said that when all the names for God are known, mankind will die.
In the story, a scientist created a computer that for many years thought up billions of names. One day, the machine printed a message notifying its creator that it had identified all God's names.
The scientist was exultant and was boasting of his achievement, when one of his colleagues glancing out the window at the night sky saw to his horror that each star was blinking off!