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Gre Issue 33: As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more complex and mysterious.

created Nov 25th, 14:30 by Zhongtao Xu


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626 words
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Since the first human gazed up at the night sky, human beings have never stopped acquiring knowledge and attempting to understand the surrounding world. However, there is a claim that as people gain more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible but rather more complex and mysterious. I believe that knowledge does not make things more complex but rather reshapes our perception. However, in the process of acquiring knowledge, some things can become more comprehensible while new mystery emerges.
 
There is a difference between complexity and incomprehensibility. Although it is undeniably more challenging to understand a complicated object, being difficult to grasp does not necessarily mean that it is impossible to comprehend. Has the world become more complex as we come to know more of it? I doubt this is the case, because the world's complexity does not depend on our comprehension level. For example, rules governing the movements of stars have been always the same, from the time of the first stargazer, but our understanding of these laws has improved. Reductionists may argue that knowledge simplifies our understanding but this view does not always hold true because we have not discovered every piece of information about the physical world. That is, as people acquire more knowledge, new information emerges which makes things more complex to them.
 
As mentioned above, incomprehensibility does not arise from complexity. The question about whether the world becomes incomprehensible in light of new knowledge therefore requires additional discussion. Due to the disparate nature of different "things", it would be an oversimplification to claim that new knowledge makes things more mysterious. New knowledge endows us with powerful tools with which to examine the things around us. For instance, advancements in laser technology, benefiting from new optic knowledge, have given us new information about biological process in human body and shed light on the mechanism of chemical reactions on an unprecedented microscopic level. Thus, many biological and chemical processes that used to be mysteries are now comprehensible to us.
 
On the other hand, new knowledge often raises new questions which cannot be answered without further inquiry. Those questions may seem to be mysterious at first glance. Expanding on the example about optics, the nature of light is still an intriguing and unresolved topic which attracts scholarly debate. Our current understanding is that light is both in a form of waves and particles, but this counterintuitive explanation itself seems a mystery that no one at this moment can elucidate. Thus the understanding of light's true nature requires additional study. Similar logic can be applied to the study of climate change. It was not until Milankovitch's insolation theory that scientists could quantitatively explain and predict glacial-interglacial cycles. However, this knowledge raised new questions regarding mysterious events in Earth's climate history that have not yet been adequately explained.
 
The fact that new knowledge raises new questions does not suggest that we are unable to understand. On the contrary, those questions, coupled with our curiosity, drive our quest for knowledge. For example, there are many climate events that remain unaccountable by Milankovitch theory. In those cases, the Earth actually warmed despite very low energy flux from the Sun. Such mysteries actually led to a new subfield in climate science and to many new insights, which made the Earth's climate system more comprehensible to us. Mysteries are not permanent and are likely to be solved in the future.
 
As I have discussed, the world does not become more complex as a result of new knowledge but instead we gain a more comprehensive perception of it. New knowledge can indeed explain things we once found mysterious, but at the same time, it raises new, often puzzling questions. However, those questions are only mysterious until they are solved. (624 words)

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