The light, the void, and epistemology

life Apr 5, 2021

As a little kid, I was a pretty brave and daring bugger. However, when left alone, a list of phobias would surface. Achluophobia (fear of darkness), thalassophobia (fear of deep oceans), and of course venustraphobia (the fear of beautiful women). What is lurking invisibly in the dark? What creatures are dwelling in the dark water below me? What if she rejects my cheesy pick-up line?

Why did I have such random fears? What did these irrational phobias all have in common?

I feared the unknown.

However, I found solace in the fact that my fear of the unknown was shared, and innate in almost every human. From cavemen lighting fires in the Stone Age, medieval knights holding flickering wax candles, to my childhood obsession with LED night-lights during midnight toilet breaks, humanity has always created things to trump our fear of darkness. What we cannot see is often what we cannot know. Haunting tales of swimmers meeting sharks which suddenly emerge from the darkness of the oceans have spawned myriad stories of monstrous sea creatures ranging from the mythological Lochness Monster and Kraken to popular culture figures such as Jaws, Godzilla and Moby Dick. Perhaps this is why so many beach-goers stick to the shallow waters or stay between the red-and-yellow flags! Even scientists armed with submarines and floodlights do not dare to dive into the inky black depths of the Mariana Trench which still lie untouched by humanity. As a species, homo sapiens revel in familiarity, in certainty, in promises of safety. We squirm in the disorientation of darkness, yearning for the assurance of light and that which is recognizable.

Yet, wired into our neural calculus, along with primitive fear, is the courageous (albeit sometimes foolhardy) sensation of curiosity in the face of the unknown. Rather than fear the unknown, should we not prod at it, taste it, question it? To stretch the limits of knowledge, to continuously penetrate the unknown, to transcend previous intellectual boundaries, and to discover new pieces of information arises instinctually in the modern man. It is this desire to learn more which illumined man from darkness with the creation of fire, and the same conviction bringing Europe out of the Dark Ages and into the Enlightenment. For although I am pitifully scared of the unknown depths of the ocean, I am mesmerically allured by the twinkling of stars upon the dark night sky.

Cosmological legends are formed not out of precautionary fear but out of glorious wonder regarding the unknown, with Ancient Greeks philosophizing over constellations, Chinese monks recording meteorological events and Indigenous Australians painting the walls of caves with Dreamtime stories in red ochre. Today, this curiosity drives us to analyzing sunspot fluxes, charting the elliptical orbits of asteroids, and observing distant stars of the Milky Way galaxy. We are infatuated with expanding our horizons, both figuratively and literally with space-travel. The Space Race to the moon between the United States and the Soviet Union has evolved into the Space Race to Mars between Musk and Bezos. The capacity of our 7 billion brains creates an infinitely luminous torch that pierces the darkness of the cosmos.

Yet, we must face the inevitable fact that human knowledge has its limitations. As our intellectual ambitions grow exponentially, there will be a day where our light will sputter, choke and be sucked into a black hole. The unrestrained development of artificial intelligence represents the danger of humanity’s insatiable curiosity and self-destructive obsession over conquering the unknown. Building a mechanical slave race with growing consciousness and mental capacities millions of times larger than ours will see apocalyptic ramifications if the robots turn against humans. The glorious light of humanity’s torch may one day fade and be monstrously supplanted by the red, circular light of Hal 9000. Yet, it is unknown what our rash embracing of the unknown will lead to - how ironic!

Rather than irrationally fearing the unknown or embracing it with self-destructive fervency, humanity should be cautious yet curious. Bravely shining the torch of knowledge forward will no doubt lead to progress - just don’t put it on high-beam or the bulb will explode.

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John Wang

Knee deep in blockchain quicksand

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