Daily Archives: November 4, 2015

Lisa Randall: Dark Matter

Lisa Randall is professor of physics at Harvard and author of the just released Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe

Randall also just penned an essay in the Boston Globe “Seeing dark matter as the key to the universe — and human empathy.” I thought it one of the best I’ve read this year. She begins the essay:

I liken dark matter — matter present throughout the universe that is invisible to us because it doesn’t emit or absorb light — to other entities that remain unnoticed but influence the workings of the world, from the bacterial cells in our bodies, which outnumber human cells by a factor of ten, to the myriad Internet communities and subcultures that thrive outside our awareness. The goal was to illuminate the gap between our limited observations and the many barely perceived phenomena that permeate our reality.

She extends her metaphor by pointing to other things that are transparent to us, “people, phenomena, particles, and forces that we don’t necessarily appreciate but that are important to our shared reality.” In the scientific realm, these blindspots are relatively obvious. For example, we don’t see or understand the rules of quantum mechanics which are counter-intuitive and esoteric. And dark matter is like this too, even though it is,

the dominant form of matter in the universe … people tend to perceive it as irrelevant or even dangerous … Dark matter’s existence perplexes people who find it implausible that the vast majority of matter in the universe would be undetectable by our senses and their technological extensions. Some even wonder if it’s a sort of mistake. To me it would be even more astonishing if the matter we can see with our eyes were all the matter there is.

Now if we turn the metaphor toward racial or class differences we see that,

Most people mistake their own perspective, shaped by their subjective and limited perception, for the absolute reality of the external world. Questioning this assumption is what advanced our research on dark matter. It is also the only thing that has ever advanced human empathy.

Empathy is important to help us understand things we can’t see or experience. If we recognize”the limitations of our senses and the subjectivity of our experiences” then we might be able to transcend them.  Yes, we necessarily see the world from our own point of view, but we should remember that ours is only one way to see the world so we should be empathic.

Empathy is difficult. It is also crucial to the progress of both science and society. It demands that we make a deliberate and consistent effort to step out of our familiar frames of reference. Only then can we synthesize different perspectives, observations, and experiences — the very act at the heart of creativity, which will be essential to solving the increasingly complex problems that beset our world.

There is dark matter and energy around us that we don’t see; there is light and sound that we don’t see or hear. Our thoughts are but grains of sand in a universal ocean. We should be humble about them and empathic toward others.

Agnosticism about Meaning

I am an agnostic; I do not pretend to know what many ignorant men are sure of.
~ Clarence Darrow 

I would never die for my beliefs because I might be wrong. ~ Bertrand Russell

Ubi dubium ibi libertas.
(Where there is doubt, there is freedom.) 
~ Latin proverb 


Agnosticism is the idea that the truth or falsity of some claim is unknown or unknowable; it also denotes a basic skepticism toward answering certain questions. Typically agnosticism applies to religious belief, but we will apply the idea to the meaning of life. The authors we call agnostic believe either that the question of the meaning of life is meaningless because it is unanswerable, or that the answer, if one exists, is unknowable.

In contrast with many other philosophers, I don’t believe that the word meaning properly applies only to words or signs, but that it also applies to activities such as human lives. But there is a more substantive objection to the meaningfulness of our question—that our question is meaningless because it is not possible to answer it. Accordingly, a question for which there cannot possibly be an answer is said to be meaningless, at least by supporters of the validity of the objection. Note that this does not mean that there may be an answer which we don’t know. Rather it means that the question asks for an answer which cannot be provided, thus rendering the question meaningless by definition. To understand this deeper objection, in our next 3 posts we will consider three extraordinary twentieth-century philosophers who advocated this view: Paul Edwards, A.J. Ayer, and Kai Nielsen.

Here are a number of great quotes about doubt and agnosticism.

It you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life, you doubt, as far as possible, all things.~ Rene Descartes

Philosophy begins when one learns to doubt particularly to doubt one’s cherished beliefs, one’s dogmas and one’s axioms. ~ Will Durant 

Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.~ Voltaire

Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt. ~ H. L. Mencken

We declare at the outset that we do not make any positive assertion that anything we shall say is wholly as we affirm it to be. We merely report accurately on each thing as our impressions of it are at the moment.~ Sextus Empiricus 

Trust a witness in all matters in which neither his self-interest, his passions, his prejudices, nor the love of the marvelous is strongly concerned. When they are involved, require corroborative evidence in exact proportion to the contravention of probability by the thing testified.~ Thomas Henry Huxley

You see … I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing.  I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here…I don’t have to know an answer.  I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.  It doesn’t frighten me. Richard P. Feynman

Maybe philosophical problems are hard not because they are divine or irreducible or meaningless or workaday science, but because the mind of Homo sapiens lacks the cognitive equipment to solve them. We are organisms, not angels, and our minds are organs, not pipelines to the truth. Our minds evolved by natural selection to solve problems that were life-and-death matters to our ancestors, not to commune with correctness or to answer any question we are capable of asking.~ Steven Pinker