Reflections on the Riddle of the Universe

By Jin-yeong Yi

Black hole

“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.”

—Socrates

What I know can fill a book. What I don’t know can fill entire universes. And what I am not certain of fills all of reality itself.

Upon realizing just how difficult—if not impossible—it is to ascertain anything in this world, one despairs of ever forming a solidly grounded opinion on things. Why should we even try?

No one, living or dead, genius or idiot, monotheist or polytheist or pantheist or deist or agnostic or atheist, can convince me that they have the answer to the riddle of the universe. That is perhaps why I have so much sympathy for the Skeptics of ancient Greece and Rome, while rejecting their doctrine of ataraxia.

The riddle of knowledge is the Riddle of riddles. How can one know what is real, what is true? It seems impossible to even imagine what the answer might look like. Maybe every red pill is just another blue pill in disguise. How can one truly know whether one knows something or not? This riddle may be unsolvable.

But we’ll continue to try, because our minds demand answers. Whether we are humble cracker-barrel philosophers or eminent department chairs of elite universities, we will continue our pursuit of that elusive thing we call truth.

Will the answer to the riddle of the universe ever be revealed? If it is, I imagine that it would be a target that no one in history has ever hit, and that it would be far greater than all of our speculations combined.

The Romance of Doubt

By Jin-yeong Yi

LH 95 stellar nursery in the Large Magellanic Cloud

“Truth is at the bottom of the abyss; and the abyss is bottomless.”

—Democritus

“Nothing can be known, not even this.”

—Carneades

“The problem with certainty is that it is static; it can do little but endlessly reassert itself. Uncertainty, by contrast, is full of unknowns, possibilities, and risks.”

—Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

“It’s the question that drives us…”

—Trinity, The Matrix

What is the God of the skeptic? It’s not science. It’s Mystery.

I don’t know if the world I see in front of me is real or an illusion, but I choose to engage it anyway.

I’m like the protagonist of the biblical parable of the prodigal son, except that I have it together a little better than the son: instead of mindlessly squandering all of my resources and letting myself end up penniless and in a pig farm (in other words, exhausting my energy on indulgence and caprice and letting myself end up in an intellectual ghetto), I am exercising due caution and moderation in my exploration of this strange world, admiring a tree here and a mountain range there as I attempt to map the terrain.

Instead of the safe but small house of the father, my mind is out in the world, with the vastness of the universe before me. There’s always apprehension and fear as to what I might find, but also a kind of freedom that comes from being able to think beyond all imaginary boundaries.

I imagine that it’s like being in the middle of nowhere in outer space: no left or right, up or down–nothing but my own sense of orientation. There’s no destination, only the journey. The journey is the destination.

It’s paradoxical: part of me wants to be found, but another part of me enjoys being lost. For it is the latter whence comes the greatest adventures.

“To pose a question entails that you do not know something. To ask ‘Who is the abbot?’ means that you do not know who the abbot is. To ask ‘What is this?’ means that you do not know what this is. To cultivate doubt, therefore, is to value unknowing. To say ‘I don’t know’ is not an admission of weakness or ignorance, but an act of truthfulness: an honest acceptance of the limits of the human condition when faced with ‘the great matter of birth and death.’ This deep agnosticism is more than the refusal of conventional agnosticism to take a stand on whether God exists or whether the mind survives bodily death. It is the willingness to embrace the fundamental bewilderment of a finite, fallible creature as the basis for leading a life that no longer clings to the superficial consolations of certainty.”

—Stephen Batchelor, Confession of a Buddhist Atheist

Why I Am an Eclectic

By Jin-yeong Yi

“[L]et it be granted and established that objects ought to be judged by Man. Then, since there exists great difference amongst men, let the dogmatists first agree together that this is the particular man to whom we must attend, and then, and only then, let them bid us also to yield him our assent. But if they are going to dispute about this ‘long as the waters flow on and and the tall trees cease not to burgeon’ (to quote the familiar saying), how can they urge us to assent rashly to anyone? For if they declare that we must believe the sage, we shall ask them ‘What sage?’”

—Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism

As a freethinker, I do not believe in appealing to authority wherever I am able to use my own judgment. The way I see it, the question is not “Which worldview is true?” but rather “What truths can be found in each worldview? It seems very unlikely that there is a worldview that is correct about all of the various complexities of life; it seems to me more likely that all of the worldviews suffer from major flaws, which means that all of the worldviews are “wrong,” some being more “wrong” than others.

People may very well point out to me that the founders of the various philosophical traditions were incomparably wiser and incomparably more intelligent than I could ever hope to be. They may well ask me if it is not better to trust them than to trust myself, as, being wiser and more intelligent, their errors would probably be minor compared to my own. I would reply that such blind submission would solve nothing, as I would still be left with the problem of figuring out who to trust. I would still need to somehow figure out which teacher/master/guru/sage can interpret knowledge and connect the dots with the greatest precision and has the most accurate picture of reality. That in itself would require me to use my own judgment.

A problem that each of us is faced with is that we are often fed lies along with truth, and it is often difficult to distinguish between the two. It is up to us to separate fact from fiction and adjust our worldview accordingly.

Philosophical traditions are like streams of water. Some are clearer than others, but are nonetheless not completely free from impurities. What is better, to draw water from a single stream, taking in the impure as well as the pure, or to distill and collect the purest water from many different streams?