“For how stands the case, for instance, if we endeavor to explain the cause of the rising of the Nile? We may say a great deal, plausible or otherwise on the subject; but what is true, sure, and incontrovertible regarding it, belongs only to God. Then, again, the dwelling-place of birds — of those, I mean, which come to us in spring, but fly away again on the approach of autumn — though it is a matter connected with this world, escapes our knowledge. What explanation, again, can we give of the flow and ebb of the ocean, although every one admits there must be a certain cause? Or what can we say as to the nature of those things which lie beyond it? What, moreover, can we say as to the formation of rain, lightning, thunder, gatherings of clouds, vapors, the bursting forth of winds, and such like things; or tell as to the storehouses of snow, hail, and other like things? the conditions requisite for the preparation of close, or what is the real nature of the vapors in the sky? What as to the reason why the moon waxes and wanes, or what as to the cause of the difference of nature among various waters, metals, stones, and such like things? On all these points we may indeed say a great deal while we search into their causes, but God alone who made them can declare the truth regarding them.”
This passage from Iraneus of Lyon got me to thinking about the nature of scientific knowledge. In almost every case he mentions, we know so many more answers than he did at the end of the 2nd century. A second grader can tell you the answers to many of these questions in some sense, but in another sense, it reminded me of Kierkegaard’s Concluding Unscientific Postscript where he argues that all scientific knowledge is only “knowledge to a certain degree.” If we try to chase down a terminus ad quem for any of these questions, we can say much more than Iraneus could at the time he was writing, but we can never get to the end of the chain. We can just extend the concatenation.
We can give an account of why rivers rise and fall, why birds migrate, and why the moon waxes and wanes, but it all winds up in an infinite regression. The tides change because of the moons gravitational pull. Why does the moon pull? Because of the nature of gravity. Why gravity? Einstein etc. Then why do molecules behave the way they do? Well, because they follow laws until you get to looking at them very closely, and then they don’t follow any laws at all that we can explain.
I keep stumbling against the “double slit experiment” and quantum entanglement in my thought process. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A9tKncAdlHQ If we go with the Copenhagen interpretation, it ultimately seems like the moon waxes and wanes because we’re looking at it. Consciousness determines reality. So the physicists have come to a conclusion that most Buddhists and Vedantists would say, “Yeah, we’ve known that for a couple thousand years.” If we go with the multiverse explanation, it’s just so many moons “and so many stars, and so few hours to dream, such a big song, and so little a footing to stand and sing.” In the end, I find that I’m not that much further along than Iraneus.