I dare say there are two ways of looking at the development of knowledge over time. The first is like the progression along a ruler. As we learn more and more about the world, we scale the ruler and reach milestones – 5 centimetres, 10 centimetres, 15 centimeters... and so on.
But as we look back to where we came from, we notice that while we’ve moved forward, we can’t really tell the difference between where we started and where we are. It all rather looks the same.
To me, this is a very problematic way of thinking about the advancement of knowledge. That is, the notion that we don’t really know more than we used to, we just know it differently.
At one time, 50 years ago let’s say, people had all sorts of answers about personal health and fitness. They knew, with great certainty, what it took to get fit. Today, 50 years later, we still have all the answers. But the answers have changed. So what gives?
Thinking like this results in a sort of information melancholy; what’s really the point of learning, if you’ll just find out you’re wrong anyway?
Here’s why: as we acquire more knowledge, we’re not necessarily proving old beliefs wrong. Instead, what we’re really doing is showing that new beliefs, based upon greater and greater bodies of evidence, result in improved versions of old ideas. The old ideas are generally still as accurate as they ever were, just not as accurate as the ones today.
I think a beautiful illustration of this is Newton’s theory of gravity, which still works extremely well at predicting the motion of large bodies, such as the motion of the moon and planets. Yet it’s also “wrong.”
Einstein’s theories of relativity predict these motions much more accurately, and have vastly wider applications. So if you want to understand the motion of the planets, Newton will probably do. But if you want to launch a satellite into orbit around the Earth, you need Einstein. It’s not that Newton was wrong, but rather Einstein was more right.
I like to think of this in terms of how Michelangelo described his process in creating David.
For Michellangelo, David had always existed within the marble slab. It wasn’t something he created so much as something he released -- it was waiting for someone like Michelangelo to remove everything that wasn’t David.
This is also the case with our understanding of reality. Reality is out there, whether we understand it or not – but it also becomes so much more beautiful, so much more profound, as we
begin to chip away at the obfuscating chunks of marble and cast our eyes
on the majesty of what remains.