Our instinctive and insatiable drive to experience new things, to visit unexplored places and to make sense of the unknown has built our world in the shape that it is. Carl Sagan understood that we were “wanderers from the beginning”, obsessed to our core with the pursuit of new discoveries.
Now, as our generations receive the genetic torch of our species, we find ourselves at a crossroads.
Never in our history have humans been more powerful than now. Soon, through our technology, every human on the planet will be connected and from our time spent wandering, we have come to know every inch of the surface of our world. We know there are also others just like ours in the universe, and we are quickly trying to unravel their mysteries.
For the first time ever, there is no great unexplored region of our hospitable world; nothing new under the sun. But our hardware – our biology – remains unchanged. The fires of the unknown call to us and like moths, we cannot resist.
We cannot help but move forward. The new era of human exploration prophesises a vast interplanetary civilisation spanning across multiple galaxies as we escape the confines of our Earth and adventure into the stars.
The Known Unknown
Mirroring our advances in space travel and exploration of the external world, there remain a number of other less discussed frontiers. With only 1/5th of the ocean floor even mapped, we know virtually nothing about alien life in a world just below the surface. We are also reportedly on the cusp of being able to harness matter at the quantum level, potentially accelerating our understanding of the very fabric of our universe. In addition, the limbic amplifier that is Internet-powered social media, is challenging how we understand the human brain and our own behaviour.
And yet still, we understand absolutely nothing about the mind and consciousness. The enticing call of everything outside and the standard scientific method which produces satisfyingly quantitive results, has caused us to neglect to look inside the box. This is the realm of philosophy and religion, a field that uses tools of logic and perception to answer unanswerable questions and make sense of unexplainable phenomena.
Despite differences in methodology, however, inward and outward exploration complement each other as both ultimately seek the same thing – greater understanding.
Scientific instruments are an extension of ourselves. They allow us to dissect, isolate, measure, calculate, hypothesise and test in order quantifiably determine something. Despite first requiring our inquisitive minds to initiate the process of discovery, we would be unable to actually do the determining without their assistance.
So the two work together; the mind raises the question and the tools help provide answers.
The Unknowable Unknown
Principle to our difficulties with internal exploration is a property of the mind to be unknowable. We have yet to invent tools with which to analyse consciousness because they escape our own comprehension. Just as a knife cannot cut itself, a fire cannot burn itself and you cannot lick your own tongue – the unknown mind cannot know itself. Hence we arrive at roadblock that cannot be broken through with brute force or climbed over with a ladder; it’s a roadblock which challenges human imagination and pure cognitive ability.
Eastern philosophies seek to, through a rejection of all concepts, chip away at this ‘understanding’ like a sculptor chips away at marble to reveal a statue. By attempting to reveal this image, however, these thinkers entrap themselves with the idea that there may actually be something to be understood after everything has been taken away. But there is nothing, for as soon as there appears to be something to grasp onto – that in itself is a concept, and it slips away like water through a sieve.
Some people look to religions for answers to these questions. To which the religions reply very matter-of-factly that, despite these things being unknowable to you; they, the experts, know the answer to be…
For some people, this other world of spiritualism and mysticism may even be seen as intangible and therefore less ‘real’ than what we experience in our everyday lives. Perhaps a result of our society’s devotion to verifiable truths and ‘realities’ presented by scientific discoveries, we tend to disregard such abstract queries as being both unknowable and therefore unnecessary to even think about.
The Unknowable Known
Our conscious attention works like an ultra refined spotlight, examining bits and pieces of the world one at a time. We can only focus on one or a few sensory experiences at any one time, but cannot take in everything all at once through decided effort. We can control our breathing with conscious attention, but most of the time it is done without effort; we say it happens ‘automatically’. So what about raising our hands or turning our heads? Sure, we can say we first made a decision to make this action but where does this decision come from? Did we decide to decide to raise our hand? And so this cycle of unknowing continues on and on – yet we can all still breathe, lift our hands and turn our heads.
There are so many things that we do every day that we still don’t understand how we do them.
If something cannot be measured, is it real? Is a memory of someone real? Or a dream? These are questions that humanity has been struggling with for as long as we have been conscious.
Looking deeper, unconscious attention is even more curious; how can we safely drive a car whilst we’re engrossed in conversation with our passenger and then brake suddenly to avoid a cat running across the road? How do we recognise our friends in a group of strangers? How do we grow our hair, beat our hearts and process vibrations in the air into sounds? If conscious attention is a spotlight, unconscious attention is a floodlight. It constantly absorbs everything that is happening around, to and with us, without us having to make a deliberate effort to do so.
Journey Into the Unknown
Many of humanity’s greatest discoveries were the result of people looking at the world around them and asking questions. How far does the ocean go, why does the sun rise, what is stuff made of, how do birds fly and how did we get here? Our thirst for knowledge and answers to these questions has directly built every aspect of our modern world.
But whilst the search for answers to these questions often leads to exploration of the external world, we would do well to understand that both internal and external discoveries are just two sides of the same coin – only then can we truly begin to understand our place in this universe.