All I know is that I know nothing
by Brian Keaney
Before I begin, one of my favorite Monty Python skits ever. It ranks up there with the Spanish Inquisition and the dead parrot.
My boss told me today that I need to watch more TV. Basically he was calling me a geek, but I think I get enough pop culture in my diet to not get tagged with the term. For example, I know enough about Jersey Shore to know that I never want to watch it. Let’s also not forget that I can’t get through the day without checking Texts from Last Night a few times.
He’s also told me in the last week or so that he’s not sure if I get out too much, or not enough. I think it’s the latter, but that’s really not the point. His comments today came after I was telling him that I’m (still) reading a book on quantum physics. While it hasn’t yet, it seems to be leading towards answering one of the questions I’ve long held about the structure of the atom.
I might be wrong, but so far I’ve surmised that a quantum leap isn’t a jump into an alternative universe, but is actually how an electron moves from one level of orbit to another without being anywhere in between. I’ve been asking that question since high school and still don’t quite understand how, but I’m hoping I will by the time I finish the book.
OK, so maybe I am a geek, but I prefer to think of myself as a philosopher in the truest sense, as a lover of wisdom. This afternoon I was brought back to a college philosophy course I took with one of my toughest and favorite professors, Fr. Brian Shanley. I distinctly remember the class in which we discussed the problem of predestination. If God is omniscient and eternal, the argument goes, then she must know what you are going to do in the future before you do it.
If that’s the case, then your entire life is set out before you from time immemorial, and thus there can be no such thing as free will. According to that logic I’m writing this blog post because I was destined to do so, and I have no control over whether I act for good or for evil in anything I do. Fr. Shanley got around the problem (as he certainly does believe in free will) by saying that the Almighty exists outside of time, in a sort of eternal present. There is no future or past for God, only right now.
One of the 182 people I follow on Twitter, a handful are religious types. Of this category two of my favorites are @DalaiLama and @TheFuckingPope. (The former claims to be an official feed; the latter, not so much.) Closer to home, the Archdiocese of Boston tweets fairly frequently, and every day puts forth the name of a priest and asks that their 500 followers pray for him. I don’t think my prayers count for much, but I am aware of what an important role these men play in the lives of so many people, so I do usually try and take a moment to send a note upstairs on their behalf.
Today they asked that we pray for all the deceased priests of the archdiocese, and thus we get back to Fr. Shanley’s class. If I can pray in what for me is the present, and God is forever in the present, then does she hear my prayer yesterday, or last week, or 100 years ago as well as today? If I can pray for the repose of the soul of a priest who died before I was born, but when I pray makes no difference to God, could I instead pray that he lives a good and holy life, or that his first girlfriend doesn’t break his heart, or that he aces his math exam, even those these events took place, according to my concept of time, tens or hundreds of years ago? Going in the other direction, wouldn’t it make as much sense to pray for a painless death for my great-grandchildren – children that are not now and may never be?
I don’t know the answer to that any more than I know how a quantum leap works. What I do know is that in the first book I ever read in college, Socrates, my least favorite of the Greek philosophers, said something that has stuck with me more than anything else I learned in those four years: All I know is that I know nothing.
I’m painfully aware of how little I actually know, so I don’t plan on turning the TV on any time soon, even if that makes me a geek.