I finally started watching this fascinating interview of Neil deGrasse Tyson by an out-of-character Stephen Colbert today and the first question Stephen asks to Neil sounds like a joke:
“Is is better to know or not to know?”
I think this is a fundamental question that is often ignored or brushed off by both the pro-science and the anti-science factions.
There is a certain beauty in ignorance that I can’t ignore, even as a science lover. But I think what I define as beauty is very different from reveling in the “mysterious ways” of the universe. I don’t like mystery. What I like is imagination.
Yesterday I was looking at an automatic pool vacuum cleaner — at least I think it uses vacuum — wondering once again how the hell this thing was making its way across the bottom of the pool. I don’t know how it moves, how it cleans, or what it is able to clean. Yet there I was staring at this thing having short spasms and trying to imagine what mechanism could possibly make it function.
On my own, I wasn’t able to come up with a satisfying answer. That, in my mind, creates something very similar to a vacuum, or a gap. That gap needs to be filled or I will be frustrated every time I see this thing again. It will remind me of my laziness and lack of will to inquire about it and find some kind of definitive answer. It prevents me from moving on to hunting another mystery.
I can’t deny that when I finally find the answer to how it works (and I plan to do that, soon after I publish this) I will be satisfied. Yet as someone who prides himself in understanding the world around him, I will have a slight disappointment that I could not predict how it works before I looked up the answer.
Not knowing also provided me with a catalyst for my imagination, which I believe is one of the greatest reasons why people dislike science. Science is there to confirm one hypothesis, and deny all the others any legitimacy. It feels unfair, because your pet theory wasn’t chosen to be the truth. But that’s not at all what it is. No one decides or chooses truth, it just is. All you have to do is be willing to discover it.
So to answer the question I posed as a title, yes, it is better to know. It’s sometimes unsettling, surprising and it can be frightening. But those adjectives can be taken to describes some of the most wonderful things about life. Sheltering oneself from knowledge isn’t nearly as satisfying as gathering the abilities to discover knowledge on your own. The excitement, the joy of discovering are far greater than the comfort of imagining.
And no, it doesn’t take the poetry out of the world, because there are always bigger mysteries to discover.