“Do not worry about your difficulties in mathematics; I can assure you that mine are much greater.”
A teenage girl had written a letter to Albert Einstein requesting help for her homework assignment. The eminent physicist replied with the desired assistance and this reassuring statement. Einstein typifies the curiosity common to every human being, but there are so many things to be curious about, and even if one limits his or her curiosity to a single field of study, one probably will never reach that “holy grail” of total mastery.
My recent casual reading about Einstein led me down a typical Google/Wikipedia learning spree, with two paramount links emerging from the rest: Time Magazine’s 100 Most Important People of the Century and Wikipedia’s List of Unsolved Problems. The Time link is a fascinating overview of a horde of luminaries, especially within the “Leaders” and “Scientists” sections. The Wikipedia link provides a handy reference of the currently unsolved problems in all the major branches of science. When I had finally had my fill of reading for the time being, I realized the common thread linking me to these various individuals is my innate curiosity. I have previously stated that the thing I value most is Truth, and what is curiosity but a search for some truth that we believe is important to us? Perhaps the quest for truth could be considered humanity’s “raison d’etre.” This seems to be compatible with most systems of belief, since they tend to present their respective precepts as “truth.” The job is left to us, both individually and cooperatively, to determine how much truth each system actually possesses.
The title of my essay has a double meaning. In the sense that I have talked about thus far, we are born with a compulsion to be curious. But another reason I am writing this relates to my status as a college student and thus one who is compelled by professors and their assignments to be curious about some particular material at some particular time. This compulsion, as most of us know, is less desirable and more stressful. The value of education depends upon the synchronization of the class material and the student’s interest in that material. I for one would love to turn this interest level on or off as necessary, but that is not how life works, right? But I prefer not to dwell on this aspect of my topic any longer.
The number 4 keeps cropping up as a means of organization in scientific history: the four elements, the four humours, and the four fields of nature, for example. I happened to notice this after I came up with four means by which I believe we obtain data, which leads to knowledge, which hopefully leads to truth: observation, emotion, perception, and reception. I just realized that if these are sorted in a different order, their first letters form the acronym ROPE. A brief summary of these follows.
Observation is simply our interactions with our material environment in the context of the passage of time. It is noticing the world as it is, unaffected by our subjective thoughts. To what extent our observation is marred by these subjective thoughts (or perceptions) is a constant matter of philosophical debate that I will not discuss here. For now I am only saying that as far as it is possible, observation is one means by which we satiate our continual and innate curiosity.
Emotion consists of our feelings, which so often seem to exist independently from our rational thinking. Entire literary and philosophical movements have emerged which emphasize one or the other and explore their relationship, so I feel no need to say more of that dynamic here. Only I am stating that emotion is an integral part of our humanity and perpetually affects how we assimilate information. It comforts, it convicts, and it colors our opinions.
Perception is synonymous with our aforementioned subjective thoughts. The conclusions that we draw from observation, emotion, and reception form our perceptions. In a sense perception is our final authority, but because no two people’s perceptions are exactly alike, should we say that truth is relative? This is a debate for all time. The fact that our perceptions are constantly changing (however incrementally) should reveal to us that none of us are likely to achieve a state of knowing absolute truth, at least in this mode of existence we currently inhabit. (Whether another mode exists is the primary concern of religion and is a subject worthy of its own separate essay.) A Christian believes one thing, an evolutionary atheist another, a pragmatic deist yet another. All may be convinced that their way is true, and all are ultimately basing their beliefs on perception, with varying degrees of importance given to emotion, observation, and reception.
Reception is our obtaining knowledge through the ever-expanding works of human expression compiled and preserved. Primarily these include writings and art, everything from the Bible to The Origin of Species to the Mona Lisa. A staggering amount of an educated person’s knowledge is gained from reception, which in many cases cannot be corroborated with direct observation. Any belief system, whether scientific or religious, demands faith where there can be no absolute certainty. Arguments rage between those whose knowledge gained through reception have led them to their respective opinions, and the sheer amount of material available for reception virtually guarantees that these arguments will continue for some time to come. But arguments are themselves vehicles for reception and are a vital means of shaping the beliefs of individuals and cultures.
These four means of information assimilation are ever cooperating and competing in order to satisfy our curiosity. Much like Einstein, we are driven by the search for truth yet frustrated by that search all along life’s way, always constrained by our current perceptions yet willing at various times to change them.