Plato (left) and Aristotle (right): detail from The School of Athens by Raffaello Sanzio, 1509
In religion we reduce everything to a common deity, in science (for the last 400 years or so) we strive towards a unifying theory of everything. This inherent desire to reduce the number of unknowns, is prevalent in almost everything we do. As we strive to reduce complexity we try to build our reality on the simplest possible causes. Indeed, deduction at any cost, our never ending pursuit of the meaning of it all, might be said to be a law without law. Now do we behave in this relentlessly deductive fashion because as Albert Maslow has it ‘...if your only tool is a hammer every problem looks like a nail.’
Professor Vlatko Vedral gives an example of the futility of our pursuit for the ultimate meaning in Decoding Reality. As we endeavour to nail reality, using the only tool available to us, a hammer, we are like the donkey who advances towards the enticing carrot, forever, just out of its reach.
However every advance the donkey makes towards the carrot, mysteriously, the carrot advances too and by exactly the same amount. The donkey is puzzled, indeed saddened by this state of affairs. For it is using all its deductive powers in this endeavour. The carrot (ultimate meaning) is x distance away, looking ever more juicy, yet every advance I make...it remains the same distance away from me!
This is because the carrot is in some way attached to the donkey. The donkey, in time, will know everything there is to know about the carrot, it’s essential shape, colour, how juicy and crunchy it looks, but will never actually attain what it wants from the carrot i.e. to eat it (get the ultimate meaning).
We may liken the human pursuit of the ultimate meaning/reality in a similar way. Reality/meaning is evolving as we are evolving. There is no ultimate destination and there is no ultimate meaning, For philosophers like Albert Camus 1913-60 and Jean Paul Sartre 1905-80, this acceptance that there is no meaning, paradoxically, gave their lives more meaning. Alright, I hear you say, but they were French.
Back to the Donkey analogy. Apart from the evolving element, why will the donkey never reach the carrot? Why can we never nail the ultimate meaning of it all? That is because the world/reality/the universe is ultimately quantum mechanical. And we can’t know something that is so counter intuitive, e.g. something existing in two different places at the same time, entanglement, actions without causes etc. etc.