Light, Enlightenment, and the Limits of Knowledge

We are in the dark season!

In the dark season we rejoice in the contrast between light and darkness. Light is comforting, cosy, the saving grace. From darkness we flee. Despite the mystery of darkness, despite us coming from darkness, darkness gets a bad rap! Throughout history humankind has been darknessphobic.

Witness the Bible:

In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.

And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep.

And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.

And God said, Let there be light; and there was light.

And God saw the light, and it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness.


Compare that to the physicist’s Genesis:

In the beginning the Big Bang created the heaven and the earth.

And the Big Bang created light.

And the scientist saw the light, and that it was good.

And the scientist said, let us use light to explore the heaven and the earth.

And the scientist divided the light from the darkness.


However, from a human standpoint you can argue that darkness is a relative of light because we get a sensory input from encountering absolute darkness similar to that of our eyes meeting light. We say ‘it was all black’ when we talk of darkness, so darkness is a colour and hence a relative of light. Not so easy to divide light from darkness – and not so easy to perceive of light without darkness!

Of course, in both versions of Genesis what is left unsaid is what there was before the beginning. Before the beginning there was not darkness, and, at least in the physicist’s Genesis, there was not even ‘nothing’ because nothing still tends to be a spatial concept. Nothing is still something! Nothing implies emptiness, but in the beginning there was not nothing, because there was no space for the emptiness. In fact, we do not have a word for the absolute ‘nothing’, for the nothingness beyond the nothing! Kant talked about space and time as the necessary features for human experience. With absolute nothingness both disappear, so perhaps it is not surprising that we cannot understand!

We talk about light as something physical, but we also use light as a metaphor for visibility, for understanding.

Enlightenment is the most prominent example. But our language is full of it, ‘she saw the light,’ ‘to shed light on a matter’, ‘it came to light’ etc.. “Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman” said Louis Brandeis. In a somewhat similar vein Plato: ‘We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.’

Light as a metaphor informs so strongly our perceptions of knowledge. This is clear also when Plato talks about the shadows on the wall of the cave. Our grasp of reality is hindered by being chained to the cave. The philosopher may be able to break the chains and see reality for what it is, but the starting point is that we are chained and that we only see what our imprisoned state will allow. Plato assumes that we do not see reality except as a reflection created by light.

Breaking the chains is primarily a mental activity on this view, but, of course, there is a physical parallel. The human urge to explore and to seek new horizons is the accompaniment to the mental breaking free, and we see this parallel very clearly in the Renaissance. Santa Maria brought Columbus to unexpected new land. He wanted to find the new route to India, he was in search of riches, but he was also an explorer, somebody who wanted give us new ways, new knowledge.

And the renaissance, of course, did give a new worldview. Not only with a new continent, but with a move from the geocentric to the heliocentric perspective. Cusanus, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, all products of the renaissance. And Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler all entirely dependent on actual light as they pursued enlightenment before its actual Age.

By and large we have stayed on the path the renaissance scientists and the ensuing Enlightenment have shown us. The Romantics may have rebelled, but ours is a science and technology dominated society. A society beholden to narrow logic despite the protestations of anti-positivists . A preeminent Enlightenment figure like David Hume explained, by the use of perfectly rational analysis, that ‘reason is the slave to our emotions’, yet it is debatable whether we calibrate emotion sufficiently in our investigations. To let reason vet our emotions is surely a wise corrective, but whether we value emotion sufficiently and correctly in seeking truth can be doubted. The chess World Champion Magnus Carlsen said in an interview that some of his best moves had been intuitive. In a wildly analytical game like chess this statement is not obvious. But it perhaps demonstrates a place for emotion in rational inquiry that we are reluctant to accept. Perhaps vast mastery of a discipline allows emotion to re-enter. And perhaps humankind has gained such a mastery of science that it will allow emotional inquiry to again play a larger role!

Generally, we have come quite far out of the cave. Our knowledge has become so extensive that our confidence might have become excessive. A recent film about Stephen Hawking is called ‘The Theory of Everything’. Not ‘A theory’ but ‘The theory’. That is bold stuff. The title seems to chime in the ultimate success of Enlightenment, whilst also sounding a bit like proclaiming ‘the end of history’ or even ‘the end of time’.

Physics have certainly come a long way in terms of explaining things, with Schrödinger’s wave function being the foundation of all ‘materiality’ and Max Tegmark suggesting that all reality is just relativity that can be captured in mathematical formulas, hence his book ‘Our Mathematical Universe’. The theory of everything is an ultimate aspiration of immense beauty – but are we, for all our knowledge, really close?

The theory of everything must ultimately be a theory of everything we ask ourselves, or can ask ourselves, not necessarily a theory of everything everything. Reality has throughout human history shown itself to have many more facets and dimensions than we start out believing, and the theory of everything might hence just be a step to understanding an even wider and wilder reality.

The theory of everything in an absolute sense, should it come about, would, by the way, not mean that we then actually understand everything – it would only be a tool allowing us to understand everything, so in that sense would not herald end time. Even with the theory of everything there would still be much to explore by deploying our God-like new tools to the immense diversity of reality.

But more fundamentally, light as rational enquiry has given humankind a tool for enlightenment on everything that can be exposed by such light. But can all be so exposed? In our material times we may think that spirit and spirituality is just another ‘material’ quality, but perhaps it is of a different quality altogether, to be explored by other means. Perhaps the theory of everything will be the theory of everything that can be captured by scientific means as we understand them now. This was the fear of one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg: ‘The positivists have a simple solution: the world must be divided into that which we can say clearly and the rest, which we had better pass over in silence. But can one conceive of a more pointless philosophy, seeing that what we can say clearly amounts to next to nothing?’ In this sense, is it possible that we cannot rationalize quantum mechanics because it has an undiscovered spiritual dimension not present in gravity and relativity?

Perhaps another theory of everything is needed to capture all features of the spirit, which might, or might not, be the result of a wave function. The latter is a question much wider than the religious question on whether humans possess a soul! A question even more interesting, perhaps, than all the questions that can be captured by current scientific method.

Whether the human condition would be well served by a theory of truly everything, leading ultimately to perfect knowledge, is doubtful. Striving for understanding is such a central feature of human existence both at the personal and the societal level. A human society without seeking the light of truly new insight might not be so human! Thus we should perhaps relish Tennyson’s words while we can:


Not of the sunlight,

Not of the moonlight,

Not of the starlight!

O young Mariner,

Down to the haven,

Call your companions,

Launch your vessel,

And crowd your canvas,

And, ere it vanishes

Over the margin,

After it, follow it,

Follow The Gleam.


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