I’ve often posed the question to people, “What do you consider the greatest discovery in our species’ history?” The answers are all over the board; all of them very good ones. Many point to writing, some go even further back to the discovery of language. Some point to our building skills, clothing, various monetary systems, and such. Some will dive into science where there are a plethora of ideas all seeming to vie for the moniker of “Greatest Discovery”. Darwin’s evolution, Semmelweis’s nascent discovery of antiseptic, the discoveries of anesthesia, vaccines, and the pathogen theory of disease are but a few that could be named. Astronomy would strenuously wave the flag as well, as would Physics and I could devote paragraphs delineating the many history-changing discoveries of both.
I’m sure the reader has thought of a number of things that they might offer as “the greatest”. Let me ask the reader: were the discoveries that came to mind discoveries about the world we live in? Discoveries that changed how we lived, discoveries that lessened the suffering that for thousands of years seemed to be our lot? I humbly suggest an answer that it was a discovery about ourselves, not the world external to us, that was the greatest discovery of all.
“The person who is certain, and who claims divine warrant for his certainty, belongs now to the infancy of our species.” — Christopher Hitchens
Up until this discovery, certainty was a hallmark of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. We only needed to ask the religious leaders of whatever land we found ourselves in. We can even do it today. Take any religious leader that you know. Are they absolutely certain about what they know? This claimed knowledge and the certainty of it were beyond questioning. In the cases of religions that were in the position of making an offer no one could refuse, questioning this certainty would cost your life. Not giving verbal assent to those certainties would cost you your life. There are places in the world today where this is the state of affairs and in those places where it is not, the religious continually yearn for a return to those days and are actively working on making that happen. The discovery that I would offer rejected that certainty and in its stead claimed to be certain of nothing and to know nothing about the world operated. It was that seminal grasp of our ignorance when looking out at the universe we found ourselves in is what I would claim to be the greatest discovery of our species. It was that intellectual cornerstone upon which all the future great discoveries depended on.
Can we pinpoint in history when this happened? No, I don’t think we can and even if we could point to a specific example, I would suggest that this epiphany has happened many, many times, over many centuries and in many lands. It happens today. It is the driving force behind science and the search for truth. The understanding of how little we know about the universe lights in us a quest to fill that void with knowledge. This knowledge has turned our existence from what Thomas Hobbs called, “nasty, brutish and short” into the lives that we experience today.
More to come….