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The Urge to Understand
It is a truism that both science and religion seek to explain the fundamental mysteries of our existence and of the universe. In this respect their purposes are similar, though the conclusions reached are profoundly different.What is remarkable is that we try at all, that we feel impelled to do so. We will expend enormous effort to do so. We will take mortal risks and endure great suffering to do so. Obvious examples are the exploration of earthly and outer space, the pursuit of knowledge, and the creation of art and literature, to name just a few. The goal is accomplishment,testing the limits of the possible, and knowing what lies beyond. The rewards are mostly personal.Clearly we possess an inherent desire to know, an urge to understand. This ambition is deeply ingrained, and is more powerful than greed or lust or other motivations. It has led to life as we know it. Though sometimes a source of evil, it is most often beneficial. I believe there are two reasons why the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is the hope for our future.The first reason is that the pursuit of knowledge is the source of progress. Take the example of scientific medicine, which is comparatively new, just over a hundred years old. The advances already made have impacted the lives of us all. Every major advance can be traced to a discovery made in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, not for a medical or economic purpose. Some examples are X-rays, antibiotics, magnetic resonance imaging, and recombinant DNA. X-rays were discovered by physicists interested in the emission from a cathode ray tube. Antibiotics were discovered by biochemists interested in bacterial cell way biosynthesis. Magnetic resonance was discovered by physicists studying molecular beams. Recombinant DNA was developed for the investigation of gene structure and function. Not only were these key advances made without regard to any application or other tangible benefit, but I would argue that no discovery of enormous medical or other practical value was made any other way. Future advances, including the prevention or cure of cancer, AIDS, Alzheimer's, and other dread afflictions, will come from new discoveries and new information. Efforts targeted towards these and other worthy ends are unlikely to succeed. Application of Existing knowledge is not the limiting factor. The knowledge itself is limiting. It has been remarked that we know 1 % of everything about the human body. A small fraction of a percent would probably be more accurate.
But consider how enormous have been the benefits to our health and our economy from what little we know now. Imagine how great would be the benefits of knowing the remaining 99%!
The second reason for the pursuit of knowledge is the intrinsic value of intellectual activity. It is not only an expression of a deep impulse and a core value, but also a force for toleration. This is not to say that atrocious crimes against humanity have not been committed in the name of knowledge, but these are recognizable as aberrations and most often avoided. Of course ethics, as taught by religion and philosophy, plays a role in this regard. But the search for truth is not less important. Truth has a unique objective purity, at least in a scientific sense, a point I will return to later.
It has been remarked that we know 1% of everything about the human body. A small fraction of a percent would probably be more accurate.