My philosophy professor, Dr. Welch, passed out the little blue books first, prolonging the agony of the class. Then, he wrote the final exam question – if it can be called that – on the black board:
Discuss something unknown.
Seriously? This was the final exam question? This was going to be the source of half of my final grade? I began to sweat. I was a straight A student. I had studied all my notes, reread every book and article Dr. Welch had assigned all semester. I had flash cards of my flashcards. I could tell you that a discussion of Plato’s allegory of the cave began on the upper right-hand side of page 26 in the insanely thick, miniscule-print textbook, History of Western Philosophy. On page 31, bottom left, Socrates argued that a society will decay and pass through each of four governments the third being democracy (third best or second worst), the last and, apparently, worst, tyranny. I could discuss the ideas of Machiavelli, Descartes, Voltaire, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche ad nauseum. What did all I had painstakingly learned have to do with the unknown?
What’s unknown? The result of the original experiment we worked on all semester in organic chemistry? Whether or not I’ll get into medical school? If I will fall in love, get married and have children? If my future as yet nonexistent spouse will love me till death do us part? What preceded life and what comes after death? The existence of God or gods? Everything important? I don’t know! It’s unknown! I shouted silently. I lay my head on my desk. I closed my eyes. I sat up. I looked out the window. And thought. And thought. And thought some more. I watched birds flying in formation, leaves fluttering gently in the wind, sunshine glittering like diamonds through the trees. I picked up my pen and began to write.
The Unknown: It would be simpler to discuss that which is known. In the system of meaning we have developed and share with people across the globe, we can confirm only this: we are born and we die. Or, perhaps we can only confirm that we are born and the version of ourselves which others come to know in a given “lifetime” appears, at some point, to cease to live, that is, in the accepted vernacular, to die.
Everything else is unknown.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it really make a sound?
Who cares? The real question is: Is there really a forest? Is there really a tree?
I might say that whether or not I wake up tomorrow is unknown, but whether I take a breath after I write this sentence is also unknown. Will the sun continue to shine? I might respond, that scientists believe it will burn for another five billion years. But do years even exist? Does time? Does it matter? And do I even know that the sun is burning now? There are stars that seem to burn brightly in the sky that scientists tell us have been dead millions of years. How do we know we are not actually shadows of a life already lived? The faint echo of the final notes of a song…
Philosophy, religion, science, mathematics, history, language, literature, art, music…every intellectual pursuit of man – whether of the abstract and theoretical or physical and concrete – is an attempt to assign meaning to the world. The universe. To all that is seen and unseen. Does anything have meaning outside the confines of the mind? We do not even know our own minds. If we even have minds! Perhaps we are merely the figment of some other creature’s imaginings, each thought and action prescribed and executed according to a plan about which we know nothing. Or performers in an ongoing, as yet unending and unscripted, episode of Survivor. Or the most evolved versions of an AI experiment…
We have assigned the word “mind” to that which we believe enables us to be aware of what we call the world and our experiences in it; that which allows us to think, to feel and to be conscious of our thoughts and feelings. But what if it is not only the hallucinating and delusional whose minds present a world that does not exist? What if the truths we accept are simply the realities upon which a majority agree? What if all that we take as truth – the sun is hot, water is wet, snow is cold, gravity exists, etc. – what if none of them is true? Grass is not green. Roses are not red. Cookie Monster is not blue. What if the colorblind are the truly sighted ones? What makes the truths we have accepted true beyond what our senses have told us? Once man thought the Earth was flat and the center of the Universe because that’s what his eyes told him. Why believe we know anything?
Ultimately, everything is unknown. We posit truths that are eventually disproven – be it tomorrow or a thousand years hence, returning us to a state of Unknown. Even when we think we know something for a fact, there is still room for doubt.
Does it really matter?
What we call “seasons” come and go. Birds fly, trees leaf and die, roses bloom with thorns that prick, thumbs bleed that try to pick; flowers seed, wind blows, and so life goes – be our knowledge common truths or universal dream...all is not as it seems. But whether all be truth or lie, to this life as we now know it, all will die.
I closed the blue book and waited for Dr. Welch to collect our final exams.
I wondered what he would think of my essay.