The temporal limits of knowledge

I’ve previously written about the spacial limits of knowledge: 95% of the universe is unknowable without faster than light travel.

I’m reading Graeber and Wengrow’s the Dawn of Everything, which opens thus:

Most of human history is irreparably lost to us. Our species, Homo sapiens, has existed for at least 200,000 years, but for most of that time we have next to no idea what was happening. In northern Spain, for instance, at the cave of Altamira, paintings and engravings were created over a period of at least 10,000 years, between around 25,000 and 15,000 BC. Presumably, a lot of dramatic events occurred during this period. We have no way of knowing what most of them were.

The point isn’t so much that we don’t know it’s that we can’t know about the vast majority of humanity’s history. It is completely and irreparably closed to us. Not being able to know something isn’t a thing that scientism or most religions handle very well.

The entire argument is long and fleshed out, but a short summary goes:

  1. Our evidence and artifacts from early humanity is scant, quite literally a few bone fragments.
  2. It’s almost certain that what’s been preserved is in no way representative.
  3. Places with better conditions for fossilization and preservation, have saved more fragments of the past — most places on Earth don’t possesses such conditions.
  4. Prehistoric research is expensive, and the fact that more prehistoric sites were found in Europe sooner is merely a function of the fact that European governments have the money to fund archeological research.

The result has been a proliferation of just so stories about humanity’s past, and the scientific orthodoxy changing rapidly.

I remember being in school and thinking how weird it was to read fully fleshed out stories about pre-historic evolution based off of finding a single random bone somewhere. Of course questioning this narrative meant you had to be some Bible thumping creationist.

Saying that you don’t know, and that something is likely to always be shrouded in mystery should be a respected position. I’d be willing to bet that my high school textbooks are laughably out of date only a couple of decades on. I’m not opposed to trying to string together a narrative out a few puzzle pieces, just do it with a bit of humility.

This also reminds me of the streetlight effect, namely that you measure what you can observe, not what’s important. This is problematic in a field in which, more likely than not, most of the important evidence is completely lost to history.

One last quote that sums it up nicely:

This canvas of human history is distinctly modern. The renowned theorist of culture W.J.T. Mitchell once remarked that dinosaurs are the quintessential modernist animal, since in Shakespeare’s time no one knew such creatures had ever existed. In a similar way, until quite recently most Christians assumed anything worth knowing about early humans could be found in the Book of Genesis. Up until the early years of the nineteenth century, ‘men of letters’ scientists included — still largely assumed that the universe did not even exist prior to late October, 4004 BC, and that all humans spoke the same language (Hebrew) until the dispersal of humanity, after the fall of the Tower of Babel sixteen centuries later.’

At that time there was as yet no ‘prehistory’. There was only history, even if some of that history was wildly wrong. The term ‘prehistory’ only came into common use after the discoveries at Brixham Cave in Devon in 1858, when stone axes, which could only have been fashioned by humans, were found alongside remains of cave bear, woolly rhinoceros and other extinct species, all together under a sealed casing of rock. This, and subsequent archaeological findings, sparked a complete rethinking of existing evidence. Suddenly, ‘the bottom droppedout of human history.

Future discoveries will make most of what we ‘know’ today look naïve, and we can’t even fathom what we don’t know. Dare I invoke the “unknown unknowns” bit?