What causes seemingly rational individuals to ignore actual facts or scientific proof? What might cause some individuals to hide behind their religious beliefs or other belief system to form an opinion on something? Conversely, what might cause individuals to simply form an opinion simply because it “feels right”?
Each of us exists at the crossroads between darkness and light, knowledge and the unknown, existence and non-existence. At a conscious level, we primarily remember only a fraction of our own experiences and dreams. We cannot even trust the blood flowing in our veins and we know less about the after-life that we are heading towards than about the pre-birth from which we first appeared in the world. In our futile flight from darkness we often fall back on erotic love, of which the instinctive goal is most often to fight the unknown with new birth. Even in the short moment of an orgasm lurks the dark possibility of betrayal.
Pre-historic Man and the Fear of the Unknown
In Pre-historic times, when man did not yet understand the wonder of birth, it was attributed to female magic. In those days, the rituals and festivals attributed to a mysterious and occult female deity was connected to the fear of being destroyed by an unpredictable nature. Fear of the unknown was the underlying motive for rituals and sacrifices marking the end of winter and the beginning of summer. Mid-winter rituals that would in Christian times become the very Christmas celebrations of today were intended to satisfy the spirits of the ancestors. People prayed to the ancient earth goddess presiding over life, death, prosperity, disaster and jealously. They pleaded to the earth goddess, responsible for hiding the future of mankind under a veil of the unknown, to reveal the more merciful side of her nature to them. These pre-historical rituals along with sculptures, rock drawings, words, songs, fairy tales, and customs each would plan an influential role in the evolution of modern civilizations and religions in the years ahead.
Ancient Philosophers Confronting the Unknown
The ancient Greeks confronted the fear of the unknown through rational reasoning long before their “barbarian” neighbors came along. The philosophy that underlies the history of knowledge and the birth of Western Civilization is in reality based upon man’s early confrontation with, fear of, and wonder at the unknown.
The Greek Philosopher Thales, who lived in 624-546 B.C.E., was the first to discuss the secrets of the origin of the cosmos. Thales regarded water as the origin of all things and believed that everything was born out of the ocean. According to Thales, everything must have moved from water into some other form, which is why he viewed movement as the soul of all things (Dreyer 27, 28).
Xenophanes was the first to state that the human soul is not capable of obtaining complete knowledge (Dreyer 38).
Medieval Man and the Fear of the Unknown
It was widely believed during medieval times that Christ would return to Earth ten centuries after his departure, that all humans would be judged, and that each person would consequently go to either heaven or hell. During medieval times the fear of the unknown was manifested in an unprecedented fear of God, by which philosophy, art, science, religion, politics, law, and social life were regulated. People who worshipped foreign gods were subjected to the wrath of the Christian doctrine, whose word was the only law, and to which all human behavior was expected to conform.
While the medieval Roman Catholic Church would not tolerate any scientific discoveries contradicting the Christian doctrine, it ironically paved the way for scientific discoveries that took place during the Renaissance and later periods. By forcing the Western mind into obeying a single law, the scientific method that is based upon the reduction of things to a single principle, was eventually created. The emphasis on the inner life also trained mankind in the practice of abstract thought that would form a vital part of scientific thought from the Renaissance onward (Hoffding 3).
Scientists Confronting the Unknown during the Renaissance and Enlightenment
While Renaissance scientists confronting an unknown universe were still restricted by the Church, scientists believed during the Age of Enlightenment (or Age of Reason) that human reasoning could save mankind from fear of the unknown.
Two very important Renaissance scientists and philosophers were Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) who discovered that the earth revolves around the sun (Höffding 173), and Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) who invented the telescope and scientific method (Höffding 103). Both were severely restricted by the Roman Catholic Church during their lifetimes.
Isaac Newton (1642-1727), arguably one of the most important scientists of all times, discovered the workings of the law of gravitation throughout the known universe (Höffding 407).
Scientists Rediscover the Strangeness and Unpredictability of the Unknown
The Law of Relativity discovered by Albert Einstein (1879-1955) posed serious challenges to the mechanical Newtonian world-view. According to the Special Law of Relativity, weight and time are changed by motion. Additionally, the General Law of Relativity states that the movement of starlight is influenced by gravitation. Einstein’s work would later lead to research of black holes and many other areas of astronomy/physics (Henbest 147).
Newtonian physics were also radically challenged by discoveries at the sub-atomic level by Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976). Heisenberg believed that the less a researcher knows about the momentum of a particle, the more he/she knows about its position, and vice versa (Hilgevoord 1).
21st century scientist Stephen Hawking (1942-) is trying to reconcile quantum physics with the rules of gravity and relativity dominating the macro-universe. Ultimately, his conclusions play havoc with the singularity of Newtonian physics by stating that the universe was created in many different ways and that many different universes (multiverses) may exist. To be able to shed light on why our specific universe is the way it is, a theory of wave functions at the sub-atomic level will be required (Highfield 1).
After more that five thousand years of research and scientific discovery, we are still confronted with universes that can’t be viewed and were created in ways that can’t be imagined. This conclusion is a subtle reminder that despite phenomenal scientific discoveries thus far, the unknown is still as impenetrable as ever.
Being confronted with a fear of the unknown is an integral part of the human condition at all times. We can either allow ourselves to be paralyzed by that fear, or we can react to it by bringing our own individual set of religious, philosophical, scientific, or creative contributions to life for the benefit of humanity. Perhaps in the process we will discover that elusive part of the unknown potential that lies hidden within each of us, while simultaneously confronting our fear of the unknown in our own individualistic way.
- Dreyer, P.S. Die Wysbegeerte van die Grieke: Hollandsch Afrikaansche Uitgevers Maatschappij, 1975
- Henbest, N. The Exploding Universe: Marshall Cavendish, 1979
- Highfield, R. “Stephen Hawking’s Explosive new Theory”: Telegraph.co.uk, 2008. Web
- Hilgevoord, J. “The Uncertainty Principle”: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published 8 October 2001, revised 3 July 2006. Web
- Höffding, H. A History of Modern Philosophy, Dover Publications, 1955
- Lehane, B. The Enchanted World, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1986