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Posted: December 30, 2013

The futurist: Ten unanswerable questions

The first five

Thomas Frey

A few years ago, I was taking a tour of a dome-shaped house, and the architect explained to me that domes are an optical illusion. Whenever someone enters a room, their eyes inadvertently glance up at the corners of the room to give them the contextual dimensions of the space they’re in. 

He went on to explain that since domes have no corners, they appear larger than they really are from the inside but appear smaller from the outside than another house with a comparable footprint. 

This notion of context has followed me throughout my life, into virtually every topic I’ve wrestled with. Once I can find the “corners of the room,” I can begin to make sense of whatever subject I’m dealing with.

However, when we dive into the “why” topics of how time and space began, and even the size of the universe, I find myself struggling even to formulate good questions.

Perhaps this is nothing more than a form of therapy for me, but I’d like to take you along on a rare inner personal journey into how I think about the biggest of all big picture issues.

And it all starts with one simple question. “Why are there exceptions to every rule?” 

The Feud Between Science and Religion 

Even before the time of Copernicus, scientists like Philolaus and Aristarchus of Samos had proposed something other than an earth-centered universe.

While evidence of this line of thinking had been building for centuries, with Nicolaus Copernicus publishing his landmark book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres in 1543, it wasn’t until Galileo made his mark in 1615 that the rift between science and religion would reach death-sentencing proportions. 

The Galileo verdict caused a rift between science and religion that continues even today.

There are some questions, however, to which neither science nor religion can offer a reasonable answer. I’ll do my best to keep this balanced so I don’t come across favoring one side or the other.

With this in mind, I’ll start with a rather unusual question. 

1.) Why are there exceptions to every rule? 

Why is it that all of our rules, theories, maxims and models all have an exception? This is precisely the way the world works, except when it doesn’t.

In a perfect world, we wouldn’t have any exceptions. Or would we?

On the surface, this seems like a rather trite question. But in a world where scientists have spent countless billions to research and understand such topics as the relationship between matter, energy, particles and waves, everything has to make sense – except when it doesn’t.

Even with our basic understanding of math, 2+2 does not always equal 4. It depends on what type of measurement scale you are using. There are four types of measurement scales – nominal, ordinal, interval and ratio. Only in the last two categories does 2+2 = 4.

So why do exceptions matter? Exceptions matter because nothing comes with 100 percent predictability. We can count on such things as buildings existing from one day to the next, the earth traveling around the sun in the same orbit, gravity holding us down, and the speed of light remaining reasonably constant. In fact, most of the world has been created around natural forces that can be predicted with high degrees of probability.

For this reason, there is no such thing as absolute certainty, except our certainty that nothing is certain – maybe. 

2.) Why do logic and reason fail to explain that which is true? 

In many scientific circles, the only truths are those that can be explained with logic and reason. Religious people use a different metric, but they, too, have a way of calibrating their truths with logic and reason.

So why are logic and reason such miserable tools for explaining the world around us? It’s as if the world around us was perfect, and then someone divided by zero. Everything perfect has a touch of that one secret ingredient known as chaos. 

Is order more perfect than chaos? Or is chaos just a higher form of order? How will we ever know if we can’t explain it with logic and reason?

3.) Is the universe finite or infinite? 

If we were able to travel to the outer edges of the universe, what would we find? Perhaps we would run smack dab into another universe, but how would we know? Would the other universe somehow come in a different color, operate with a different set of rules or smell slightly like almonds?

I’m imagining a large sign that says, “You have reached the end of Universe A! Welcome to Universe B where proximity is not an issue!”

How much is infinity plus one?

4.) Why does anything exist?

Before there was something, there was nothing. And out of nothing, how did we get something? What existed before the big bang, before creation and before God?

Yes, it becomes very confusing when we throw in theories about other dimensions and non-linear time, but all of these theories fail to answer this most fundamental of all questions, “Why does anything exist?”

We know things exist, but why?

5.) Why does time exist?

Time is the sound of a metronome ticking in our heads, the beat of our heart, the blinking lids on our eyes, the mental waves in our brains and all the circadian cycles that govern our lives. 

Much like fish that can’t understand water because they’re in it all the time, we have a very poor grasp of our most immersive of all substances – time.

Each of us thinks about time differently. To some, it is a tool to be leveraged, to others a setting sun, a theory of physics, a philosophy to be debated, the hands of a clock, a lengthening of a shadow or the grains of sand dropping in an hourglass.

Yet every truth we have about the existence of time comes with a counterbalancing exception to the rule. 

I love Albert Einstein’s comment that “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” 

What Einstein may have been alluding to is the existence of other dimensions outside of those governed by time. But whenever he made the comment, it always ended with a smile, the universal sign for, “No further explanation will be forthcoming.”

(Editor's note: This is the first of two parts. Read Part Two: The last five unanswerable questions.)

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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Readers Respond

I take a very simple perspective on the "why" of time. Time is one of the primary dimensions of existance. It exists to allow change and movement within the context of the other spacial dimensions. Without the "dImension" of time, the other spacial dimentions are meaningless. A photon would not travel any distance, nor any direction at any speed. Thus space-time are wrapped together, and Einstein's joke becomes clear. By Bill Windsor on 2013 12 30
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