How many secrets are there in the world? How hard it is to obtain the truth is a key factor to consider when thinking about secrets. Easy truths are simply accepted conventions. Pretty much everybody knows them. On the other side of the spectrum are things that are impossible to figure out. These are mysteries, not secrets. Take superstring theory in physics, for instance. You can’t really design experiments to test it. Discovery is the process of exposing secrets. The secrets are dis- covered; the cover is removed from the secret. Triangle math was a hard secret for Pythagoras to discover. There were various Pythagorean mystery cults where the initiated learned about crazy new things like irrational numbers. But then his discovered secret became convention.
Forty or fifty years ago, everyone believed that there was much more left to do. But generally speaking, we no longer believe that. There is a sense though that there are not many important secrets left. It’s a plausible view. If it’s wrong, it’s not obviously wrong. To evaluate it, we must first understand why people don’t believe in secrets anymore.
The extreme representative of the conventional view is Ted Kaczynski, more infamously known as the Unabomber. He was a child prodigy. IQ of 167. A top student at Harvard. PhD in math from Michigan. Professor of math at UC Berkeley. But then he started a solo bombing campaign after becoming disenchanted with science and technology. He killed 3 people and injured 23 more. The victims included computer store owners, technical grad students, geneticists, etc. Finally he was found and arrested in 1996.
But in late 1995 the FBI didn’t really have a clue who or where the Unabomber was. Kaczynski had written a manifesto and anonymously mailed it to the press. The government gave the go-ahead to print it, hoping for a break in the case. That ended up working, as Kaczynski’s brother recognized the writing and turned him in. But more interesting than how Kaczynski was caught was the manifesto itself. It was basically a long, crazy anti-tech diatribe. The core of the argument was that you could divide human goals into three groups:
- Goals that can be satisfied with minimal effort
- Goals that can be satisfied with serious effort
- Goals that are impossible to satisfy
It was the classic easy/hard/impossible trichotomy. Kaczynski argued that people are depressed because the only things left are (1) easy things or (3) impossible things. What you can do, even kids can do. But what you can’t do, even Einstein couldn’t do. So Kaczynski’s idea was to destroy technology, get rid of all bureaucracy and technical processes, and let people start over and work on hard problems anew. That, he thought, would be much more fulfilling.
Why has our society come to believe that there are no hard secrets left? It probably starts with geography. There are no real white spaces left on the map anymore. If you grew up in 18th century, there were still lots of unexplored places. You could listen to captivating stories about explorers and foreign adventures and, if you wanted, go become a real explorer yourself. This was probably true up through the 19th and early 20th centuries, when National Geographic still published tales of exotic, underexplored places. But now you can’t really be an explorer anymore. Or at least it’s very hard to explore the unexplored. People have done it all already. Maybe there are something like 100 uncontacted tribes somewhere deep in the Amazon. Maybe they’d have something interesting to teach us. But maybe not. Either way, most people don’t seem to care much. The oceans remain unexplored in a fairly interesting way. The planet is 72% covered by oceans. Some 90% of the inhabited ocean is deep sea. There have been only about 200 hours of human exploration there. So oceans are the last big geographic piece that people aren’t really looking at. But that may be because the default assumption is right; there’s nothing terribly interesting there. Deep sea exploration simply lacks the magic of exploring new lands and continents.
The frontier of knowledge seems to have waned along with the geographical frontier. People are increasingly pessimistic about the existence of new and interesting things. Can we go to the moon? We’ve done that already. Mars? Impossible, many people say. What about chemistry? Can we identify oxygen? That’s been trivial since the 18th century. So what about finding new elements? That’s probably a fool’s errand. The periodic table seems pretty set. It may be impossible to discover anything new there. The frontier is closed. There is nothing left to discover.
Four primary things have been driving people’s disbelief in secrets. First is the pervasive incrementalism in our society. People seem to think that the right way to go about doing things is to proceed one very small step at a time. Any secrets that we’re incentivized to discover are microsecrets. Don’t try anything too hard in the classroom; just do what’s asked of you a bit better than the others and you’ll get an A. This dynamic exists all the way up through pre-tenure. Academics are incented by volume, not importance. The goal is to publish lots of papers, each of which is, in practice at least, new only in some small incremental way.
Second, people are becoming more risk-averse. People today tend to be scared of secrets. They are scared of being wrong. Of course, secrets are supposed to be true. But in practice, what’s true of all secrets is that there is good chance they’re wrong. If your goal is to never make mistake in your life, you should definitely never think about secrets. Thinking outside the mainstream will be dangerous for you. The prospect of dedicating your life to something that no one else believes in is hard enough. It would be unbearable if you turned out to be wrong.
Third is complacency. There’s really no need to believe in secrets today. Law school deans at Harvard and Yale give the same speech to incoming first year students every fall: “You’re set. You got into this elite school. Your worries are over.” Whether or not such complacency is justified (and we should suspect it’s not), it’s probably the kind of thing that’s true only if you don’t believe in it. If you believe in it, you’re probably in a lot of trouble.
In defense of the case against secrets, distrusting prophets has become a good heuristic.
However, that hard problems do get solved is evidence that secrets exist. It’s not always straightforward to tell whether a given problem is merely hard or actually impossible. But the people who actually solve hard problems are people who believe in secrets. If you believe something is hard, you might still think you can do it. You’ll try things, and maybe you’ll succeed. But if you think something is impossible, you won’t even try. Fermat’s last theorem is a good example. It states that no three positive integersa, b, and c can satisfy the equation an + bn = cn for any n greater than two. Mathematician Andrew Wiles started working on it in 1986. He managed to prove it in 1995. No one would ever succeed in doing these incredibly hard things if they didn’t think that it was possible. In some sense you can’t have meaningful progress if you don’t think that there are solvable secrets out there.