Philosophy

Why The Precautionary Principle is Misguided…

It was some two-thousand years ago Gaius Plinius Cecilius Secundus, also known as Pliny the Elder, in book 35 of his 37-volume encyclopedia, Earth, told of an aspiring young goldsmith who presented a shiny new metal to the Roman emperor Tiberius. The metal? Aluminum. The emperor, an extremely wealthy man with vast holdings of precious metals such as gold and silver, inquired if he had shared this discovery with anyone. The Goldsmith’s answer was no. Tiberius had him instantly killed.

The Emperor’s reasoning went something like this: If a rarer—therefore more valuable—metal than gold and silver had been allowed to spread, the Emperor’s holdings would depreciate. (Why he did not just force the potter to work solely for him befuddles me, but emperoral thought is an enigma unto itself—and I may just have made up a word.) The Emperor’s use of the Precautionary Principle (PP) successfully delayed the re-discovery of aluminium by almost 1700 years, where again it became the most valuable metal on Earth. (That is, until 1886 when the method of electrolysis was adapted for aluminium.) Now it is so cheap that we wrap it around our food only to throw it away when we’re done.

This post concerns itself with similar use-cases of the PP in the modern world to nefarious ends. However, before continuing with my extrapolation of the PP in the present day, some definitions are in order. The Precautionary Principle, at least defined by modern standards, was formulated in the early 1990s by the UN as below:

In order to protect the environment, the precautionary approach shall be widely applied by States according to their capabilities. Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.

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David Deutsch and Jason Silva

The Beginning of Infinity: Untestable Theories & the Power of Explanation

In reading David Deutsch’s brilliant book, The Beginning of Infinity, I finally came across a couple of simple reasons why untestable theories in science are a dead-end and why the explanatory content of a theory matters. It’s very common for me to harp on about empiricism and evidence to friends and folk I debate on subjects like God, heaven, homeopathy, alternative medicine and other realms where science cannot speculate, or has to no avail. I’ve never, however, managed to condense such lectures into conversational fragments that didn’t make them hate me by the time I finished. For that reason alone, I’m glad I came across Deutsch’s book; for my argumentative arsenal has increased.

Let me start by asking a few questions:

Q1 – What is the single factor that science, pseudoscience, and non-science have in common? (This is not a trick question).

A1 – The answer is that they started thousands of years ago, with the same base of information, which is relevant to the conclusion at the end of this post.

Q2 – Now, what differentiates science/pseudoscience, and non-science?

A2 – Testability*

Put it that way, A2 is obvious. As Karl Popper wrote: empiricism is the demarcation point between science and non-science (the criterion of demarcation). In other words, the testability of a hypothesis will tell you if it can be improved by experience. And, if it can’t, there is nothing to rely upon except authority and the rejection of authority is what allowed the scientific method to come into being. This brings us to Deutsch’s first science nugget:

Deutsch’s 1st Science Nugget: an untestable theory cannot be improved upon by experience

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Further Ruminations on the Appeal to Nature

Sometime back, I wrote a post about the Appeal to Nature fallacy. It is a fallacy that bothers me quite significantly; the main reason is because its assumptions and consequences are unspoken or, in most cases, never addressed.

For those who don’t know the Appeal to Nature (ATN) usually involves a dietary and medicinal claim that natural products are, directly or otherwise, better than artificial (read: man-made) products. Anytime you read the words “Natural”, “All Natural,” “Organic,” you are reading an Appeal to Nature; specifically, to nature’s goodness–I’ve never seen arsenic used in an ATN. Notably, it tends to rear its head in relation to conditions and diseases that our current medical knowledge is unable to address—Alzheimer’s and cancer being two examples among many. (In that light, the ATN might be considered the exploitation of severe emotional distress among those at the least rational stage of their life as they face daunting, perhaps hopeless, odds to make money, but that’s just the pessimist in me talking.) The selling of natural supplements is often marked as a way to give back power and certainty that psychological wellbeing demands; subsequently relieving cognitive discomfort, albeit at exorbitant costs (in relation to their benefit that is—except for a few, genuinely exorbitant price tags such as Stanley Burzynski’s supposed cancer cure which rings in at several hundred thousand dollars). From multivitamins to gingko bilboa, the ATN is a powerful train of thought.

However, despite its popularity, it is so full of holes, contradictions and—what really gets me—unspoken assumptions and conclusions. I’m not going to bother debunking it; that has been done many times; once here on this blog, and many other—far better—denunciations on the Internet (my favourite being Kyle Hill’s Does Mother Nature Always Know What’s Best). Rather, I plan on taking the ATN through to its logical conclusion.

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friedrich-nietzsche

Favourite Quotations from the Anti-Christ

I recently finished reading Nietzsche’s Anti-Christ, and my, oh-my, was it a great book! Granted, I only understood about half the book, and to top that embarrassment of,  had to look at the dictionary for half the words he used (thank god — sic — Kindle has a built-in dictionary), yet it was still a riveting read. I can’t remember the last time an atheist’s words were this memorable, beautiful, and powerful. Let me tell you, Nietzsche can throw a verbal barrage unlike no one I’ve ever read before. Below are some of my favourite quotes from the book in order:

1 – “The histories of saints present the most dubious variety of literature in existence; to examine them by the scientific method, in the entire absence of corroborative documents, seems to me to condemn the whole inquiry from the start – it is simply learned idling.

2 – “The ‘salvation of the soul’ in plain English: the world revolves around me.”

3 – “If any one were to show us this Christian God, we’d be still less inclined to believe in him.”

4 – “Such a religion as Christianity, which does not touch reality at a single point and which goes to pieces the moment reality asserts its rights at any point, must be inevitably the deadly enemy of the “wisdom of the world,” which is to say, of science — and it will give the name of good to whatever means serves to poison, calumniate and cry down all intellectual discipline, all lucidity and strictness in matters of intellectual conscience, and all noble coolness and freedom of mind.”

5 – “Man has had to fight for every atom of the truth, and has had to pay for it almost everything that the heart, that humans love, that human trust cling to.”

6 – “The fact that faith, under certain circumstances, may work for blessedness, but that this blessedness produced by an idee fixe by no means makes the idea itself true, and the fact that faith actually moves no mountains, but instead raises them up where there were none before: all this is made sufficiently clear by a walk through a mental asylum.”

7 – “Christianity remains to this day the greatest misfortune of humanity.”

8 – “Faith means the will to avoid knowing what is true.”

9 – “I condemn Christianity; I bring against the Christian church the most terrible of all accusations that an accuser has ever had in his mouth. It is, to me, the greatest of all imaginable corruptions; it seeks to work the ultimate corruption, the worst possible corruption. The Christian church has left nothing untouched by its depravity; it has turned every value into worthlessness, and every truth into a lie, and every integrity into baseness of soul.”

What’s your favourite quote? I can’t decide between 4 and 8.

mind reader

Mind-Reader

Neuroscience is one of the sciences most feeling the exponential progress of technology. With the invention of the fMRI machine, we can peer into the brains of people (and presumably animals). Each year, the tools and techniques we use to probe into the brain are doubling in their precision, finesse, and resolution (i.e., we can resolve more and more detail in less and less time), until eventually, some say between 2030-2040, we will be able to see all 100 billion neurons and their 100 trillion intra-neuronal connections firing in real-time in the human brain. As these technologies, and several others, increase our quantitive understanding of the brain, we have other technologies increasing our qualitative understanding, i.e., learning to decipher the organized chaos of the mind.

Scientists can mind-read words that a patient reads silently (note: this cannot be used yet to read what you’re thinking but only match up what your reading). And scientists have figured out a way to reconstruct movie clips that people were watching from their mind; as well as reconstruct the voices in other subjects heads. Laying the groundwork for mind-reading far in the future. (Though I do hope that Moore’s Law doesn’t allow those devices to become portable, though conceivably, even if they do, technology will be invented to keep out eavesdroppers–Norton BrainSafe? On special for only $999.99. In fact, just yesterday, an app named Silent Circle became available for iPhone and iPad that creates uncrackable peer-to-peer networks to call, message, and send files. [The app must still pass an independent security test which it will do soon, so grain of salt])

But I don’t want to get bogged down in technical jargon and scientific details. If you want to go in-depth on such subjects; chapter-four of Kurzweil’s ‘The Singularity Is Near’ is a well-to-do primer. (I imagine his new book, How To Create A Mind, will explore chapter four in even greater detail, but I haven’t read it yet.)

What I do want to explore are the things we might do with such technology once it becomes cheaper and more capable in the coming years. (We won’t have to wait until 2030 to fully take advantage of it, but it will take that long perhaps for the advancements of the brain-deciphering mentioned above.) I’d love to see this tech trained on animals. Just think of what we’d learn. We know that dolphins have a language; they have syntax and grammar, have been known to outsmart humans, and even introduce themselves to newly met dolphins. In reading Carl Sagan’s (amazing) book, Pale Blue Dot, he mentions that in flying to space, we discovered the Earth. It might be said, in talking with the first species, we will have discovered our humanity.

What will we learn talking to a chimp? Or an ape? Or our dogs and cats? Who wouldn’t want to know the width and breadth of their thoughts? How they think, why they think; do they have a capacity of choice, and if so (a safe assumption to make), how much capacity?

The story of civilisation is that of our increasing circle of compassion. That is, as our technology advanced, we became likely to view others as sub-human, and began viewing them –  properly no less – as equal, thereby laying the groundwork for new moral truths, and thus, more moral societies. We are moving beyond our evolutionarily endowed tribal mentality. (Though we are not yet out of the woods but we are, oh so close.) It only seems logical to extrapolate that this circle of compassion will expand, and indeed has already, to the denizens of the entire animal kingdom. Perhaps, on that day, resistance to the theory of evolution will stop? (Though that may be wishful thinking on my part.)

What animal would you want to talk to first? And why? I’m all for the dolphin, but let me know in the comments below.

is politics relevant?

Political Relevance

This is sub-chapter #10, of Chapter #3, Politics, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


POLITICAL RELEVANCE

A question I’ve pondered for many years and still cannot find a definitive answer for: Why is politics still relevant? Democracy was invented thousands of years ago in Athens. It was created at a time when humans didn’t understand a fraction of what we do today, in relation to what was happening around them. So philosophy was used to arrive at the most rational answer, and while that was great for the Hellenic epoch, it isn’t so adept at arriving at final and conclusive answers today, where the well-being of our societies often rests precipitously at the confluence of resource management, health, economic stability, and vibrance.

Stephen Hawking said in his latest book, The Grand Design, “Philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in Science…” And well, in a small way, he’s right. Traditional philosophies and science are no longer comparable in terms of their tangible contributions to society. Though philosophy is a useful and oft-times beautiful endeavor in thought, it is less meaningful (by meaningful, I mean practical) today than at any other time in history on hard-issues such as climate-change, pollution, population, food-production, and so forth. We must design or engineer ourselves out of these problems using the scientific method (not that philosophy cannot be involved in the thinking stage). In the same line of thinking, politics, invented in the time of philosophy, should be of waning relevance, as it is based on the same intuitions: namely, the human mind, which neuroscience has shown to be inherently biased, though more importantly, unable to impartially view and act upon information presented to one’s self, no matter the circumstance.

Yet its relevance seems to be in recent years rising. In 2012 we had elections going on around the world; most noteworthy being the recent American presidential election, which concluded months upon months of agonizing Republican posturing, talking points, ads, backstabbing, news coverage, debates, and the usual nonsense that accompanies the two-horse cacophony.

Talking point after talking point is endlessly thrown back and forth, with the candidates incessantly arguing which is the best way to do this and that—political whims and soundbites, little of which is based on fact or empirical evidence, but only designed to increase a politician’s popularity.

The same debate recently raged on in France during the 2012 election, where the new—now president—candidate Francais Hollande was campaigning on a platform to enact seventy-five percent taxes on millionaires, and when pressed on the futility of such a measure, even if passed, brushed those concerns aside, effectively saying it is a moral measure to tax a productive member of society ever more so, like a milk cow. And if you missed it, the futility of such a measure still made him want to do it because his mind was already made up. You’d have better luck teaching Germ Theory to a monkey, and luckily the measure was shot down in the closing weeks of 2012.

But the question remains, why is politics, as we know it today, still relevant in this modern society?

Politics is run on the whims and opinions of people, which can be and often are wrong and always are, at the very least, biased. It’s just as easy to believe in a lie as it is to believe in the truth, and it’s always easier to tell an easy lie than a hard truth, like the aforementioned French president, and almost every Republican frontrunner in the 2012 Republican convention, and maybe even Obama a few times. For the simple reason that lies stick easier than truths. Just look at the climate change debacle. The science has been settled for a while now, and all the new models and supercomputers dedicated to it, just refines and increases the accuracy. Yet, since the first Rio summit in 92, our politicians have accomplished next to nothing. There have been little stopgap measures here and there but nothing even close to substantive. We’veve elevated a position of power to almost mythical heights despite the majority of us almost expecting them to lie, and everywhere I go, people do nothing but complain about their leaders and representatives, yet are continually fooled into voting for another politico who happens to end up doing the same stuff, and if not the same stuff, different stuff that somehow wind up having the same outcomes.

Furthermore, on matters of the economy, health, education, and all things relevant to the modern world, the scientific method provides the means to answer these concerns without the inherent bias (at least significantly reduced bias). We can come to the best, most efficient conclusions using statistical analysis, experimentation, and peer-review using the scientific method to arrive at a suitable, efficient, and humane solution to today’s problems, so what’s with the pandering? Why so much politicking? Why such radically different solutions to the same problem that society has faced time and time again? Why aren’t they solved by now? And why are most of these solutions horrible to begin with?

It’s almost comical that in this modern age, we are using social tools invented thousands of years ago to discuss modern problems. Especially given the distrust of the people in charge by so many, whom we all suspect of lying in one way or another—especially when we have better more open tools and methods to solve it ourselves with greater effectiveness, more humanity, and zero bias thereby removing the favoritism so inherent in politics that contributes to so many social ills, which I’ll address in the next chapter.

The problem is two-fold, a misinformed populace, and the second, politicians live inside their own little bubbles, and you can’t evolve and update a system from within. It’s hard to think outside the box when you’ve spent years inside the box, and disconnected from the reality of those you are supposed to serve.

“The problem with always being a conformist is that when you try to change the system from within, it’s not you who changes the system; it’s the system that will eventually change you.” ~ Immortal Technique (Artist)

The first problem is far greater than the second. Politicians derive their power from us. There is a balance of power between the government and the people. Much like Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market, there is an invisible hand of power.

Governments, time and time again, in all manner of differing governmental models, always end up doing everything in their power to distract the people they govern. Usually by way of freebies that the people themselves demand, while they diligently work behind the scenes to tip the balance of power in their favor. Maybe it’s by accident and they truly are shortsighted goldfish, but it doesn’t really matter why. It happens regardless, and it affects everyone.

On the other hand, people are usually so concerned with surviving the nine-to-five and enjoying the entertainment in their downtime whether it be feeding Christians to the lions or watching Honey Boo Boo and American Idol that there is no available idle brainpower to ponder the why for’s and the WTFs on the doings of their governments. I exclude no one from that second point, including myself.

Who takes the time these days to really research how their country is run? How many people actually want to? Who knows that much of the democratic process has been usurped, and how much of the power lies with the state? A few do, most don’t care. Perhaps they presume safety in numbers, and that this time is different; this time democracy will remain uncorrupted.

If this sounds like I’m complaining about you, you’re right. But I’m also complaining about myself. I am as much susceptible to this corrupting influence as you are, I just have more free time and have been lucky enough to have been raised to be curious, even on subjects I dislike, i.e., politics. There are few things I have more disdain for than politics—genocide, war, rape, and murder, though I think they are rooted in the misapplication of politics, so six in one, half-dozen in the other. We are so caught up in the hype of politics every few years. The media blitz, the promises, the demagoguery, and the activism, that we continually forget to ask the question, why is a politician so relevant in the modern world? I implore you to burden yourself with this question and those around you, when the subject of politics comes up.

 “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” ~ Emma Goldman (Anarchist)


Meaning of Life

Life

This is sub-chapter #8, of Chapter 2, Philosophy, of my ongoing rewrite and open editing process Random Rationality: A Rational Guide to an Irrational World.

Would greatly appreciate any feedback, corrections, criticisms, and comments. If you want the MOBI, ePub, or PDF, then please let me know in the comments—if you provide constructive criticisms in return, and live in the US, UK, or EU, then I’ll ship you a paperback copy of the book free of charge when it’s published.


LIFE

For thousands of years we’ve philosophized, proselytized, debated, and bickered over a Meaning of Life to apply to the human race as a whole. Yet, it seems to me that this is a question without an all-encompassing answer, and we fear admitting that because the notion of an unanswerable question is distinctly foreign and extremely uncomfortable. But I will try to make the case that there isn’t a meaning of life, because meaning presupposes purpose, and purpose presupposes agency—or God. After four-hundred years of searching, none of the events that was ever purported to God (or gods) ever turned out to be supernatural. (And we have good reasons to apply this to the moment of creation itself.)

Let’s start at the beginning. The Universe was created from an infinitely dense point of energy, in an event we have come to know as the Big Bang, which began the expansion of the Universe up until the present. Through all this, the Universe has followed a fairly predictable rule, repeating ad infinitum concordant with the laws of physics, and will predictably continue to do so until the heat death of the Universe, i.e., everything will be so far apart and so random that order (stars, planets, life etc.) will be impossible, and the Universe will be in thermal equilibrium (this is what timeless and formless looks like). This is also known as maximum entropy. The physicist Brian Cox estimates this will not occur for ten-thousand trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion, trillion years.

This predictable rule puts in doubt a grand Meaning of Life. This rule is the increasing complexity of matter and of objects composed of that matter—until we start bumping up against entropy that is. From hydrogen through to uranium and the ninety naturally occurring elements sitting snugly between, and to the molecules and objects comprised of these atomic structures.

This same increase in complexity is essentially, though not always, the same direction evolution has progressed in—from single-celled organisms to the fifty-trillion celled primate writing this long diatribe, pretending to be an intellectual.

So if everything around us follows a rather predictable rule based on the unchanging laws of physics, why or how, can there be a grand answer or meaning of life?

We long to be here for a purpose, even though despite much self-deception. None is evident.” ~ Carl Sagan

Life wasn’t magic, nor spontaneous, but given what we know, an inevitable outcome of the random complexity of the Universe. To give context and perspective; it is estimated that there are at least ten-billion Earth-like planets in our Milky Way galaxy alone. And the Milky Way is just one galaxy among an estimated one-hundred billion galaxies in the observable Universe, suggesting there could be trillions of planets with the potential for life. On top of that, we’ve found the building blocks of life in uncontaminated meteorites. (Two of the four nucleobases: A and G of the ATCG base-code that underlies the gene code of all Earthly life were found in the meteorites including other derivative nucleobases that exist nowhere on Earth). We should be perplexing ourselves over the odds of life not existing elsewhere, for surely there is life elsewhere, no matter how small the odds. There is simply no intelligent way of going around it. We exist, therefore, the odds are greater than zero, and the sheer immensity of the Universe guarantees that the results will be replicated elsewhere. Perhaps these other life forms also ponder the meaning of life?

To cut directly to the heart of the matter: life just is, and we just are, and there’s nothing else to it. Everything else simply springs forth from the self-importance we bestow upon ourselves—which I imagine morphed out of our evolutionary survival instinct. As survival waned in its cognitive necessity—as our intelligence was allowed to flourish into ego-centric philosophies. The Universe doesn’t operate on our needs or wants, biases and prejudices, or our hopes and aspirations. It just is, and we just are.

We are the cosmos made conscious. Life is the means by which the universe understands itself.” ~ Brian Cox (Particle Physicist)

To philosophize a grand answer or some central doctrine to life is meaningless. Furthermore, even were you to be convinced that there is an answer, how could you ever know if it was right?

We can try to make sense of the Universe, the ‘how’ and the ‘what,’ but the ‘why’ will always be out of reach. We can’t look into the Universe from outside. There is no absolute reference point. Even if we could, there’s no guarantee we’d find anything and we may just find more universes further pushing the question into obscurity, ambiguity, and nothingness. Why is but a human concept. An expression of our own agency, of our search for meaning, our subjective language, and not an inherent quality of this Universe. To assume a why elsewhere likewise presupposes agency. Some questions are without an answer.

Life, subjectively, is indeed a beautiful thing, though as far as I can tell, it carries with it, no objective meaning. The only meaning it has, is that which you yourself give it, as the astronomer Carl Sagan writes, “We are the custodians of life’s meaning.”

This question, or yearning to understand, exists because we have an innate desire, perhaps a need to be a part of something greater than ourselves. To stand for something greater than ourselves. This desire, since time immemorial, predominantly expressed in religion and in country (or city-state, tribe, and family), has persisted through the ages, an inherent part of our collective psyche.

It’s understandable why the ancients developed such an affinity with their religions and their creeds, their kings, queens, and allegiances but what else did they have in their lives? It was simply the path of least resistance in a violent, unforgiving world.

In today’s modern scientific age, this powerful desire need not be allayed to such traditional and ignorant roots. For fear of being taken out of context, ignorant here references to the dictionary meaning, ‘lacking in knowledge,’ and will be used as such in this book and not as the modern insult it has morphed into. (For all I know, I’m ignorant on everything I write about.)

We now have a vast scientific understanding of the Universe, of life, and while this knowledge may never be complete, it is at a point that we can explain and logically extrapolate where almost everything came from, how it came to be, and where it might go. Let us explore a different perspective, perhaps more worthy of our intellectual curiosity. Think back to the last time you looked upon the luminescent stars in a clear nights sky; picture them. Do you remember what you felt as you gazed upon those fiery points of light way back when? Perhaps a sense of wonder or amazement, almost spiritual in its reverence? If so, there is a very good reason for this feeling. And if you don’t feel anything staring at the sky, something might be wrong with you.

Everything that ever was, that is, and that ever will be, was created inside one of those stars. Every atom in your body: the hydrogen, the oxygen, the carbon, the nitrogen, the calcium, the iron, and the phosphorous that makes up the human being reading this page was created inside the fiery furnace of a violently mixing, rotating, and luminous sphere of energetic gas.

From these brilliant points of light in the heavens, the largest of which, in their explosive death throes, scattered their remains across the Universe, came the fantastic chemical array of which everything is built from. Their violent ends expanding the Universal (and non-sentient) toolkit, which formed yet more stars, and asteroids, comets, and finally planets. All of which endlessly mixed and roamed the Universe when by happens-chance, a tiny fraction of this kaleidoscopically arranged matter merged and mixed in unison to create an ordinary yellow star; our Sun, and formed the planets we know today. One of those planets began forming organic compounds (or received them via meteorites), which went on to become single-celled life that replicated, reassembled, and mutated trillions upon trillions of times until, finally, at last, it arrived at You.

You are literally made of star-dust and the stars are the gods of the Universe. Billions of small pieces of different stars and their matter. All of which has been smashed, re-arranged, combined and recombined, assembled, and passed down from generation to generation of stars, dust, rocks, and once upon the Earth, the never-ending chemical cauldron of volcanoes and oceans and landmasses combined with the energy of light, began one day to self-assemble into little cells, thanks to the majestic influence of that double-helix structure we now know as DNA.

Every atom in this Universe is connected to every other atom by way of the stars. We are a part of something greater than ourselves, and as such we have no need of inventing a meaning of life; we are part of this Universe, and it, us. That, you think, would be enough.

We likewise find life meaningful when we have seen that it is without purpose, and know the ‘mystery of the universe’ only when we are convinced that we know nothing about it at all.” ~ Alan Watts (Philosopher)

We are dust, borne of stars, and perhaps one day we can celebrate that instead of our ideologically irrelevant and invented metaphysical stories of existence.

I do not believe that this yearning we strive for is meaningless, merely misrepresented thus far and distorted to serve the needs of a few at the expense of the many, and guises itself as religion. (For the record: I don’t think religion was invented to distort this need, but rather was eventually hijacked to do so.) With that, I defer—for the second time—the concluding thought to Omar Khayyám’s masterpiece of literature, The Rubaiyat.

“No agony of any mortal brain

Shall wrest the secret of the life of man;

The Search has taught me that the Search is vain.” 

~ Omar Kkayyám (Mathematician)