I Know the Pieces Fit: An Analysis of the 1982 The Thing (Part 1)

Written by Alexander Greco

September 16, 2020

Cold silence has

A tendency to

Atrophy any

Sense of compassion

Tool / Maynard James Keenan

This article is the first of two on the 1982 The Thing. This article will introduce the movie and the two halves of the analysis, then present the first half of the two-part analysis. The second article will present the second part of the analysis, then conclude by examining both and comparing them to current social events.

The contents of the first article will focus on a theoretical analysis of the film revolving around the key element of Information Control, while the second article will delve into more philosophical and psycho-social territories.


The 1982 remake of The Thing has gone down in history as one of the best sci-fi/horror films of all time, with good reason. It’s a tremendous movie, it was made in the golden age of classic special effects, right in between the developing stages of earlier films and the rocky slide into 90’s and 00’s effects and CGI.

The setting was great, the characters were memorable and unique, the pacing and storytelling was masterful, and the underlying Cosmic Horror themes and tones of the movie were pitch perfect.

However, while The Thing has gained enormous notoriety since its initial box office flop, I still think it’s a vastly misunderstood movie, and even a vastly underappreciated movie. The source of this misunderstanding and underappreciation comes from the most overlooked element of the film: Control of Information.

The key to understanding The Thing, what made The Thing so horrifying and why the The Thing has been misunderstood is how the film’s director and screenwriter, John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, controlled what information the viewer does and doesn’t know:

– The absolute knowns, or facts

– The assumptions

– The absolute unknowns, or known unknowns

– The unknown unknowns, or things we don’t even know that we don’t know

Control of Information is important in any form of narrative, but it is key in genres like sci-fi, horror and mystery, where so much of the meaning or emotion is derived cognitively rather than aesthetically.

For Future Reference, Left to Right: Norris, Bennings, Childs, Copper, Fuchs, Garry

With The Thing, nearly the entirety of the film’s true horror is derived from what we know and don’t know as opposed to what we are perceiving physically or aesthetically. So much of the horror is derived from Carpenter and Lancaster’s Control of Information: What we know; what we don’t know; what we’re lead to believe; what we assume; what assumptions we’re forced to question; and what information is left to the imagination.

The entire film is centered on an alien who can assimilate other organisms and disguise itself as any organism it has assimilated. So, throughout the movie, right to the final scene, we are constantly questioning who is an alien, who isn’t an alien, how the alien can be discovered, how the alien can be defeated, and what might happen if the alien isn’t defeated.

While The Thing is a master-class on Control of Information, with its ability to penetrate and terrorize your consciousness with doubt, isolation, paranoia and these constant questions, one question is never actually asked—one question is kept hidden by such overt terror, or the answer seems so obvious we never think to ask it—and this may be the question that is most crucial to understanding the film:

“I just want a home…”

What does the alien want?

This is one piece of information is secreted away, hidden and kept beneath all the other layers of the story to such a greater extent than anything else in the movie.

And so, the Control of Information—and, as sub-sets, both the ignorance of individuals and the inability to communicate or perceive information cohesively or coherently—may actually be the deepest and most important theme of the movie.

The instinctual assumption of both the characters and the movie-viewers is that the alien wants to assimilate other organisms for its own gain, and to eventually take over the world by assimilating all other lifeforms. However, this may only be a projection of motivation onto the organism, as this motivation is never explicitly confirmed by the end of the movie. The grotesque, violent horror of The Thing is so great that we never stop to question this motivation. We simply take it as a given.

However, we know so little about the monster in The Thing that it seems foolish to assume anything about it:

– We don’t know where it’s from

– We don’t know why it came to Earth

– We don’t know what it was doing before it came to Earth

– We don’t know how it’s able to assimilate organisms (we don’t know very well, at least)

– We don’t know what it is, that’s part of the point of the film: it’s just a thing that came from space

This of course connects to Cosmic Horror and the Lovecraftian Cosmic Nihilism, but I won’t delve too much into this. Feel free to read my articles if you want to read more about Cosmic Horror/Nihilism.

The short of it is we are small, limited creatures living on a small, blue dot in an imperceivably vast reality. We are far more blind and ignorant that we are perceiving and knowing, and the knowledge that we don’t know is so tremendously more massive than the knowledge we do know.

We don’t know where the alien is from or why it’s on Earth. We don’t know what the alien is or what it is capable of. We don’t know what it wants, what it’s goals are or what it it’s like to be the alien.

What is interesting, is that we do know the motivations of those who have remained humans: survival.

The motivations we do know (of the humans) are the will to live. The motivations we don’t know (of the aliens) are assumed to be violence, domination and usurpation.

But, we don’t know what the alien’s motivations actually are.

What are the motivations of, what is going on in the mind of, and what is it like to be The Thing? As an important inversion of this, why are the Thing’s motivations, and the Thing itself, perceived the way it is?

These will be the focus of the analysis.

Summary and Structure of Information

This summary will, of course, have spoilers in it, so be warned.

However, the summary will be centered on how information is controlled throughout the film, so, though much of the film is luckily centered on this as well, it will likely leave out decent swaths of the film’s content.

If you haven’t watched The Thing, it goes without saying that I highly recommend it. If you have watched The Thing, this will all be old news, so feel free to skip to the meat of the analysis.

After one of the most memorable and iconic opening title scenes in sci-fi history (up there with the 1979 Alien), the movie begins with two Norwegians in a helicopter, chasing a husky dog across the icy wastes of Antarctica.

The Norwegians are shooting at the dog, and at one point throw dynamite at it. The husky arrives at the American Outpost, Outpost 31, where the majority of the film takes place.

The Norwegians follow the sled dog and soon arrive at the outpost as well. One of them accidentally blows themselves and their helicopter up, while the other pursues the dog on foot with their rifle.

While trying to kill the dog, the Norwegian shoots one of the Americans, then begins yelling something at the Americans in Norwegian, brandishing the gun at them. However, no one can understand the Norwegian, and they shoot the man dead, then take the dog inside their outpost.

Immediately, we are introduced to both the key tool of the film, Control of Information, and a key theme of the film, Communication.

The sad irony of this opening scene is that the dog (spoilers) is actually the alien that will later terrorize the outpost for the remainder of the film. The Norwegians know this, and their actions to kill the dog may have (spoilers) saved the lives of everyone at the outpost, but the Americans cannot understand the Norwegians, and so kill them.

However, we as the viewers cannot know this, just as the characters cannot know this, and so we are left with the same blind assumptions as the Americans (if that ain’t a metaphor).

The dog is allowed to wander around the outpost, doing god-knows-what behind the scenes, while we still assume it is only a dog, until it is put into a kennel with the other dogs.

After MacReady and Copper have investigated the Norwegian base, the dog finally reveals itself to be what it truly is: the Thing.

The dog’s body begins to change, with tentacles and other appendages growing from it, and its face eventually splits open to reveal a monstrous “mouth”. It begins attacking and assimilating the other dogs (meaning it absorbs their bodies into its own and begins copying the cells of the dog). But then, the alien is killed by the Americans, though the question remains open as to whether or not other members of the outpost have been assimilated.

There are two important threads to follow through the beginning of the movie:

The Salt is strong with this one.

One: we see the relationships of the characters as tense, often with a lot of conflict between them that erupts over minor things. One example is Blair asking Windows if he’s been able to reach anyone over the radio, with Windows blowing up and saying it’s impossible to reach anyone at this time. (This, along with other moments, builds on the them of communication, and comes into play more in the second half of the analysis.)

Two: our knowledge of the alien/Thing is developed, though only to a certain degree (we never fully/explicitly learn much about the Thing). Primarily, we learn of its ability to assimilate other organisms, and of the possibility that it could eventually assimilate the entirety of organisms on the planet, if it were to make it to any other continent (if it was motivated to do so).

And, of course, much of the rest of the first two thirds of the film is devoted to determining who has been assimilated or not.

Blair suspects Clark, who was in charge of looking out for the dogs, and was alone with the dogs when the Thing began assimilating them.

Bennings becomes partially assimilated, and attempts to escape, but is discovered and killed before it could fully assimilate.

Blair goes crazy, suspecting anyone and everyone could be an assimilated alien, and is locked up in a building outside of the main structure.

A supply of blood samples that could’ve have been used to test who has been assimilated is destroyed, implicating the small number of people with access to the blood as being assimilated (and subtly implying the alien may have assimilated the DNA of all members at the outpost).

Fuchs goes outside to find a piece of clothing with MacReady’s name on it (this happening shortly after MacReady himself mentioning the alien seems to tear apart people’s clothing while assimilating them).

Fuchs is then found dead outside, apparently burning himself alive to keep himself from committing suicide.

Mac and Nauls go out to check on Blair. However, a storm hits, so the two are late coming back. The rest of the outpost decides to close off all entrances.

While closing off one of the last entrances, Norris sees Nauls coming back alone through the blizzard. Nauls is let back inside and says he found a scrap of clothing with Mac’s name on it (the same one Fuchs previously found).

Mac then returns to the base, but the outpost members refuse to let him inside. Palmer and Norris are both quick to decide Mac ought to be killed, since he has likely been assimilated.

Mac breaks into the outpost, brandishing a flare and a stick of dynamite, letting everyone know he’ll blow himself and the others up if the try to stop him. However, Norris then collapse and stops breathing. He is brought to the infirmary where Copper tries to revive him, but Norris’s stomach splits open into a giant mouth and kills Copper (thus revealing Norris to have been assimilated all along).

After the Norris iteration of the Thing has been killed, Mac forces everyone to do a blood test to see if they have been assimilated. The assumption is that the cells of the Thing act autonomously, and so will attempt to survive if harmed. Mac uses a hot piece of metal to poke the blood, and eventually Palmer is revealed to be a Thing.

Palmer transforms and attacks the other outpost members, killing Windows before Mac can kill the Thing.

Here, we finally arrive at the wind-up to the climax.

The team discovers Blair has gone missing and has built a spacecraft beneath the structure he was put in, and so Blair is the last remaining Thing (that they know of).

While getting ready to blow up “Blair’s” spaceship, Nauls sees Childs run off into the blizzard. Immediately after this, the power for the entire outpost goes out. They assume this is Blair shutting down the power so that everyone else will die and Blair will be frozen until a search party comes and recovers everyone’s body (effectively reviving Blair/the Thing once its body thaws).

Mac, Nauls and Garry decide to blow up and burn down the outpost, effectively committing suicide, but ensuring the Thing does not survive as well.

While preparing the explosives and incendiaries, Blair picks off Garry then Nauls, then attacks Mac. Mac kills the transformed Blair-Thing and blows up the outpost. Mac escapes outside and is sitting in the cold as the outpost burns down.

Childs finally returns and sits down with Mac, telling him he ran off into the blizzard because he thought he saw Blair, then got lost and couldn’t find his way back. Neither can tell whether the other is a human or a Thing. The film ends ambiguously with the two of them sitting outside, “[waiting to] see what happens” as the outpost burns down and the Antarctic cold sets in.

That’s The Thing. Got it? Good.

The Poetry of Squaring Off: Analyses of the Thing as Subject and Object

And so, I will jump as quickly as I can into this.

This analysis has two halves: One, examining the Thing as a Literal Subject capable of perceiving, rationalizing and critical strategizing; and Two, examining the Thing as a Phenomenological Object being observed by humans.

The Thing as Literal Subject must be understood first in order to transition into an understanding of its inverse, the Thing as Phenomenological Object.

What do I mean by these terms?

Thing as Literal Subject is exactly that: we assume the Thing has sentience, and we build a possible model of its phenomenological reality from what we can assume in the film, then examine this reality.

This will fall more into a “film theory” than a proper “analysis”, though it is pivotal to understanding to the second half of the analysis.

Thing as Phenomenological Object: we examine not what the Thing is perceived as by the humans, but we examine why there is a Thing being observed by the humans.

This will contain more of my typical approach to analysis, though more focused on one specific aspect of the film rather than the broader narrative analysis I typically write.

Analysis Part 1: Thing as Literal Subject

What is the immediate conflict that arises in The Thing?

The Norwegians and the dog.

The Norwegians are chasing the dog through the Antarctic wastes, trying to kill it—knowing fully what the dog is and what it is capable of—but the last standing Norwegian is killed because the Americans can’t communicate with the Norwegian, can’t understand why the Norwegian is doing what he is doing, and don’t know what the Norwegian knows or perceives.

Of course, the brutal irony is that the Norwegian could have saved the entire American outpost from catastrophic destruction and death, and this as I mentioned implicates the deepest themes of the film: ignorance and communication.

It’s like the Mark Zuckerberg of dogs.

What is the dog/alien thinking at the start of the film?

What is going on in the alien’s mind at this point?

Well, first, let’s construct a potential reality for the alien as a conscious subject. This might be technically impossible, considering there’s so much about the alien we don’t know (and that’s part of the point of the film), but, if we start from one basic assumption or premise, we can work our way to something that I think is most likely to be true.

The one basic assumption is: the alien wishes to survive.

Why assume this?

Because, as far as we know, all life forms share this instinct. Instinct might not even be the right word, it may go even deeper than instinct, as it’s difficult to say single-celled organisms possess “instincts”. The will to live seems to be a mechanism that is embedded so deeply in the fabric of “living” that it may be at the core of existence for life or even proto-life.

The will to live, or something like it—and, as tangents of this, the will to maintain life through various motivations and functions, including replication—had to have been present even in the earliest stages of life as the theorized “first replicators”.

So, assuming the alien wishes to survive, let’s reconstruct what its experience would be like before the start of the movie and at the start of the movie.

God damn, I love MacReady’s hat.

The alien crash-lands on Earth, and we know the alien piloting the ship is the same alien capable of assimilation (rather than the pilot of the ship becoming assimilated pre-crash) because Blair as the assimilated alien version of Blair has begun constructing a new spaceship by the end of the film.

The alien is frozen in Antarctica, and is then unfrozen by the Norwegians. We don’t know the full scope of what happened with the Norwegians, but we do know something went fucky-wucky, and the Norwegians and the alien decided they couldn’t work out their differences.

Now, another assumption here is that the alien likely treats assimilation as something relatively natural and commonplace. We are capable of natural acts like eating, speaking and procreating, and the alien’s act of assimilation is likely as natural to it as any of these acts. So, while assimilation is remarkably violent and grotesque to humans, it may not be so violent and grotesque to the alien.

However, assuming the alien’s act of assimilation was at least a part of what led the Norwegians to hunt down and try to kill the last remaining alien, and knowing the alien is intelligent enough to build a spacecraft and pilot it across the cosmos, then the alien is probably smart enough to have realized the humans do not appreciate the alien’s act of assimilation. That said, the alien may not fully understand why the humans do not like this, just as we would be confused if we went to another planet, and the natural inhabitants did not enjoy us trying to breathe air, eat food, have sex or speak words.

So, the last of the Norwegians attempt to hunt down and kill the last of the aliens, resulting in the brutal irony of The Thing’s opening scene.

Throughout the rest of the film, once the alien is discovered in the iconic dog scene, the plot turns into a sort of cat-and-mouse/Clue/who-dunnit plot where the humans are trying to survive and the alien(s) are trying to survive.

So, what is the rest of the film after the opening scene like from the perspective of the alien?

Each scene must be looked at as the alien’s attempt at survival, rather than the pre-supposed attempt at world domination. Why?

Well, other than the base instincts the alien likely has, there is one telling scene: the Thing-as-Blair attempting to build a spacecraft.

Why would the alien build a spacecraft rather than find some other mode of transportation or find some other mode of survival? Obviously, because it is trying to leave the planet Earth and return to its own civilization, or return to whatever it was doing beforehand.

It could be argued that the Thing would use the craft it created to travel to some other part of the planet and begin its worldwide domination there, but why? Why would it want to?

It has already seen the humans to be incredibly hostile towards it, and it landed there accidentally rather than on purpose, and, if we assume the alien’s core motivation is to survive, why risk trying to interact with other Earth-organisms that are likely to be just as hostile? On top of this, all it knows of Earth so far is the frozen wastes of Antarctica, unless it is smart enough or has learned enough to know what the rest of Earth is like (which may be unlikely, since it crash landed thousands of years ago, pre-civilization).

So, in these circumstances, why would the alien behave as we see it behave?

With the dog scene, this is possibly the most unclear, but, if it was assimilating the dogs as an act of survival, than perhaps it was doing so to create “allies”, or to spread itself out among a wider array of individual organisms and so increase its likelihood of survival. Perhaps it was an attempt at communication, though we don’t know enough about assimilation to know if this is a form of communication, and we do know enough to know it is used for functions other than communication.

The rest of the movie after this, however, is much more clear.

The dogs are now all under suspicion, and are killed because of their potential contact with the alien. And, while all the other humans are now under suspicion, they cannot be killed so recklessly. So, the alien begins assimilating humans to blend in and survive.

Another reason for assimilating humans is that this may be the only mode of communication the alien currently possesses. If you are trying to survive, one of the best places to start is to ask the hostile population, “Please! Don’t kill me!”

But, knowing the humans are hostile towards it, it may have decided not to communicate in the given circumstances—especially since no communication from the humans has been attempted.

So, the alien is in a circumstance where it is being hunted down. It may wish to communicate to the humans, which would be a reason to assimilate the other humans, but communication may also result in its own death.

Let’s say, as an example, you are a lesbian woman in a non-Western country that is predominated by a Muslim population (just to be arbitrarily controversial): while one mode of survival may be to yell out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am a homosexual, one of the things you wish to kill, but, please, I mean you no harm! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”

What are the odds this woman won’t be killed?

The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the population around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find understanding allies in others, or until such a time that you can escape to a less hostile population.

Let’s say the alien as an assimilated human were to shout out, “Please! Don’t kill me! Yes, I am the alien that has assimilated other organisms, but, please, I mean you no harm! I only wish to survive! Don’t kill me! Let me live!”

What are the odds the alien won’t be killed?

The better, though less-optimal, choice would be to blend in with the humans around you, and survive as long as you can until you can find a human willing to communicatee with you, or until such a time that the alien can escape Earth and go back home, or at least go somewhere it won’t be hunted down.

These assumptions and this understanding of the alien as a conscious and at least somewhat intelligent/rational creature can explain its actions throughout the rest of the film:

  • Attempting to escape as the half-assimilated Bennings
  • The alien as the fully assimilated Palmer and Norris being so quick to want MacReady killed, knowing MacReady is not an alien and that MacReady is the biggest threat to their existence
  • The alien as the “deceased” Norris attacking Copper before attempting to escape
  • The alien as Palmer attacking the others once it is discovered
  • The alien as Blair constructing the spaceship
  • The alien as Blair attacking the remaining humans once its spaceship is destroyed and the other humans are attempting to kill it

There is of course the ambiguity at the end of the film, with the final scene of Childs and MacReady in the wreckage of the destroyed outpost. While I could go into this and the various theories of whether or not one or both of them are the alien, and then what this would mean for our analysis, it is not so important, and I will let you decide.

So, here we have a construction of what the subjective reality and the motivations of the Thing most likely are.

There is a single hole in this argument: why didn’t the Thing-as-Blair simply run into the cold and be frozen, which would allow it to survive until a rescue party came and recovered their bodies, which would result in the Thing surviving until it was thawed out enough. But, this “hole” can have several counter-arguments to explain it, the least of which being: fuck it, it’s just a movie, and what a shitty ending that would have been.

Plus, if Childs or MacReady are an alien, then the alien being frozen and revived will likely happen anyway.

The Thing is trying to survive on an alien planet. It has woken up in an incredibly hostile environment, Antarctica, and it finds itself being assaulted on all sides by incredibly hostile lifeforms which do not seek to communicate with it.

The grand conflict here is on two levels a conflict of survival (the deeper, though maybe less interesting conflict), and the conflict of epistemology: the conflict of what is known and what is unknown.

The Thing cannot communicate with the humans unless it assimilates them. If it assimilates a human, then that assimilated human will be killed, so broadcasting that you are the alien disguised as a human will likely result in death.

I will return to this in the conclusion, but I think you get the idea here.

This essentially wraps up this part of the analysis. There’s no grand conclusion here, but it’s intended to roll right into the next analysis (where you will find a grand conclusion).

What a hat, man.

What Do We Know (2.0)

By Alexander Greco

April 22, 2019

What is real? What’s just fantasy?

What is fact? What’s just theory?

What is true? What’s just fabrication?

What do we know about the world we live in, the people we live with, and the person we are?

Light comes in through the cornea, and is refracted into your pupil, then through a hard lens, where the light is focused into the retina. Our retinas capture this constant bombardment of trillions of light-waves/particles, and process this light with millions of special nerves called rods and cones. These rods and cones convert light stimuli, which are picked up by the optic nerve, and sent to the brain.

Your brain processes the optic signals with the limbic system first, where our brain scans for threats or rewarding opportunities. The limbic system first “communicates” with the Automatic Nervous System, which governs our fear response, our fight-or-flight instinct, and our sexual attraction instincts. If there’s an immediate threat, such as a snake on the ground, or a potentially rewarding opportunity, such as a person you find attractive, your brain and body begin responding before you know what you’re looking at.

Finally, the processed light-signals are sent to our neo-cortex, where we consciously “see” the light.

Similarly-complex sensory systems detect what we smell, what we hear, what we feel and what we taste, and this is the foundation of how we understand the world around us.

These senses alone are nowhere near what you need to actually understand what’s happening around us. Humans have an incredibly weak sense of smell, we can only detect a narrow range of light waves, our easily-damaged ears can only hear a certain range of sound, and we only see so far, or so close, with limited clarity. The parts of our brain that process these signals can misfire, or misunderstand what it’s looking at (optical illusions).

In addition, our senses alone don’t tell us how a thing works.

We only began to understand gravity in 1687 with Newton, then with Einstein in the 20th century, and we still don’t fully understand how it works.

In fact, we don’t understand how most of the universe works.

27% of the universe is made of Dark Matter, which constitutes 85% of the total mass in the universe. 68% is Dark Energy.[1] That’s 95% of the universe that we don’t understand. All the stars, planets, black holes, comets, asteroids and space debris make up only 5% of the universe.

But let’s go smaller.

The universe is much so much bigger than what we experience normally, we at least know what’s happening on Earth.

Do we?

As a species, we’ve all but mastered mechanical, electrical, optical, thermodynamic and nuclear physics… To a degree.

We now know vast amounts about of biology, evolution and genetics… Relatively speaking.

We have a deep and accurate understanding of psychology… In some ways.

And we’re more informed about the world around us than ever before…

Except we’ve learned enough to see how little we actually know.

We now know enough about quantum mechanics to know that the subatomic world is bizarre and nonsensical, and often violates “laws” of nature, such as the Law of Conservation.[2]

Not only does it violate the Law of Conservation, but quantum mechanics is incompatible with Einstein’s Relativity, and has led to decades of scientists trying to reconcile the two.[3] Decades later, we still haven’t reconciled the two.

Do we at least understand how people work? Why we are the way we are? Why we act the way we act? How we’ve come to be who we are?

Well… Yes and no…

To a certain degree, we understand how humans work. We understand what our bodies are made of, how our muscles, bones, cardiovascular system and so forth work, and how our nervous system works.

We understand that genetics and the environment affect our physical and psychological development.

We understand that genetics, our brain, past experiences, learned behaviors, hormones, psychological states, emotional health, and physical health all play roles in our behaviors and decisions.

We understand how evolution has shaped and changed us over billions of years into modern humans, and how epigenetic adaptations on the individual level.

We have a pretty solid, foundational understanding of how the human body works, but this foundational understanding has shown us the vast amounts of our genetics, biology, physiology, and psychology that we don’t know.

Let’s take something as simple as hair. We have hair follicles in our skin. They grow using nutrients from our body, and they grow according to chemical signals from our nerves.

However, everything is also controlled by our genes. Everything from the follicles, to the structure of each hair, to how fast each hair grows, is coded by genes. And, there can be multiple genes that code for the same thing. You can have multiple genes controlling the color, length and coarseness of your hair, or one gene that codes for several different traits. These genes can be turned on or off, they can perform different functions based on the hormones in your body, and they can also code other genes.

However, genes are only one part of the equation, and things like your diet or how often you exercise can affect individual traits. Everything in the body is interconnected, and it’s highly

We’re only just beginning to know the ins-and-outs of our body.

There are still mysteries to evolution, unanswered questions, and long-debated ideas.

There are still mysteries about genetics, how genes work, and how genes affect our anatomy and psychology.

And there are still mysteries about the brain. We’re still trying to understand all the ins-and-outs of brain function, of how we think and process information, and why we behave the way we do.

Consciousness is a perfect example. We still don’t even know what consciousness is, or if consciousness is real or an illusion. We don’t know why we’re conscious, or what causes consciousness. Yet, consciousness is one of the most important aspects of being a human.

But what about the basic world around us. What do we even know about something as simple as a desk-lamp?

It’s an object that “stands” on our desk. It has a “lightbulb” you can put in or take out. You can “turn it on” to make light come out of the lightbulb.

But how does it stand without falling? How is it constructed? What materials does it made of?

What even is a lightbulb? How does it work? Why does it work the way it works? What is it made of? Is it incandescent? Is it an LED bulb? How does an LED work?

Yes, you can take the time to answer all these questions, even down to what metals and gases are used inside a bulb, and the reasons why they are used, but can you do that for everything? And can you do that for everything all the time?

What is the desk made of? How is it constructed? What materials? Why does it even work?

What about a flash drive? Or headphones? Or your computer?

Why are we able to look out a window and see what’s outside? Why does one flower look prettier than another flower? Why are the walls of a room painted the color they are, and, for that matter, how does paint even work?

Yes, we can stop and explain everything around us, but how often do we do that? How much do we actually know, from one person to the next, about the fundamental objects of daily life? How much do we take for granted when we walk out the door, or even when we wake up in our bed?

Jordan Peterson has a great explanation of this. A car is a thing-that-gets-us-from-one-place-to-the-next, until it stops working. As soon as it stops working, it becomes a chaotic-object-of-anxiety-and-ignorance—a terrifying monster made of valves, wires, pipes, pulleys and gears. But as soon as the car gets fixed, it transforms back into a thing-that-gets-us-from-one-place-to-the-next.

Even more basic than basic objects around us, do we even know what’s going on half the time?

What’s happening on the other side of the four walls around you? What’s happening next door? What’s happening down the street? What’s happening in the next town over? What’s going on in your state, or your country, or the rest of the world?

Unfortunately, we barely even know what’s happening outside our front doors.

When we do see something happening, how much do we actually know about it?

If we see two strangers arguing, do you have any clue what it might be about?

What’s going on in those people’s heads?

What’s going on in anyone’s head, for that matter?

A friend of mine explained something called a “black box” in computer programming. A black box is a piece of code where you can see what information goes in and what information goes out, but you can’t see what happens inside that code. For example, you input X into the black box, and the black box outputs Y, but you don’t know why the black box took in X and put out Y.

Humans are a lot like this.

As I’ve already mentioned, we’re complicated motherfuckers. We barely know why we do the things we do, let alone why other people do the things we do. We barely even know basic information about people and their lives.

What was someone’s upbringing like? How did their parenting, their early experiences, their education, their environment, and so forth affect their personality? What’s their health like? What matters to that person? What does that person go home to each day? What goes on in that person’s head?

Even things like what a person ate on a given day, how much they slept, or the state of their gut bacteria on a given day can alter their personality.

So how much do you know about the person you’re talking to?

How much do you really know, and how much do you make up, or assume?

How often do we make assumptions about people we know? How often do we make assumptions about who they are, what kind of person they are, and the reasons why they behave how they behave?

How often do we project an easy-to-understand, cookie-cutter identity to a person? How often do we then treat them as if they were a cookie-cutter person, instead of treating them as the complex, dynamic human they really are?

The problem is, we can’t do this for everyone.

We can’t take the time to deeply understand each and every individual we come in contact with. We have to make assumptions about them.

At the very best, we have to make educated guesses about a person, but even these guesses can be way off the mark.

Let’s take it a step further.

How do we know how we know things?

How can we be sure we know what we know?

How can we be sure we know anything?

It seems almost stupid to ask (“You just know, you know?”), but it’s really hard to pinpoint how we can be sure of what we know.

Even asking, “What does it mean to ‘know’ something?” is a rabbit hole in and of itself.

We only know what our brain tells us to know. We only know this because our brain tells us we know this. Our brain can be wrong, our brain is forgetful, and our brain is biased. Our brain can be lazy, tired, confused, misguided, and deliberately irrational.

Beyond that, how sure can we even be about the things we “really” know.

There’s a thought experiment about a brain in a jar (which may or may not have originated with HP Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in the Darkness”).

Let’s say you’re a brain in a jar, with all these wires hooked up to your brain. These wires send signals telling you what you see, what your body looks like, what you’re doing, and what emotions you have. As far as you know, you’re a person walking around in the world, doing your thing, but in reality, you’re a brain in a jar.

This sounds sci-fi-ish (it’s one of the ideas behind The Matrix), but there’s legitimate speculation in the scientific community about Simulation Theory. Simulation Theory states that we may be in a reality simulated by a computer-like technology, or some higher form of technology that transcends our knowledge of physics. We could be living in a computer-fabricated universe, dictated by lines of 6th-dimensional computer code.

We are reaching an age where our technology and our computing power will be so powerful that we ourselves might be able to create our own simulated realities. We already have virtual reality goggles, we can already create computer-generated realities and interact with these realities (video games), and people like Elon Musk are already creating technologies that can directly link our brains to computers.

What’s to say a civilization before us, or a civilization “above” us, or an indescribable entity in some multi-dimensional tangent of our own reality, hasn’t already created technology that can simulate a universe?

What’s to say some civilization hasn’t created our universe in one of their computers, and has made a simulation that is so sophisticated it replicated consciousness and physics? (Except it starts to fuck up in black holes)

We kinda don’t know.

Many great minds have pondered, many great minds have searched for answers, and many great minds still haven’t figured it out.

We simply don’t know. We don’t know a lot.

We know some things. We know coffee makes people (not all) hyper. We know some people shouldn’t eat gluten (actually, probably no one should eat it, but it’s whatever). We know monkeys and humans both get weirded out by direct eye contact.

We know the Earth spins, and we basically know why, but we don’t really know why gravity works, and we’re still arguing about how gravity works.

We know humans only live for a short amount of time, and then we die, but we know this is controlled by genes and our biology, and we’re starting to be able to control our genes and our biology, but we know enough about genetic editing to know we maybe shouldn’t fuck with our genes until we really, “really”, really know how our genes work.

We know enough to know we don’t know much.

We know enough to know the world is a crazy god-damn place. We know enough to know humans are crazy motherfuckers. We know enough to know the universe is stranger than fiction.

And beyond that, we don’t really know.

Which can be scary to think about. It can be terrifying to know that our world may not be what it seems. It can keep you up at night, thinking about all the people around you that you barely understand. It can be anxiety provoking to think about what will or won’t happen tomorrow, or in the next week, or in the next year, or what will or won’t happen before you die.

But it’s also kind of fantastic that we don’t know.

How boring would it be if we knew everything?

Einstein isn’t one of the greatest historical figures ever because he knew exactly how the universe worked. Einstein went down in history because he explored the unknown, even to his death. He relished in the things he didn’t know, in the things he couldn’t explain, and devoted his life to uncovering the secrets of the universe.

We don’t like spoilers because we want to find out the end of movie for ourselves.

We don’t like people telling us what to do or how to do it because we want to figure it out on our own.

We don’t like learning about the same thing over and over again, because it doesn’t get us anywhere.

It’s okay not to know things. It’s okay if there’s a little bit of fantasy in our reality. It’s okay if life is more theory than fact. It’s okay if we have to fabricate a few details along the way (so long as we can un-fabricate them at some point).

It’s okay, because what we don’t know is far more interesting than what we do know.

We don’t know where this ride’s gonna take us, and that’s half the fun.

[1] https://science.nasa.gov/astrophysics/focus-area/what-is-dark-energy

[2] https://www.physlink.com/education/askexperts/ae605.cfm

[3] http://m.nautil.us/issue/29/scaling/will-quantum-mechanics-swallow-relativity