I forgot where I first heard this, and if someone can tell me the source, I’d gladly cite them here. So here it goes:

Given the near-limitless size of the universe and the terribly small size of our capacity to save information, isn’t it more correct to say that, relative to the total knowledge available in the universe, our knowledge would always be closer to nothing than everything?

These words came to the forefront of my mind a week ago, after finishing The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. They’ve stayed with me since, and I feel like writing them down to release some of the thoughts that have been bugging me.

Let me backtrack a little.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a book by Haruki Murakami, and it’s excellent. I read it once a long time ago and forgot most of it.

This happens to me often.

My memory isn’t great, especially lately with everything going on around me. And in my defence, when I said “a long time ago,” it was over a decade ago.

During this summer vacation, I had the opportunity to visit a bookstore that sells English books with my family. My wife picked up a book titled “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, while I chose a book by Haruki Murakami. Although I initially considered getting a collection of short stories by him, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” caught my attention, so I decided to buy it.

The book itself was excellent, and I may do a full review someday. However, what particularly caught my attention was a chapter where the protagonist gets into a fight with his wife.

“Why did you buy this stuff?” she asked, her voice weary.

Holding the wok, I looked at her. Then I looked at the box of tissues and the package of toilet paper. I had no idea what she was trying to say.

“What do you mean? They’re just tissues and toilet paper. We need those things. We’re not exactly out, but they won’t rot if they sit around a little while.”

“No, of course not. But why did you have to buy blue tissues and flower-pattern toilet paper?”

“I don’t get it,” I said, controlling myself. “They were on sale. Blue tissues are not going to turn your nose blue. What’s the big deal?”

“It is a big deal. I hate blue tissues and flower-pattern toilet paper. Didn’t you know that?

– Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

After the fight, the protagonist made up with his wife (I’m simplifying here) and realised he didn’t know some things about her despite being married for years. He wondered if it was because he wasn’t attentive enough. He thought that if he had paid more attention, he would have known that his wife disliked blue tissues and flower-patterned toilet paper.

But even if he did pay attention to those things, he might still overlook other things about his wife. They might have another fight in the future about something like him not knowing that his wife hates a certain piece of furniture. Or vice versa. No one could be sure.

This led to his musings at the beginning of the chapter: is it possible for two people to fully understand each other?

This year marks the fifth anniversary of my wife and me living together under one roof and in one apartment room. We spend most of our time in close proximity to each other, except when we are at work. We can confidently say that we know each other quite well.

However, we still sometimes surprise each other. For example, like I said above, when we were browsing the rows of books at the English bookstore, my wife picked up the book “Antifragile” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

At first, I wasn’t surprised, as I know she likes reading nonfiction and is into psychology and self-improvement books. But when I asked her why she picked it, she said, “I saw it mentioned in ‘Ikigai,’ another book that I read, and I’ve been interested in it ever since the concept was explained in that book.”

That surprised me. Although I know she has a book titled “Ikigai” at home and has read it, I don’t know what she read in it, and I certainly didn’t know she was interested in the concept of “Antifragile” to the point of wanting to buy a book about it.

Like the main character in Murakami’s book, I realised that I don’t fully know my wife. A voice inside me said, “That’s only because you’ve been living with her for just five years. If it were longer, you would know her much better.” It’s true that I might know her better if we were together for longer, but I still wouldn’t know everything about her, would I?

Just like me not knowing my siblings or parents fully, even though I basically lived with them for a very long time until my teenage years.

Illustration by Harry Campbell on Antifragile Systems

A critical part of my brain questions, “What do you mean by ‘knowing’? What do you mean by ‘fully knowing’?” Instead of engaging in a philosophical discussion or argument, I consulted dictionaries for answers, particularly regarding the first question.

Merriam-Webster defines “knowing” as having or reflecting knowledge, information, or intelligence about something. Dictionary.com provides a similar definition, stating that “knowing” means having knowledge or information and being intelligent.

The common theme among these definitions is the possession of information. Therefore, to “know” something means to possess information about it.

Fully knowing something means possessing all information about it. However, is this even possible?

It’s probably still very difficult to imagine the state of “fully knowing”. For that I’d like to give an example with Python, a curious programming language that I like a lot.

So let’s say I want to create an object in Python, and make it so that other things in the program can know it fully. The processes mainly involve the following steps:

  1. Create an object.
  2. Assign properties and attributes to that object.
  3. Allow others to check its properties to obtain the information regarding it or use it for other goals.

Here is a simple example:

# Define the object
class Person:
    def __init__(self):
        self.height = 175
        self.hair = "black"
        self.hobby = "coding"
# Create a variable with that object
ahmad = Person()
# Check all of ahmad's properties to fully know it:

And that’s it. You and everything else in the running program now can know all the properties of a variable called ‘ahmad’. You can confidently say that you fully understand it.

However, humans are not so easily defined.

For instance, how can we define a person and all of their characteristics?

Certainly, we can ask them detailed questions to determine their traits and classify them into a particular MBTI type. Additionally, we can scan their entire body to determine the dimensions and surfaces of their body, as well as the inside of their body to determine the dimensions, shapes, and forms of their organs.

Is that everything?

Not quite, because how can we be sure to capture every single wrinkle on their face? The exact diameter of their nose, down to the smallest possible scale? The precise color shades of their eyes, down to the cell by cell level? And while we’re discussing cells, can we determine the forms, shapes, and positions of each and every cell in their body?

Let’s set aside the physical measurements. How can we be certain that they honestly responded to the MBTI or personality test?

Without all of that, we can’t claim to know all of a person’s characteristics, and therefore, we can’t claim to know someone entirely.

Never forget that no two people are exactly alike. Even the most identical of twins have unique fingerprints and different life experiences.

In a literal sense, everyone is unique.

This shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it does, but I have come to the realization that, in conclusion, we will never fully know or understand others.

And forget about other people, we probably will never fully know ourselves neither.

Thus, should we abandon all hope of ever knowing someone fully?

And if that’s the case, do we feel okay of simply live with someone, work with others, rely our livelihoods on people that we will never know fully?

Certainly there should be some kind of threshold of knowing others. There must be some kind of “acceptable level” of knowing for a relationship to work between people.

And maybe, once we reach that level, we would have certain level of faith with one another so that we can have peace with one another through that faith, hoping that that level is correct, sufficient, enough.

Like Murakami said in his book:

To know one’s own state is not a simple matter. One cannot look directly at one’s own face with one’s own eyes, for example. One has no choice but to look at one’s reflection in the mirror. Through experience, we come to believe that the image is correct, but that is all.

– Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle