Monday, April 24, 2017

Just Remember. We Are Not Masters of the Universe.



How can we take history’s greatest thinkers seriously when they were so oblivious to basic facts about the human situation? Future generations will almost certainly think the same of us, while snickering behind their hands at the primitive absurdities that today we believe unquestioningly, and dismissing the silly ideas that we build on top of our grand ignorance.


A handy reminder from Scientific American. We only pretend that we understand everything. In reality, we understand almost nothing.


There are no uncharted lands waiting for ships to find their shores, and few if any untasted fruits waiting for human lips. Many grand mysteries of the Universe have been cracked open by science, from the makeup of matter on Earth to the nature of the stars in the sky. The child who marvels at the adventures of Magellan or wonders about how the Universe works might worry: What is left for me to discover?

Our answer should be: Well, almost everything.

While we have made tremendous strides in mapping the planet and the cosmos, there are still vast tracts of unexplored scientific territory. Much of life on Earth, from the ocean’s depths to the microbiome in our guts, remains unknown. And the largest cosmic questions are still unanswered: How big is the Universe? What is 95 percent of the Universe made of? What happened before the Big Bang? Why does time move only forward? Does space have more than three dimensions? Is there life beyond Earth?

Even the tiniest particles inside the atom hold perplexing puzzles that elude today’s greatest thinkers: Why do we have anti-matter? Why does every particle have two heavy cousins? How many particles are there? Is there a single tiny particle (or string) that makes up all of matter?

Almost certainly, intellectual revolutions await us. Thinking back before the past few centuries of progress in scientific understanding, we can wonder: what it was like for people to live in such ignorance about the scale of the Universe, our place within it, the quantum nature of reality, and our own evolutionary history? How can we take history’s greatest thinkers seriously when they were so oblivious to basic facts about the human situation? Future generations will almost certainly think the same of us, while snickering behind their hands at the primitive absurdities that today we believe unquestioningly, and dismissing the silly ideas that we build on top of our grand ignorance. 

Is it any wonder that religious truth eludes us so completely that it can only exist, whatever its creed, on faith - on suspension of disbelief? The same holds for most of our orthodoxies to some extent. Authoritarianism is a belief- and suspicion-based ideology and yet it is widely embraced by its aherents with fierce certainty.

It's good to remind ourselves from time to time that, even among the ranks of the brightest of us, no matter how informed or well-intentioned we're really just dumbasses at the end of the day.                                   


3 comments:

Scotty on Denman said...

How can such a misnamed human species behave so foolishly yet presume itself so supremely wise? I believe it's because sapiens' prime distinction from other human species--- which cohabited up until shortly after it own speciation--- is to file the excess of information abstract thought generates into narrative, and we, the "storytelling human," have retold a basic group of campfire tales that form a kind of template or that's been permitting only familiar narrametric elements to this very day.

Naturally we cast ourselves as supreme, which necessitates additional fabulation of antagonists for whom we can have no tolerance, a larger plot of subduing the earth, of pressing toward never-ending frontiers.

We love our myths of original sin, probably more to do with interbreeding between human species than with apples, of escape and exile, of return and revenge, of purifying and maintaining our righteous supremacy. Is it coincidence that these fairytales seem to parallel history, the extinction non-sapiens humans, of many large species of animals, the relentless conquest of the planet and, most recently, destructive behaviour that presumes immunity to ecological consequences.

In spite of these myths appearing real thus far, modernity presents a simple quandary: we want to continue acting out the script we've polished for generations, but the necessary frontiers are used up. "That's not how the story's supposed to go," we complain like toddlers who suspect their favourite bedtime story has been meddled with. But the fact is the narrative we're accustomed to, where we always win because we're the good guys, is completely misinforming as to what we should really be doing about the ensuing ecological catastrophe.

Scientific discovery should have disabused us of our primal fantasies, but instead beneficiaries of the status quo have reacted contrarily by reiterating with increasing bellicosity our narrative template: persecution of "the other," a struggle for justice and eventual return to a former golden age of greatness, demonizing climate change activism, and proceeding with more petroleum burning and chemical spraying as if new frontiers of replacement environments stand ready to accommodate us as we ruin one world after the next. These are fantasies in reaction to the end of the fairytale's illusory plausibility. Sci-fi also contributes to the notion of endless frontiers, space travel and other, whole worlds. The reality is that sustaining even the most modest artificial environment in the closest orbit possible is vastly expensive and most unlikely to be accessible to the vast majority of earthlings anytime soon---and soon isn't an option when serious ecological degradation is sooner. Only a bedtime story allows us to get to sleep as the sixth extinction starts gathering speed.

The question is whether we need to change ourselves---our natures---or change our narrative culture. Our biggest problem in any case is that the obsolete narrative sustains the wealth of the powerful who are not therefore inclined to retire it. That's apparent when the keepers of the nuclear button comfort themselves out loud about their faith in the rapture, that their souls---their supreme and pure souls---are safe no matter what happens. It's supposed to out-trump any concern about the majesty of life.

liberalandlovingit! said...

Scotty on Denman?

We, humans, need to deflate the ego -
by whatever means possible and hitting rock-bottom is the most effective, in my experience -
get some aequss animus...
and live by the spirit - not the sword.

Owen Gray said...

It seems that genuine humility is hard to come by these days.