Today I finished physicist Anthony Aguirre's book, "Cosmological Koans: A Journey to the Heart of Physical Reality." Rather than describing how the book ends, you can read the ending yourself. I liked what Aguirre says here.
To me, one clarion message comes through: when you are tempted to think or say "the Universe is fundamentally like this," then go and sit and think some more.
So why do we like to divide things into opposing camps? Probably no small part of it is a rather strong drive, bestowed upon us by our evolution as surviving beings, to identify some certain things with ourselves, our group, our tribe.
The "selfing" process walls us off as individuals in an often hostile world and seeks to protect not just our bodies, but by extension, whatever we identify with. Our own beliefs tend to be converted into truth much more easily than is warranted.
Even in the most abstract of questions, it's easy to see, in oneself or in others, a strength of belief that the world is a certain way -- material or ideal, free or fated, inherently good or evil -- all out of proportion to the actual evidence and even when confronted with many people believing quite different things for reasons they find just as persuasive.
This is a tendency worth keeping a keen eye on.
But it isn't just tribalism. Convincing, opposing views persist because the questions are hard. The easy ones get settled and largely forgotten about. In a well-run government, only the hard questions come to the desk of the emperor (or president). So too with the structure we've built out of our hard-won understanding of the world, both individually and collectively.
Of course, sorting things into what has been settled and what is still unknown or open for debate is not always easy, or agreed upon.
But overall, there is some sense of a cutting edge: the world really is not flat, but we can debate about the speed at which it is warming; lightning is caused by segregation of electric charges, not gods' whims; gravity is not a propensity to go down but rather a propensity for stuff to curve space-time in a particular way.
Knowing exactly where this cutting edge lies can be something of an art. Sometimes it is obvious and surrounded by debate. Sometimes, as we've seen, it can be much more subtle, discoverable only through a careful skepticism of simple or familiar answers. But there it lies, still licking its chops.
Even knowledge of moral truths, which are perhaps harder to place on the subjective-objective axis of being, has progressed.
Slavery is wrong; discrimination is wrong; women are equal in worth to men; might does not make right. Even if they contain some invention as well, we must choose to see these as hard-earned discoveries that we cannot unknow.
We may then focus on how to to bring our reality in closer accord with these ideals, as well as tackle the still much more open questions: What makes a just society? How do we balance liberty and security? When does technology bring, or undermine, well-being? What does the future hold, with its quantum computers, artificial intelligences, genetic engineering, and interplanetary travel -- and how can we make that a future we really want?
The progress we've made so far comes from a long history of remarkable human effort and drive. Humans are agents of action. Minute to minute, hour to hour, week to week, we decide, decide, decide, and act, act, act.
Our cognitive architecture is that of an astonishing prediction-and-decision engine, much of which runs with little notice. We dash across rocks, make coffee, and shuffle papers more or less on autopilot. But when the predictions or the decisions get hard, then suddenly they are at the center of our awareness. This can become very stressful, frightening even.
But it is also when we feel most alive, most interested, most awake. Who wants to read a novel or see a drama in which no character has to make a difficult decision, caught in a dilemma between conflicting desires and with only guesses as to what will come?
Yet humans don't just act and decide and feel. We have also learned to contemplate.
To think and ponder free-style on ideas and truths that may have elegance and beauty but near-zero utility. I'm often amazed that we can do this at all, let alone so well as to conjure an understanding of the metric structure of space-time, or the evolution of the quantum state, or the meaning and generation of entropy.
And we've learned to contemplate in other less intellectual ways. To very simply and purely be. To look ever more closely at our own minds and how they run. To see the minute gradations of our relations with others and with the world.
Like adventures in the physical world, this contemplation of the inner world and the world writ large can be exhilarating and even terrifying. As one's mental picture of the Universe and its operation shifts, reality can swing from being a comforting den to a windswept mountaintop to a dark forest and back again.
But you're made of that very, very special stuff, infinitesimal in the universe, that is able to appreciate this, and to take the adventure. The journey can be exhausting, true, painful, humbling, but I often feel: "What could be better?"
Who am I?
What is this?
Where, from here?