Day Four: A Cosmic Perspective

So much that seems to be wrong with the world at the moment, so many of the things that seem horribly dysfunctional (if not downright wicked), look to me like a failure to grasp a pretty obvious fact, namely: we’re all in this together. Trite, I know. But quite what it means in practice and what the implications are for how we ought to conduct ourselves is something I’d like to ponder today.

Let’s take a step back. The universe, as The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy reminds us, is big, really big. Not only is it unimaginably vast, it’s also mostly unimaginably mysterious. But how much of that is our concern? Most people really don’t need to worry about esoteric stuff like the precise nature of Gravitational Waves or the problem of Quantum Gravity, do they? After all, these are not things likely to affect our daily lives. Doubt about the nature of Dark Matter isn’t going to stop me making decisions about what to buy at the supermarket today. So unless you’re a particle physicist or cosmologist, who cares?

But there’s a bigger picture. Part of what I think all of us being in this together entails is that we can and should take an interest in the wider world, that sometimes we need to look beyond our own narrow boundaries. I’m not suggesting we all go out and become experts in physics (or experts in anything else necessarily), but I am suggesting that part of our failure to find sources of mutual agreement, part of the cause of this pernicious tribalism and factionalism so prevalent everywhere, is ignorance of the bigger picture perspective. We’re all so wrapped up in our own petty concerns that we rarely if ever take a step back and look at the wider context.

Knowledge that is useful and necessary for me to live day-to-day is one thing, but knowledge that is important to society, to culture, to humanity considered as a species, that’s something else. The bigger picture perspective says we need both; it says we should not – indeed must not – drift through life blind to things outside our own direct experience. As a selfish individual I might choose to ignore what does not concern me directly; as members of a faction or a tribe we might collectively decide what’s important for our group alone. The results of such thinking scarcely need elaboration: everything else becomes unimportant, irrelevant, potentially dangerously disturbing. At best the result is a closed-mindedness about the unfamiliar or the novel, at worst an intolerant bigotry that actively seeks to suppress what it doesn’t understand. Too often we see a defensive hostility to whatever challenges our favourite prejudices: experts are stigmatised as “so-called experts”, facts are countered with “alternative facts”, walls both physical and intellectual are built between communities. We become isolated from each other and from the bigger picture.

But if I take seriously the idea of a Life Lived According to the Evidence then I don’t discount any data as irrelevant, nor do I arbitrarily choose which particular facts are “genuine” or which are the only ones I need. I remain open to all sources of information. I don’t decide beforehand what I need to know; I don’t shut down different points of view to my own. It’s potentially a joyful state, this alertness to everything the universe has to offer. It’s also potentially a lot of hard work – far easier simply to take at face value whatever the authority figures in my life instruct me to accept: this sacred book is all you need, this economic model, this and only this way is the right path for you.

An Evidence-Based Life is all about avoiding such dogmas. It asks instead: what is out there that is knowable, what can be discovered, what can be learned? Don’t tell me, show me. I don’t need a dictator, I need a guide. I don’t want to believe, I want to know. It’s all about building bridges not walls. And as I enrich my own inner world with new knowledge, so too do I enrich those around me: my family, my society, ultimately the whole human race. Knowledge banishes ignorance, ignorance that is the root cause of so much fear, distrust and prejudice. An Evidence-Based Life is an open-armed willingness to embrace the new without hostility, without bias, without fear.

It does come with a caveat, however, namely the one already discussed in previous days: our standards of evidence have to remain scrupulously high. Because I am responsive to new data, because I welcome new knowledge as a way of climbing to greater heights, doesn’t mean I become uncritically accepting of every conspiracy theory or devote myself to every iconoclast railing against the status quo. Because I know that Doubt & Uncertainty constantly surround me doesn’t mean I must accept any explanation however wild. Reliability, testability and consistency remain my watchwords. If I must suspend my judgement I will do so until better evidence presents itself.

But purely for the sake of my own selfish well-being, if for no other reason, I should encourage everyone around me to start looking at the bigger picture too. I want to live in a world that’s outward-looking and forward-thinking, not closed-in and regressive. I won’t, for example, dismiss arcane discussions about Dark Matter as an irrelevance, even though the outcome, whatever it may turn out to be, is never likely to affect me directly. That’s the joy of following the evidence, you never know where it’s going to lead. And while I remain nothing more than an interested spectator on that particular  journey, I rejoice in knowing there are innumerable other unknowables out there just waiting to be known. The beauty of it is that even when someone else does all the hard work (thanks, Mr Einstein, we’re all really pleased you kept at it), I get to share in the fruits of their efforts. We’re all in it together. Every new discovery enhances our collective knowledge; every new piece of hard-won knowledge is one more little dent in that great black block of fear and ignorance.

I want everyone around me to look at the bigger picture for another reason: because I think it will help us recognise that our own needs are small when set beside the needs of our species, as well as the needs of all the other unique species in our global community. It seems terribly naïve to say so, but such an attitude – honestly held and honestly practised by all – would surely foster trust and cooperation among peoples and nations and tend to promote peaceful solutions to world problems. That’s really what we’re all in this together means. And the widest perspective of all is that of the universe itself, that astonishing, mind-bogglingly big place full of unaccountable mysteries and wonders uncountable. It’s difficult, as Carl Sagan so eloquently pointed out, to feel quite so self-important when once you have taken the time to contemplate the fragility of the Earth from the perspective of space. It’s difficult not to feel humility in the face of vastness, not to feel a sense of unity with everyone and everything else on our pale blue dot of a world hanging there, “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam”. We really are all in this together, if only everyone would realise it and act accordingly.

*              *             *

 Epicurus: Principal Doctrines

  1. “It is impossible for anyone to dispel his fear over the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but instead suspects something that happens in myth. Therefore, it is impossible to obtain unmitigated pleasure without natural science.”
  2. “There is no benefit in securing protection from men if things above and beneath the earth and indeed all the limitless universe are made matters for suspicion.”

 

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3 thoughts on “Day Four: A Cosmic Perspective

  1. An excellent defense, Mark, of the validity of attempting to grasp what is outside our narrower experience But you seem to confuse scope with open mindedness. On the elements of our specific life and setting we certainly should entertain reasonable contrary opinions based on emerging evidence. But that doesn’t mean and shouldn’t mean attempting to comprehend the universe Saganistically. Nor does it mean, however, that we should accept an isolationist existence.

    Not only is trying to grapple with data from say the majesty of outer space a futile exercise for most mortals it takes us away from knowledge that informs how we should live, the touchstone of our choices and actions. Of course it could be argued that gazing upon Hubble telescope images of the galaxy provide pleasure, but these joys need to be placed in perspective.

    Being open to all sources of information is an impossible quest. Some knowledge is more pertinent than other knowledge. This selectivity based on our limitations, is a manifestation of Epicurean prudence. Better to try to sort out what is happening in the southside of Chicago than in the Dark Matter of space.

    Living 2300 years after Epicurus ran his Garden Society means that we have advanced in our knowledge. We don’t need to contend with the supernatural. As NeoEpicureans we rely on nature but tighten our focus Yet, lilke the original Epicureans we live, insofar as we can, in smaller and yes like minded communities, putting politics and other activities aside in order to reinforce our tranquility.

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    1. Many many thanks for your insightful comments. My point I think is that if we take the perspective of the human species as a whole then ALL knowledge is a good.

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      1. I believe we ourselves don’t have the luxury of trying to grasp all knowledge, though you are probably meaning correctly that there are many who are probing the universe and adding to our larger knowledge base.

        My pushback has to do with the cost of outer space exploration, ie. NASA’s budget. I believe the cost benefit ratio doesn’t justify what we spend. I think we should rely on the market as we are doing , on people like Richard Branson and Elon Musk.

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