How do you know what you know?

aurora

Before we can embark on a sturdy sail towards meaning, we have to know what’s really real about our reality. This is because we need a meaning that we can stand on unwaveringly, that we can hang our hat on and say smilingly, yes, this is a true, satisfying, source of meaning.

However, historically and generally, humans seem not to care at all if their source of meaning is true. They seem to be reacting in a I-don’t-care-if-it’s-true, just-give-it-to-me-in-any-flippant-form-because-I-need-it-so-badly-manner. Humans will believe anything if it provides them with meaning when they desperately want it. Hence the existence of innumerable fabricated religious stories. But I want a meaning that I know is in some sense true. Or at least that has a mathematical or rational probability of being true. Generally, science is about truth and religion is about meaning. Then “all we have to do” to unlock a form of cosmic meaning is find a way of making science, or the true, meaningful. But getting our way to a true meaning requires that we know exactly how to get to any piece of “the true.”

Firstly, how do we know what we know and which facets of that knowledge are something “real” or “true” in the universe? Well, you can take somewhat mind-numbing philosophy theory of knowledge (TOK) classes in which you use very meticulous linguistic logic to claim a foundation for particular sets of knowledge… Or you can just get straight to the scientific solution to the matter.

So, let me save you the long nights of eyebrow-furrowing-reading on philosophical logic that I did and just give you the quick skit. All that reading doesn’t really get to the heart of our question anyway.

You must be sitting somewhere while you’re reading this. I’ll assume you’re sitting at a table. Maybe your elbow is resting on that table while you’re wondering where I’m going with this.

How do you know the table is real?

… What I mean is, how do you know you’re not dreaming up the table? 

That’s a big question in philosophy and many a lecture-hook start out with that question. But I don’t think philosophy by itself has much to say about it, as I already alluded. You know the table is real because of science. Specifically, you know the table is real because of evolution. You know you’re not dreaming because of evolution.

Yes, that’s right. Not math, not physics, not chemistry, not language, not “I think therefore I am” – evolution is at the heart and core of what’s telling us what’s real and what’s not real.

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This is because all of the components of your human sensory perception that epochs of evolution have developed are allowing you to realize what’s true about your environment. Evolution toiled to bring you hands and eyes and other sensory modes that detect truth-bearing-parts of that table in front of you. Evolution’s a reliable process leading you to truth. If you didn’t have any idea of what’s real and what’s not in the universe, there’s no way you’d survive. Thanks evolution, you’re alright!

Billions of creatures across billions of years have learned to pick up on the parameters of the physical world for their survival and hence discovered some facade of the truth of reality.

All other sets of knowledge (math and science included) have commenced and laid their foundation via the sensory perceptions that the evolutionary process perfected and incorporated into our being.

So are we getting closer to the truth because we are so much more advanced than the other creatures? Possibly. Hardly. We’re biased towards the tiny segment of the environment that our species has adapted to. All of our math and science has no option but to be built on top of the mere way we happened to have adapted to a particular level of reality.

Warning: I now need to make an inevitable, highly-opinionated,  nerd-detour: Quantum mechanics and general relativity are realms of reality that humans have absolutely not adapted to and are environments that our sensory perception has no way of understanding. Yes, they are empirically consistent, correct theories on their own, but may not be telling us anything about the “real” of the universe because they are built off of laws that were founded in our adapted sensory environment (basic math and science).  You can’t just slap parts of sensory-founded laws of nature onto a non-adapted, non-sensory environment-realm . Uh-oh. That means… there’s no Theory of Everything (TOE) because we can’t squash together two human perspectives of two drastically different environments that we haven’t adapted to. Ugh, sorry TOE. In other words… another advanced intelligent civilization in the galaxy will not have the exact same set of basic physics as we do because they will have adapted differently than us to their particular planet and will have a different way of discovering the truths of said planet.

Anyway, back to finding our meaning podium.

Getting to some of the “true” means picking up on all the sensory facets of our reality that evolution has bestowed upon us. And we can magnify some of those with technology. But there are a lot of instincts and “feelings” or senses about our environment we have as animals that science and society basically ignore because we don’t know of a way to make those things quantitative. But just because we can’t chug it into a calculator or underline it and box it and or graph collected data on it doesn’t mean it’s not real! In fact, evolution is telling us that if we’re having a repetitive biochemical sensory reaction to anything in our surroundings, well, then it might be telling you something real about your environment.

Some, maybe most, of our human sense-feelings, like hunger, don’t really seem to have anything to do with the reality of the cosmos. But… on second thought, the exchange of energy and the physics of sustaining life that are associated with that sensory-desire are telling us some things about how the universe works. We need to consume orderly forms (fruit, vegetables, other complicated, orderly animal forms) to maintain our complex human order. Many structures in the universe function on similar principles. Anyway, some of our senses and desires may let us peer into the truth of the cosmos more than others.

But if humanity is sensing a desperate need for meaning, as thousands of religious ideologies have demonstrated, then there’s something real about the meaning search. Our evolution is telling us- find your belonging in the cosmos! Find your meaning! You need it! You must inherit your connectedness to the cosmic schema because you need it in your spirit to advance, to discover, to survive as a species! … Now if science-logic led us to see a potential reality of meaning and if you find the process of truth-hunting satisfactory (how is the search for truth not meaningful?) because you’re starting to see where that hat-peg and unwavering cosmic-stage are hiding out, then maybe our cosmic meaning is upon us.

orangemoon

Let’s talk about the aliens

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There’s something infinitely meaningful about extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations that gets sidestepped for conversations of contact. Forget contact for a minute. Let’s just think about their existence. Oh yes, they’re there. Top professors at top universities proclaim to lecture halls of hundreds of students that there are probably at least a few intelligent civilizations in our galaxy. That’s a pretty revolutionary claim that’s becoming mainstream in astrophysics.

So somewhere in some galactic crevice of our Milky Way there thrives another intelligent civilization. Maybe they live under an ocean or in the atmosphere. Maybe they communicate via telepathy or have achieved teleportation. Anyway- what are they doing? If they have any technology, then they’re probably trying to understand the universe and their planet and their species… just like we are.

Well, so what?  Remember that planet earth and everything we’ve ever known is going to be devoured by the sun in a few billion years and perhaps every trace of our civilization might disappear forever. That’s cause for letting yourself fall into a big black hole of meaninglessness. Remember that religion is really the longing for the infinite and if science is telling us that we are truly finite, well, that’s a kind of a road block in our path to immense cosmic meaning.

But that’s not the end of the story. So if there are other intelligences that are doing the exact same things we’re doing right now (searching for truth and meaning and developing greater technologies) and if some of them outlive our civilization- then some form, some version of us and the things we value is continuing on in a very real way when we’re gone.

If there are civilizations in other galaxies too, and if we indeed live in some kind of infinite, eternal cosmological landscape, like for instance the Multiverse, then biological and intelligent life is… eternal. Hmm. The same result at the heart of eons of religion and superstition… coming from science.

To sum up: ETs in every galaxy + the practice of science or similar human endeavors on said ET planets + eternal or ongoing cosmological space-time geometry = eternal life. There is eternal existence for some form of the important things we’re doing now- the search for truth and meaning. When our lives are over, when our planet is gone, the things humanity has dedicated it’s existence to will still be alive somewhere in the universe.

Now wait a minute you say. Yeah, there’s eternal biological and intelligent life in some form… that gives me a sliver of some sense of cosmic meaning. But nothing that I do will be passed on after earth dies. Well… maybe, but not so fast. Stay with me for a second. You see, as a species, we’re infants, we’re babies. But guess what? We already know where the earth-like planets are. Incredible! And in a few hundred years, telescope power will have advanced so greatly that we’ll be imaging these earth-like planets directly. That means that if there’s another civilization in our galaxy that’s thousands or even millions of years older than us… they know we’re here. Yeah, you can bet on that. Not only do they know we’re here, they most definitely have the advanced technology to peer into planet Earth and watch every single thing we do…

Yes, the aliens are probably watching you. Good luck sleeping tonight.

We might be the equivalent of frogs to them. But we’ve probably evolved and adapted to our planet differently than they have and that might interest them. They watch us for the sake of science, for the sake of amusement, and maybe even for the sake of… new ideas. Do you see? The extraterrestrial intelligences are probably watching each other, watching us, sharing what they see, and perhaps propelling our ideas into eternity.

Scientific eternal life (even if the aliens aren’t watching)… much, much more amazing and fulfilling than a cloud-scape of fairies and angels and gods that has absolutely no logical or evidential basis whatsoever that we can never go to in real life. But the stars, the other extraterrestrial intelligent civilizations- we will one day go there.

Mars

None of us know what we’re doing

Beauty

Many of us experience the world with a sense of familiarity and eventual boredom with our everyday lives. We yearn to fill our lives with things and experiences that excite us, that make us feel alive, that entertain us… And we feel the need to fill every moment with something to occupy our minds. And hence we end up filling every moment of our lives with distractions from the one thing we should probably be paying the most attention to- life, reality, the universe we inhabit. And then we emerge dissatisfied from our “entertained” lives and cry for meaning…

But I can’t blame you. No one probably ever taught you how or gave you the time to deeply and extensively contemplate your fundamental existence in the cosmos. This might be partially because no single human being knows how to live their life. None of us know what we’re doing. And I don’t either, of course.  But the one thing we probably should do before we do anything else with our one precious life, is figure out some kind of meaning or value or importance for ourselves so that we can pursue life with an appetite and joy for planet Earth and the human species … With degrees in astrophysics and religion from Berkeley, you could say that’s all I think about.

I’ve learned that there’s something so miraculous, so absurd, so beautiful, so incredible about every second of our existence that it’s unbelievable… but because we experience it over and over and over again… we never really see or value the miracle we own in our very consciousness right now. Earth might be heaven, but if we experience it constantly, we’ll never notice. That’s why to start our search for meaning, we need to take a big step back from the flows of experiences and excitements that we have access to, and take a good, hard look at reality.

The danger of science without meaning

Stardust

Leading physicists at the top of academia seem to think that they have the intellectual authority to sneer at the value of humanity. Phrases like “chemical scum,” “random accident,” “cosmic fluke,” “unimportant trace contaminant of the universe,” or “mere side effect of increasing entropy” sporadically crop up in lectures by physicists to remark on the existential state of humanity. Since these remarks come from the mouths of “geniuses”, we take them seriously and hence begin to yield to meaninglessness and believe that the emergence of life is something that has gone terribly wrong on this planet.

But physicists are not academically equipped to make these claims; I know—I’m trained as one. But I’m also one of the rare science thinkers who is also trained to think about meaning. When we believe in meaninglessness, we take the resources of earth and the beauty of our lives for granted. When we believe in meaninglessness, we over-value the material- since the scientist says that’s all that exists- and cease to appreciate or have awe, wonder, morals, ethics, spirituality, and a loving persona towards our earth and our communities. If we believe in meaninglessness, we will kill our planet. I want to proclaim our scientific meaning to the world—we are a natural unfolding of the cosmos, we are specially condensed versions of the universe, we are how the universe comes to know itself, and we have immense meaning. In fact, if we weren’t here to study, admire, and inquire about the universe, then the whole cosmic show would have gone on unnoticed. We are stardust that can explain the stars, we are galactic inhabitants who can map the whole universe, and we are the universe itself.

You are the universe

Heart

What’s happening right now on planet Earth is nothing short of insane. And marvelous. And jaw-dropping. 13.7 billion years ago all that existed was a vacuum of nothingness, of empty space that somehow held an invisible, incredible potential. That cosmic vacuum of infinite nothingness manifested into you. The utmost miracle- space transformed itself into a mind. It meticulously built you with the ultimate building blocks of unfathomable amounts of time and space… You are the cosmo-evolutionary product of billions of years and unimaginably vast stretches of space that came together and self-organized themselves into you, into the human species, into a breathing planet. And there need not be anything supernatural about it. That’s how the cosmos works. It creates minds and planets and amazing things from nothingness. The universe could have stayed in a state of nothing perpetually, but it used all of it’s energy, time, and force to coalesce into you… Hmm. That familiar, everyday, “been there, done that” feeling suddenly has a slight sense of shock.

What all this means is… you are the universe. The universe is not something out there, somewhere, beyond us. It is in this room. It is in you. You are the culmination of all of the cosmos. We are the daughters and sons of space and light and time itself. Amazingly, some of the carbon and oxygen atoms in your body right now came from the very first stars that ever formed in the cosmos. The elements that make up your body were born from the most spectacular and outrageously beautiful and explosive events of the universe. Billions of years of stellar and galactic drama played out to allow for your emergence. Your cosmochemical existence is so ridiculous that it’s hard to believe that this was possible. Yet this is how the universe we live in works.