I remember as a child watching an animation on TV. It began with a boy sitting peacefully in a rowing boat fishing. The view zoomed out as if the camera were rising high up in the air, all the time keeping him in centre view. As the perspective expanded it took in clouds, the atmosphere, then the Earth, moon and solar system, then up, up and out into the Milky Way and the cosmos beyond, before it momentarily stopped like a yoyo at the extent of its string. From there it rushed back to the boy, before focusing on a mosquito biting his arm, the tiny lance piercing his skin, sucking up blood and with ever greater detail, the corpuscles, haemoglobin molecules, atoms, and electrons, before the view once again stopped and zoomed back out to him sitting in the boat, unaware of anything other than the float bobbing on the water’s surface.
Later in school I was fascinated to learn how little of the electromagnetic spectrum we can sense: the narrow range our eyes see, plus that little bit at one end we feel as heat. Surely we’re unaware of most of what’s going on out there, yet it’s easy to assume that what we perceive is just all there is.
Does the moon also fall? was a question posed by Newton, who defined the laws of motion and first used calculus to predict the paths of planets and comets. Not only did he precipitate a seismic shift in human understanding, his mathematics helped to cast God as the creator of some great celestial mechanism, however…
Einstein’s theory of General Relativity was the next sea change: instead of a force, it proposed Gravity as a distortion in spacetime. Now more than 100 years on, its concepts and predictions are still consistently accurate, counterintuitive and little known.
What chance have we of comprehending subsequent paradigm shifts, or our rapidly evolving human/digital/cyborg condition?
If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universeCarl Sagan
Ideas of spirits and souls, heavens, hells and deities have been around for a long time. Shamanism, the oldest spiritual practice, dates back ten, seventeen, twenty five thousand years, it’s hard to say, but since appearing in Siberia it’s spread with us around the globe. Essentially it recognises other dimensions or realities beyond everyday perception, ethereal realms accessible to those who can, with trance and psychedelics, alter their consciousness to commune with spirits.
Outside of mysticism there’s a growing realisation, e.g. Gaia hypothesis, that we’re not disconnected from nature as we once thought, that science and Abrahamic religions lead us into unhelpful, meta positions of dominion over creation, and sentience as our sole preserve.
As Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, Bohr, Lovelock… showed, new discoveries and paradigms are inevitable, but whether they apply to the supernatural and spiritual remains to be seen, whether or not our eyes are rightly closed to ancient belief systems.
It seems facile and arrogant to assert that tens of thousands of years of human, spiritual practise amounts to bunkum. For example, isn’t it possible our cognition, will, experience have a tangible effect upon reality? It might sound like magic, but it’s obviously true that we can think our bodies into states of anxiety or relaxation, resolve ourselves to accomplish amazing feats, and then there’s the weirdness of the measurement problem and quantum entanglement. Isn’t the question more interestingly about the extent of that influence? Whether we can cast spells, perceive beyond our senses, transcend our bodies, or will things into being?
Another strange thought: if observation or consciousness does influence reality, is there a correlation between the quality or quantity of observation and its effect? i.e. If enough people see or believe something might it become true? Hans Christian Anderson’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes seems commonsensical, unlike the notion that a kilogram weight would weigh any different though a crowd might wish it otherwise; yet at the quantum level our understanding leads to some strange conclusions. Might an omnipresent, transpersonal consciousness exercise a more profound effect upon reality? and if so, might it qualify as divine or the master of the simulation we might find ourselves in?
But that’s a rabbit hole for another post.
All I know is that when confronted with complex ideas it’s tempting to resolve them to simplistic, binary juxtapositions e.g. religion and rationalism, capitalism and socialism, climate changers and deniers, Labour and Conservative. It’s also easy to see ourselves as capable of objectivity.
Criticism of religiosity is often facile and unimaginative. Imperialist arrogance may also still infect our view of tribespeople who hold supernatural beliefs, but is science that superior? Whilst it gives it also takes: healthcare, luxury, technology, versus preventable diseases, mental ill-health, crushing inequality, weaponry, pollution, species extinction and climate change.
“The idea of an objective real world whose smallest parts exist objectively in the same sense as stones or trees exist, independently of whether or not we observe them… is impossible,”Werner Heisenberg
Closer to home, I hope the future holds less: anxiolytic prescriptions, consumerism, inflation, self driving cars and “doom scrolling” (flicking through depressing news on your device), and more: humility, imagination and curiosity about what might lie outside of Plato’s cave.