Genuine astonishment

In the last episode we heard from Bertrand Russell, who pointed out that there is no logical impossibility in the idea that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, fully formed, with only the appearance of being billions of years old.

So we know it’s not impossible. But isn’t it improbable? Well, suppose you wanted to determine the relative probabilities of these two hypotheses:

  • (1) The world sprang into being just now.
  • (2) The world really is as old as it seems.

On what basis could you assign them meaningful probabilities? Can you do any better than the vague sense that the first one is too ludicrous, or insufficiently parsimonious, for your liking? Any argument you try to muster will depend on other things, but when did you encounter these other things if you just now sprang into being? All such arguments presuppose option 2, and are thus circular. Even Ockham’s Razor is unavailable to you here.

You may begin to take option 1 seriously for a moment, only to realize in the “next” moment: wait, I was thinking about this just a moment ago, and therefore that disproves that this is the first moment!

Can you see why it doesn’t?

Can you see how this pseudo-proof nevertheless continually embeds itself in your mind, generating an emotional barrier that steamrolls any chance of seeing other possibilities?

Let that sink in for a moment: you have no objective reason to believe that a past really happened, but your mind refuses to consider that it didn’t.

Nothing to see here, move along!

You may be wondering: why would I want to consider that it didn’t? What would it even mean? And why would it be any better?

Well, do you enjoy the feeling of being utterly amazed by life?

I’d like to suggest that there is a unique form of amazement that occurs when you completely abandon your certainties about life.

What makes it distinct is that all other forms of amazement are relative or provisional. All of them require you to take some things as granted.

For example, if you are amazed at evolution, you take it as granted that the world existed yesterday, or a thousand years ago.

Wow, evolution is amazing *!
* Assuming time exists

You’re probably thinking: wow, your argument hinges on the possibility that yesterday didn’t really happen?

No. It hinges on you so instinctively equating that incredibly low (or is it?) probability with zero. In other words, on it being absurd that your assumptions might be profoundly wrong.

That instinct is hiding something from you.

There is only one realization (as far as I know) that does not rely on any assumptions — about time, space, matter, or anything else. Only one that does not require that anything else has ever happened. That does not require you to take anything as granted — i.e., to take anything for granted.

It can be described in numerous ways, but the common thread is this: you deeply abandon everything you think you know, and in return encounter the one and only thing you actually know, full in the face.

The result is genuine and utter astonishment. This in turn breeds profound gratitude, awe, humility, and reverence in measures you never thought possible.

If this is beginning to sound religious, it’s not by coincidence: having been in that space, you may indeed feel that you’ve encountered the origin of the religious impulse — whether or not you agree with any of the conclusions that humanity has drawn from it.

When you return, you may still decide that the realization is no more than the misfirings of three pounds of meat in your skull. But you’ll also be equipped with authentic skepticism, permitting you to detect the numerous subtle asterisks that normally lurk beneath your conscious threshold.

Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment. — Rumi

Of course, none of this detracts in any way from relative truths. One does not have to give up or diminish in any way the awesomeness of evolution, for example.

But at the same time, one begins to see that all of these realizations are circumscribed and contextualized by a more general, inescapable one.

In some sense, it is the root miracle, and it is uniquely worth encountering before you die.

Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious.

— Albert Einstein