Mundane virtual worlds
Our everyday lives do not usually seem incredible to us. Most of the time we follow familiar routines, meet people we already know, do things we have done before. Mundane is the word, this much is clear. What may be less clear though is that this world of everyday mundane things is, in a sense, a virtual world. It consists of things that we made labels for and imbued with properties that matter to us, which is at best just a tiny subset of properties that stuff out there actually has and at worst just plain nonsense. In this way, things that we perceive and name around us are not actual things but virtual things. It may even be correct to say that the existence of separate things is just a reifying effect of language, as Nietzsche insisted. And it is certainly true to say that before scientific revolution we identified things around us mostly by how we subverted them to our needs. We still do.
Let’s make this more concrete with an example. Humans have been living among trees for as long as we existed. Even though for 99.99% of our history we had absolutely no freaking idea what trees actually were, this did not prevent us from living among them and using them for our needs. Just as a baboon does not question the nature of a branch that he sits on, or the nature of a banana that he puts in his wide open mouth, in exactly the same way most of homo sapiens that have ever lived simply sat on a brach and ate their banana. Trees were given names and put to use. They were good for collecting food, providing shelter or being chopped down for other needs. In fact, it may very well be the case that many ancient civilizations, like that of Maya or Easter Island, collapsed precisely because there was too much chopping going on, as Jared Diamond suggests. One way or the other, the inquiry into what trees really were was either non-existent or very limited.
If you were to ask Plato “What is a tree?” he would probably say something along these lines: “Plant’s nature is to provide nutriment to human being attacked by elements of fire and water. Plants were created shortly after man for that necessity. Plant nature is the reverse of that of man — in man immortal element flows from the top of the head downwards through bone marrow, and in plant it does the reverse.” If we didn’t know it was Plato who said it, we would be like “What the heck was this guy smoking?” And we would be correct. If we read ancient texts with our reverence dialed down a bit, we see that they are full of outrageous claims and sloppy logic. Simple fact is that Plato had no clue what trees actually were. But the really strange thing is that he never expresses his bafflement. He always seems to have it all figured out, when in fact he is living in a virtual world of his own imagination (so much for the cave). And so do we.
Seeing trees as they are
This state of affairs began to change rapidly with the advance of science. Scientific revolution started replacing mythological and outright weird explanations with explanations based on rationality, observation and experiment. Equally important, science embraced skepticism and debate — also a first, since pretty much in all times past, explicit doubts about currently trending metaphysical fairytales could end up with you burning at the stake or taking a hemlock shot on the house. Science dispensed with all those unpleasantries and embraced openness and rationality. For the first time in human history we discovered a way to gain objective knowledge that goes beyond the grasp of our senses. And boy, were we in for a surprise.
It turned out a humble tree is a colony of trillions of incredibly small, invisible to the naked eye, molecular machines, so sophisticated in how they operate that we are barely beginning to understand them, cooperating and competing to give rise to a whole macro organism that grows, communicates, cooperates, competes, reproduces itself and uses quantum physics to produce oxygen, making life possible for you — another colony of trillions of equally sophisticated molecular machines that give rise to a macro organism that grows, communicates, cooperates, competes, reproduces itself and gives rise to a mind that in its best state can ponder this mind-melting situation, universe and itself.
Peculiar necessity to imagine what is, in fact, real
Right now these two blobs of trillions of cells that you call me and I call you are sitting on a speck of dust suspended in a sunbeam whirling silently through the dark vastness of cosmos. Few people realize just how small the Earth is, just how big the Sun is, and the mind-crushing vastness of our Solar System. Josh Worth has made a stunning interactive animation that allows you to come to grips with these facts, if you haven’t played with it yet, please do:
And after you’re done scrolling, click on the Sun icon at the top and then click on an icon in the bottom right corner — this will make you travel at the speed of light — the fastest speed there is. You would have to disintegrate a whole planet to get your rocket anywhere near this speed. Hardly detectable microwave background radiation will first become visible and then will bombard your ship with ultra high energy gamma rays. And time that you experience relative to Earth will almost come to a stop. And even then, you would still be only crawling through the vastness of space. You would have to stare at the screen for four years in the animation above to reach our neighboring star — Alpha Centauri.
Like billions upon billions of tiny invisible droplets float in the air forming a cloud, so do billions upon billions of stars like Sun and Alpha Centauri float in space forming a galaxy. On a clear night you can see one of the spiraling arms of our own galaxy — it is about 9000 light years away and 3000 light years across. Our neighboring Andromeda galaxy is several million light years away. Just like stars condense into galaxies, galaxies condense into clusters. There are 50,000 galaxies in our local cluster. There are 100,000,000,000 galaxies in the observable universe. The phrase “thousands of galaxies” slips lightly off the tongue but it takes several minutes of trying to realize that we don’t have nearly enough space in our minds to properly internalize even a small piece of this scale.
There is a punch line. We don’t actually have any idea where any of this came from. We don’t know why there is something rather than nothing. We don’t know why there is such a mind-crushingly big amount of something. We don’t know why it all started. We don’t really know where all of this is going. We’ve discovered mind-altering things about the cosmos, life and ourselves, but the most important questions remain elusive. We don’t know how life started. We don’t know where life is going. We sort of know how life works, but we are only beginning to guess what life is. We don’t know if we are alone in the universe or if we are stranded on an edge of a multidimensional intergalactic highway much like a lonely anthill just off the side of a highway somewhere in rural Arizona. We don’t know what we ourselves are either. We don’t know what consciousness is. We’ve only just begun to understand what language is. Only within the last hundred years, a tick of a second ago in our species lifetime, we started uncovering that what we took to be our wishes and desires often aren’t actually ours, that our conscious mind is but an iceberg floating on the vast sea of subconsciousness. If we could be so wrong about what is blatantly present before our eyes, what else could we be wrong about? I don’t really know what I am, or if such thing even exists. You don’t really know who you are. We don’t know if our lives have any purpose or meaning. We don’t know if some of these questions even make sense. And hence neither you or I really know what we have reason to do.
The gravity of our situation slowly becomes apparent. Stripping away our labels and seeing things clearly we arrive at a startling realization, or, depending on your perspective, return to our childhood state: Our parents did not really know what they were talking about. No one really does. No one knows what is going on, who anyone is, what most things are, or where all of this is going. Everyone acts like they have it all figured out and make stuff up to try to cope with the fact that no one really does. Existence is one big mind-melting fucking mystery and the more we discover the more mind-melting it becomes.