At a recent gathering of the philosophically minded, a friend lamented that she has been troubled by the sense that our lives don’t matter. Some of us around the table suggested that the way we live affects the people we love, which surely matters. “But eventually,” she countered, “the impact of even the best of us dissipates to nothing.”
Our wish to matter for the long term is very strong. Our ancestors who were apathetic on that point … well, they’re not our ancestors because they lost the competition to reproduce.
We also want to be connected to something more consequential than our individual lives: a tribe, a religion, or a Great Cause. This, too, has been bred into us as members of a species whose ecological niche is “animal that is individually weak but is an apex predator by dint of cooperation and intelligence.”
So what happens when that animal becomes so intelligent that it is able to see through the whole game — when it realizes that no tribe is better than another, that its religions are man-made, and its Great Causes will become utterly moot long before a dying Sun vaporizes the planet?
When I lost my belief in God, the near-universal reaction from my Christian friends was to sweep a hand at the marvelous world around us and say, “Where did all this come from, then?” For them, God was the only possible explanation.
Among scientists, the hypothesis that our universe was born from a larger multiverse has steadily been gaining credence. There are several ways this could be true. As one possibility, the Big Bang could have been a quantum fluctuation in another universe, which in turn could have been born in the same way from its parent, stretching back forever. With this model, the multiverse is like an eternal froth of bubble universes. There are other models, too. I recommend Brian Greene’s book, The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos if you’re curious.
As an answer to “Where did all this come from, then?” the multiverse model may seem to be on equal footing with “God did it.” By definition, we cannot reach out and touch other universes to prove they (and therefore a multiverse) exist, much less can we prove that our universe arose from the multiverse by some natural process.
It’s true that we can neither prove that God did it, nor that the multiverse and the laws of physics did it. But as I outlined last time, just because competing explanations are uncertain does not mean they are on equal footing.
Today, we all know that the Moon’s gravity causes the tides, but what did people think before Sir Isaac Newton discovered that gravity is a universal force? I recently heard Jonathan White interviewed on NPR; he is the author of Tides: The Science and Spirit of the Ocean. It turns out that serious people used to hold all manner of fanciful explanations for the tides. Three that I remember from the interview are:
- A woman is lifting her skirt and lowering it.
- A very large beast in the depths of the ocean is breathing in and out.
- The rays of the Moon heat rocks below the ocean, which causes the depths of the ocean to boil. Boiling in the region below the Moon causes the water level to rise.
Of course, these explanations are all wrong but some of them are better attempts at the truth than others. Put yourself in the time when the correct answer was not known. Which explanation would you prefer, and why?
Last weekend, I was running an errand in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Cambridge is not an easy place to find a parking spot, so when I came across one I nabbed it.
I was in a hurry so I jogged to my destination without taking much note of what was around me. I just followed Google Maps on my phone. It turned out to be much farther than I thought — about 15 minutes at a brisk pace.
I finished my shopping and headed back to my car. There was only one problem: I was not entirely sure where it was! I headed in the general direction (at least I knew that much) and explored the unfamiliar streets of the city. They were all very quaint but as far as I was concerned one was exactly like the other.
After 20 minutes of that, I called to tell my daughter, who I was scheduled to visit that evening, that I would probably be late and might be wandering the streets of Cambridge all night.
Then I had an idea. Sammi, my Samsung Galaxy phone, had helped me out on so many occasions before. Maybe she could help now.
I pressed the button to activate voice recognition. “Where have I been today?” I asked.
Instantly, Sammi told me how to use a feature of Google Maps that I had not known about: Menu / Your Timeline. Up came a map that allowed me to retrace my drive from earlier that day. I recognized the corner where I had parked, and was at my car in two minutes.
I don’t know about you, but I plan to willingly submit to our digital overlords just as soon as they arrive.
You are standing at a fork in a trolley track, your hand on the lever that can cause the trolley to go one direction or the other. A trolley is coming toward you. If you do not pull the lever, it will go down the fork where five children are on the track. They will surely be killed. (They are tied up, or facing the wrong direction and deaf, or what have you.) If you do pull the lever, their lives will be saved, but your own child, who is immobile on the other fork, will be killed. What is the ethical thing to do?
This is possibly the earliest in a famous series of ethical dilemmas known as trolley problems.
The fun begins when we vary the scenario to tease out people’s moral intuitions. Philosopher Judith Jarvis Thompson posed the most famous version:
As before, a trolley is hurtling down a track towards five people. You are on a bridge under which it will pass, and you can stop it by putting something very heavy in front of it. As it happens, there is a very fat man next to you – your only way to stop the trolley is to push him over the bridge and onto the track, killing him to save five. Should you proceed? [quoted in Wikipedia]
For over 27 years, a bronze bull has been a symbol of, well, bullishness on Wall Street. A gift from artist Arturo Di Modica following the stock market’s troubles in the 1980s, the iconic bull has no doubt fulfilled its mission of lifting traders’ spirits many times over.
For National Women’s Day of this year, State Street Global Advisors installed its own gift to Wall Street: the statue known as Fearless Girl. Hands on her hips and head cocked back, she faces down the bull.
This week, sculptor Di Modica registered his displeasure with the girl. He feels she has made his statue into a villain, robbing his art of its original purpose of portraying “prosperity and strength.”
A friend once earnestly invited me to his very fundamentalist church. I was a Christian at the time but, according to his church, I was not the right kind of Christian and was destined for hell. He said to me, “With the stakes so high, doesn’t it make sense to come check it out?”
He had a point, but I declined.