April 30, 2013

Mystical comfort from Richard Dawkins

If you know anything about Richard Dawkins, my headline here seems impossible. Aside from being a brilliant biologist, he is possibly the world's most famous atheist (and quite straightforward about it), rejecting any kind of "magical thinking" or supernatural ideas whatsoever.

Yet today, he has inspired me, and brought me some comfort and mystical joy—something not at all to be expected from him.

The source is a 2006 lecture at McGill University, titled "The Strangeness of Science." It is not a religious (or anti-religious) talk—he manages to avoid the topic until the Q&A at the end. Instead, it discusses how we perceive our universe, and how what we understand about it arises from how we evolved into it, and, more importantly, simply what size we are.

Only in the "middle world" we inhabit—where things exist in sizes of inches or feet or miles and seconds or minutes or hours or days or years—does our model of the universe around us make sense. For a microbe, gravity is totally irrelevant, for example, while surface tension and Brownian motion rule the world. In a tiny, subatomic world, there is no concept of "solid," as our concept of "solid" is merely a useful construct because the forces between atoms in our bodies and other objects prevent them from passing through each other—even though their atoms consist almost entirely of empty space.

Over geological time scales, impossible things—or rather, things that are stupendously improbable—do happen. But having evolved in the middle world of time and space, the highly improbable and the impossible are, effectively, the same. So we treat them that way, even though they are not. Traveling faster than the speed of light really is, as far as we can tell, impossible. But a soup of chemicals turning into DNA, and then life? Simply very, very improbable on our timescale. Over billions of years, though, that DNA creating a brain that can wonder if that's possible? Just improbable, or inevitable? I don't know.

Who we are quite clearly defines what the world seems to us. About 27 minutes in, Dawkins says:
What we see of the real world is [...] a model of the real world [...] constructed so it's useful for dealing with the real world. The nature of the model in our head depends on the kind of animal we are. A flying animal is going to need a different kind of world model in its brain from a walking, a climbing, or a swimming animal.
So, despite their distant evolutionary relationship, a monkey, a squirrel, and a tree lizard probably model the world in very similar ways. Switching minds, they would probably feel very much at home. So would barn swallows and bats, even though one sees with light, and the other with sound. Both navigate in the air, in three dimensions, at high speed, and catch insects for food.

We as humans make maps to emphasize two dimensions, over which we can walk or drive. We relate to non-human things the way we relate to other people. We berate our computers and cars when they misbehave. We personify the weather, calling it "wrathful" or "friendly" when it is no such thing. We love our pet snails, pet rocks, and even stuffed animals, when they cannot love us back—even though we know that.

How is that comforting to me? Because the very nearly impossible, evolved, middle world, human-focused, solid-believing, enhanced great ape brain model of the world that I have in my head is kind of a miracle. Not one that anyone has made, as far as I'm aware, but one that simply is. None of the atoms that make me up today were part of me when I developed my earliest memories—of going to Gatlinburg with my Aunt Tammy and Uncle Ted and Grandma Vicky, or of my first day of kindergarten. And yet I still remember them. That is amazing.

I am tremendously fortunate to be a living, world-modeling thing, able to have these memories, to experience the love of my beautiful girlfriend and family, to write words and to make music, to learn, to have been living as long as I have—and, I expect and plan, plenty more years to come. Understanding that brings me joy, though I can't quite say why.

This life, however long it lasts, is my only chance to be part of the universe. And I'll take it.

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