There’s a way to look at things that helps make sense of at least some of the world’s craziness. And it’s more than just a change of perspective.
Seeing how merely articulating some sense of grievance or injustice seems to be enough to set the world off in a new direction these days, I am articulating my sense of grievance at the injustice of being forced to suffer the insanity, inefficiency and prospect of annihilation that living in the world today brings with it. And I’m offering up my thoughts on how we can make a better tomorrow.
Since I started developing The Curious Universe, the world of human interaction has seen dramatic shifts that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Britain leaving Europe. An American president launching a violent insurrection to stay in power. The Taliban re-taking Afghanistan in days. An ex-Soviet state standing up against the might of an imperialist Russian invasion and the sudden and terrifying prospect of nuclear confrontation being raised from quiescence.
Against this background, my funny little idea feels insignificant, irrelevant.
And yet … and yet, it was partly these seismic political events, or at least the fear of something like them happening, that was one of the drivers behind developing The Curious Universe in the first place.
How can a scientifically un-substantiated conjecture about the nature of curiosity have any possible relevance to these vast political upheavals?
All of these events require people to believe. Believe, from my point of view, all kinds of tosh. Believe in leaders and the stories they tell. Believe in constructs of the imagination such as nations, gods, destiny, money. Belief could be defined as the decision to act as though something is real when it isn’t.
No one needs to believe in gravity for it to exist. No one needs to believe in explosions for them to happen. But people need to believe in something before they start dropping bombs on other people. Even if all they believe in is that other people believe in something.
The decision to believe may be deliberate and conscious. More likely it will happen on a subconscious level. Even more likely, it will be because someone is going along with what they think everyone else thinks.
In a situation like we have today of huge turmoil and uncertainty, people are clinging on to anything they can grasp to anchor themselves against the storm tides that threaten to wash them away. Anything that appears to supply a sense of purpose in a world increasingly devoid of meaning.
And there are plenty of people who are seeing this situation play out and are validating their own existence by creating islands of belief where inhabitants are required to sacrifice truth or humanity in order to avoid being cast out into the turbulent waters. But these islands are more like supertankers. Vulnerable despite their momentum. And by keeping the shutters closed there’s no way to see the rocks ahead.
Belief is not inherently bad. It has been and remains a powerful force not only in human affairs but human progress. It could be argued that more than tools, more than fire, more than language, belief is the one over-riding attribute that has allowed us to work together to build civilisations and develop the capabilities to examine what got us here.
And it’s just as well belief isn’t inherently bad, because I don’t think we could operate without some form of it. When you realise that what we experience as the world “out there”, believe is the world “out there” is actually our brain reacting to neural stimuli from our eyes, ears and body then you realise just how much we rely on belief.
Whether or not that is the reason, belief does not seem confined to humans. My dog gives all the appearances of believing in things, like getting in the car means something fun will happen, that he should stay lower than the third step of the stairs or that someone else’s shoe is the appropriate gift for a visitor.
The point of canine (or any other animal) belief is that it would appear that while humans take the results of belief to another level, its roots lie deep. Deeper, maybe, than brains and biology. Or maybe not. Which is as good an introduction as any to the Curious Universe Conjecture.
The Curious Universe Conjecture puts forward the idea that there exists a mechanism whereby the universe is processing information (not particularly controversial) and (controversial to the point of requiring belief) that this information processing is the universe coming to understand itself. It is the universe “doing” curiosity.
From this perspective, we puny, fleeting bits of cognition hosted in bodies consisting of matter organised in such a way that it is temporarily rebelling against the laws of entropy, are simply doing what the rest of the universe does: Experiencing existence. Searching for meaning. Except we think, rightly or wrongly, that we are separate.
We have learned that we are not as separate from the natural world as we feel we are and that our actions have results that have huge impacts on our environment. Maybe we are not as separate from the information world as we feel we are either.
The Curious Universe Conjecture suggests that our human search for meaning, our drive to experience the world and explore, our own experience of curiosity, are manifestations of this fundamental “Why?”.
How does this tie in with belief and world events?
It sometimes seems as though with music, where the devil has all the best tunes, (s)he also has the most potent beliefs, the ones that inspire large groups of people to do really nasty or stupid things, buoyed by a sense of misplaced righteousness created by being a crowd.
For those of us concerned about facing a world of increasingly confusing and disturbing shifts of social dynamics, having something we can believe in and agree on that transcends political, commercial and national interests feels like a necessity.
But beyond freedom itself, we don’t have a shared belief. Or at least, my contention is that actually we do, it is just an un-stated one.
My contention is that our shared, unstated aim is the pursuit of understanding.
So ask yourself, what do you think about the pursuit of understanding? Don’t just let the words wash past you. Engage with the idea, consider it, weigh it up. Is a world where you are free to pursue understanding better than one in which you are prevented from doing so? Maybe you are wondering what “Understanding” means in this context. In which case you are already engaging.
Personally, I started with a train of thought that was centred on a scientific, cosmological answer to the question of why we ask why; the thought that what we experience as curiosity is an inherent property of the universe, one we can’t see clearly as we are in the middle of it.
I am still evolving this idea, but logically it follows that if there is some non-species-specific drive to ask questions and find answers, the same drive that built the James Webb Space Telescope is, in a less rarified form, responsible for the success of Love Island as audiences wonder who will win (that is the thing they’re wondering about most, right?) or a dog wondering what it can learn by sniffing the butt of another dog. If it exists, it is the drive behind despots wondering if they can turn their psychopathic egotism into reality by utilising people’s propensity to believe. If it exists, and if alien life exists, it will be responsible for driving the behaviour of that alien life, though in ways that may be even more unfathomable to humans than the behaviour of dogs. If it exists, it will govern the evolution of artificial intelligence.
Whether it exists in an objective scientific sense or whether it exists merely as a deep-seated driver of human action, it provides a foundation for belief in something immaterial for those of us looking beyond the traditional containers such as nationalism or religion. When national boundaries and allegiances can, it seems, shift so easily and the multiple flavours of religion available along with the fervour with which they are all adhered to appear to attest that none of them are the one true way (or at least, if one of them is, there’s no way of knowing which one) we are left with ideals such as Freedom.
I am all for freedom, but I can’t help wondering, the freedom to do what? My contention is that the freedom we crave is the freedom to exercise our curiosity; to pursue understanding. Understanding of ourselves, the world around us and our place in it.
So whether or not it is “true” in the sense of being a force, a gradient, an aspect of the universe beyond people or whether it is “merely” something humans believe, the pursuit of curiosity and understanding is a unifying phenomena.
The pursuit of understanding is an ideal that people everywhere can relate to. It can be, and is, pursued along multiple paths, from the quantum to the theological.
Every movement, it seems, needs an anti-hero, an antagonist, something to struggle against. The Curious Universe has its antithesis in ignorance, in censorship and division. Rather than squabbling over the finite resources of what seems like our increasingly tiny planet, it says there is a whole universe out there that we can explore and with which we can work in harmony to pursue understanding. It says collaboration is a more effective way of getting there, a more effective way of maximising human potential.
This does not mean everyone should be the same. Variety is good. Variety makes for a more interesting world and even more importantly variety makes for a more resilient world, one that can employ different ways of dealing with challenges and disasters. This isn’t about forcing people to adopt some novel ideology. It’s about helping people realise the common ground that they already share.
So if the question is “What can I do to make sense of a crazy world?”, one answer is “Liberate at least yourself from the craziness. Find a viewpoint that helps you understand it.” Another, way more challenging answer is “Change the world so it makes more sense”.