By Jacob L. Fine
(Image from here)
The world we see is not the world that is. Our sense organs were sculpted by natural selection to help us survive in what the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins calls Middle World. He is quick to distinguish this from the J. R. R. Tolkien’s land of hobbits and elves, called Middle Earth. Middle World, on the other hand, is the not-too-big and not-too-small slice of reality in which Homo sapiens evolved. In both distance, time, and scientific relevance, this slice of reality hardly compares with the world that is.
We can’t see viruses. We can’t see molecules. We can’t see cells. We can’t see all of the physical events occurring right now in our minds and bodies. We can’t see all of the global events occurring right now in the world. We can’t see all of the events that have shaped other people’s lives. The list goes on ad infinitum. Most of the world that is consists precisely of that which we cannot see. There is so much more under the hood.
The way to understand the world that is demands that we, to quote a venerable reggaeist, ‘emancipate ourselves from mental slavery’ to the Middle World. By this I mean that we must ditch the assumption of naïve realism, that is, the idea that our senses adequately describe the world that is.
It is impossible to grasp the plethora of events happening right now, outside of Middle World. In attempting to reason my way through writing this article, I am using my mammalian encephalon – a collection of 86,000,000,000 neurons with 100,000,000,000,000 connections. For some perspective, the latter quantity is about 300 times the number of stars in our galaxy. My lack of using scientific notation is intentional. Our human-made base-ten placeholder system just can’t capture this kind of substantiality. For lack of a better description, one-hundred trillion is equivalent to one-hundred thousand thousand thousand thousand. Each neuron contains about 50,000,000,000 (fifty thousand thousand thousand) proteins, along with a nucleus, cell membrane, mitochondria, and other organelles. Within each cell, numerous biochemical reactions (from DNA replication to transcription to protein synthesis to ATP production to glucose metabolism to membrane transport to hormone signalling to protein modification to DNA modification to vesicle transport to cellular respiration, and the list goes on) all must occur to ensure proper cell function. Note that there are about eighty-six thousand thousand thousand cells in our brains and thirty-seven thousand thousand thousand thousand cells in our body. Our brains can hardly fathom the epic multiplicity of such numbers and events – but it’s worthwhile to try once and a while.
We are giants relative to our neurochemistry, but we are less than microbes relative to the Milky Way. For some more perspective, the diameter of the Milky Way Galaxy is 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 meters. The diameter of a hydrogen atom is about 0.0000000001 meters. If we assume that the average human is 1.75 meters tall, then the ratio of a single hydrogen atom diameter to ‘you’ is 8,000,000,000 times larger than the ratio of ‘you’ to the length of the Milky Way Galaxy. Therefore, eight-billion times more humans (head to toe) can fit across the Milky Way than hydrogen atoms can fit across a human. To paraphrase the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, every single one of us are quite literally ‘atoms in the universe’ while simultaneously being ‘universes of atoms.’
Clearly the world that is contains epic distances, but as I shall now explain, it also contains epic timescales. The Earth has been gradually evolving and changing since it formed 4,500,000,000 years ago. Like compound interest, small iterations repeated many times produce massive consequences. This is true for geographical, climatic, ecological, biological, and sociocultural evolution. Everything evolves and everything changes. It just takes time. Since we live in Middle World, these changes are not visible to the naked eye. Our Middle World lifetimes are only infinitesimal fractions of geological time. The purpose of these spatial and temporal degradations is, paradoxically, not to degrade our humanity, but to empower it. The realization that ‘we’re atoms that know we’re atoms’ is a magical and true notion. Other uplifting facts include the observation that all humans, plants, animals, fungi, and bacteria are all related by common descent, going back through a direct line of ancestors to the origin of life, some 3,500,000,000 years ago. For 35 hundred thousand thousand years, not a single one of our ancestors died before reproducing – for if they did, then they wouldn’t be ancestors. Each of us are necessarily descendants of the fittest who survived.
The power of scientific truth is that it’s true whether you like it or not. E = mc2 is not a matter of opinion, and neither is gravity, evolution, germ-theory, continental drift; and the list goes on. Facts about the world can be consoling, because they are facts. If some fact is consoling by its very nature, then to not accept its consolation wouldn’t just be foolish, it would be objectively false. The world is made up of facts, some consoling and other not so much. But just because a fact isn’t consoling doesn’t make it any less true. By pretending to live in the world we want instead of the world that is amounts to willful disregard of the evidence. It also results in a failure to fix existential problems like climate change and nuclear war. The first step to fixing problems is to acknowledge they exist. Any other ‘solved problems’ without this acknowledgement were fixed by accident at best. During the times we face, it is important to know what kind of world we live in. We live in the world that is not the world we want. We live in a world of entropy.
The law of entropy, a.k.a. the second law of thermodynamics, makes intuitive sense. That is, there are more ways for things to go wrong than right. Bed sheets don’t magically become folded, rooms don’t magically become clean, and bricks don’t magically form houses. Things generally become more disordered unless a counteracting force is applied. We call this force ‘work’ if it acts over a distance. Work reduces disorder.
While ‘work’ has a specific definition in thermodynamics, we can extend the concept for human affairs. Things will get more disordered, i.e., entropic, unless we do something about it. Nature doesn’t care for our betterment, but insofar as we are a part of nature, we can work together to make things better. Human nature is an evolved product of nature, that is, we exist in a reciprocal relationship with the entropic universe. Realizing this is the first step forward toward improving the human condition.
We live in a world of pandemics, natural disasters, floods, famines, genocides, wars, and extinctions. Some 250 million years ago, 90 to 96 percent of all life on earth was completely annihilated. The Ordovician, Devonian, Permian, Jurassic, and Cretaceous mass extinctions are real events. We have every reason to think that a sixth mass extinction is possible, that is, unless we do something about it. Nature does ‘have us in mind’ insofar as we are expressions of nature that can reason, plan, communicate, care, teach, discover math, compose music, cure disease, invent the internet, fly to the moon and so on and so forth. All of these activities are natural phenomena and are therefore part of the natural world. Their execution depends on the human species. Though nature is generally ruthless, cold, violent, and indifferent, we are the small fraction of nature that seems to violate these properties. We are nature’s way of improving itself. I’m not overly optimistic, but I’m also not overly pessimistic – I am a pessimistic optimist.
These remarks are not intended to address COVID19 directly, rather, they are to provide a framework through which to view our current situation. Our situation not only contains COVID19; it contains a surplus of current and potential issues from climate change to nuclear war. To attain a full glass is first to realize that the glass is half empty, hence, pessimistic optimism.
We don’t know how long COVID19 will last for, and given the cruel unpredictable indifference of nature, it could last for quite some time. While pandemics, natural disasters, floods, famines, genocides, wars, and extinctions are possible, so too is curing disease, minimizing the effects of disasters and floods, maximizing produce, making peace treaties, and saving ourselves and other organisms from extinction. Most of these astonishing feats were accomplished not by an appeal to magic, but rather, by an appeal to science, reason, technology, empathy, morality, and human cooperation. So in a time like this, it makes sense to emphasize on the ‘better angels of our nature,’ to use a term from the psycholinguist Steven Pinker. It also makes sense to free ourselves from the illusion of Middle World and realize that what we see is not what is. So much more goes on than our mammalian encephalons can perceive.
SARS-CoV-2 is one of those things. Despite its ‘microscopicity,’ its effect on Middle World is tremendous. COVID19 also reminds us of our perennial refugee status on this planet. Nature, including SARS-CoV-2, doesn’t know or care about our seven-day work week. We are adapted to our environment, not the other way around. Despite how obvious this seems, none of our behaviours or attitudes about the world seem to match this fact. Anthropocentricity, i.e., the idea that nature is somehow ‘all about us,’ is a part of human nature, yet it can be overcome with an appeal to the notion of sub specie aeternitatis. This Latin phrase comes from the work of the Enlightenment Dutch-Portuguese philosopher Baruch Spinoza, which essentially means, ‘from the perspective of the eternal and universal.’ It involves an emancipation from the local and personal (what Dawkins would call the Middle World) and a complete absorption of the indifferent grandeur of nature – from micro to macro. This notion, if adopted by more people, would not only benefit our struggle against COVID19; it would result in a paradigm shift in our relationship to the natural world.