Wonderment and the Scientific Worldview

I was told repeatedly as a child that the Bible is "the greatest story ever told." (Incidentally, I've since heard some describe the Bible as "the best selling, least read book in history,” which is probably true.) The more I studied science, though, beginning in college, the more dubious this claim seemed. Sure, science doesn't have the same sort of actors as the Bible -- individuals with intentions, beliefs, desires, etc. -- but its theories do present an extraordinary multilevel, patchwork narrative of who we are, how we got here, and where the universe is headed (toward an eternally cold and lifeless entropy death!). Theories are essentially "story-telling in assertion mode": their entire aim is to explain puzzling phenomena by (in virtually all cases) tracing a chain of causes leading up to some phenomenon of interest -- i.e., an effect. It is this spatiotemporal chunk of the causal structure of the world that -- despite the absence of intentional agents like human beings -- makes for a fantastically exciting, suspenseful and moving story. It’s this story that's the greatest ever told!

Science is an intellectual discipline. But many of the topics themselves are very much emotionally charged. For example, I've often thought that there are no fields of study "deeper" than cosmology and anthropology: the latter deals with the origin and evolution of humanity, and the former with the origin and evolution of the entire cosmos. (This is not in any way to put down other fields. Rather, I am simply lifting up these two even higher than the rest. Every domain of scientific inquiry is exquisite in its own way. But with respect to the human situation...) While the theories used to explain cosmological and anthropological phenomena can be dry, the human understanding that such theories produce can be immensely moving. When I was a child I felt bad that Jesus died on the cross (although since then I've become fairly convinced that his suffering was actually quite minimal), but as an adult what gets me lachrymose is reading about, for example, the amazing and improbable history of our species, beginning in the African savanna some 2.5 million years ago, or about the ~300,000 year period during which the universe was literally opaque, like the glowing fog around a street light in the early hours of the morning. These are stories that concern the actual universe in which we find ourselves -- an interminably strange, hostile, frightening yet beautiful and wondrous place -- and unlike the stories of religion, science’s narratives are based on checkable evidence (rather than uncheckable revelations and the epistemically problematic attitude of faith).

Some people have complained that science is stripping the world of mystery.* I would agree. But for each retreat of mystery, the void opened up is filled by wonderment. What a brilliant predicament this is: genuine knowledge replaces pre-scientific ignorance, and the human experience is simultaneously enhanced. Science has demystified the firmament, for instance: we now know that the universe is not a massive sphere of which we are at the center; that the planets are not pushed by angels; that the stars aren’t our ancestors; and so on. But in its place is a much more extraordinary, and moving, account. A glance up at the stars is to peer backwards in time -- into the vast expanses of cosmic history. Imagine a photon released by a distant celestial body meandering through the obstacle course of the universe at the highest speed that any object can possibly travel, being pulled this way and that due to gravity; after literally millions of years, and against all odds, this photon plunges into Earth's atmosphere, traverses the mesosphere, stratosphere and troposphere, enters a tiny little hole in your eye, and finally ends its cosmic journey by stimulating a single photoreceptor in your retina. All this is happening in a universe that literally has no boundaries and no center; one that is expanding, but not as you might think: clusters of galaxies are not moving away from each other within some sort of larger empty space, but rather it is space itself that's expanding through time. It follows, amazingly, that the Big Bang happened everywhere: where I'm standing, where you're sitting, and where the Andromeda galaxy -- on a collision course with our own Milky Way -- is located in space.

If this isn't wonderment-inducing, then I don't know what is. There are many equally extraordinary examples from anthropology, too -- examples that have made me reflect more intensely on the meaning and significance of life than anything I've ever read in any ancient "holy book." For example, we know today that our species originated through pure genetic chance (mutation), but that this chance was shaped and molded by a number of highly non-random factors specific to the place and moment in geological history in which we evolved. (We are, in other words, all just mutants whose ancestors made it through the environmental sieve of natural selection.) In fact, many psychologists today have theorized that what we recognize as "mental illness" is largely reducible to a mismatch between our evolved cognitive software and the environments in which we now live: i.e., our psychology is pretty much the same as it's been for some 30,000 years, but the world in which we now live (due to the development of "civilization") is profoundly different. The result is that we've become increasingly maladapted to our surroundings, both physically and psychologically. And this is why we get stressed, anxious and depressed (not to mention diabetes, ulcers, allergies, Alzheimer's, and so on -- "diseases of civilization"). Social phobia, for example, might not be a pathology after all, but something that "nature" selected for in our ancient environment due to the advantage it conferred.

This issue also bears on why we struggle so much to understand science -- not just advanced science, but elementary science as well. (As the saying goes, science education involves just as much unlearning as it does learning.) We never evolved to make sense of cosmology or anthropology; our deeply felt, pre-theoretic intuitions are suitable for surviving on the mesoscopic level of reality -- “Middle World” as Dawkins calls it -- but not for grasping concepts that pick out microscopic and macroscopic phenomena, some of which occur on timescales much greater than anything we would have experienced (or needed to think about) in our bygone paleolithic milieu. This is precisely why science is replete with metaphors and analogies: by thinking of organisms as machines, for example, we can start to get a grip on the biological world. In other words, we map concepts from a more familiar to a less familiar domain: technology --> biology. And this helps us to understand the latter. (The term "organism," in fact, etymologically means "machine," more or less. Etymology is often a clue as to how we extend concepts from source to target domains, which isn't always obvious.) The examples here are endless: from textual metaphors in genetics to color metaphors in quantum mechanics; from terms like “cellular machinery” to widely-held metaphysical claims like “the mind is software that runs on the wetware of the brain.” When we don't have the concepts readily available, we borrow from other areas of our cognitive experience.

A truly extraordinary possibility, at least to my mind, is that there are concepts needed to understand (via explanatory theories) certain phenomena in the universe, but that these concepts are in principle inaccessible to us. This thesis follows directly from the notion that human beings are products of (non-teleological) evolution, modified by genetic drift and shaped by selectional forces to survive in the African savanna, with only minimal technological modification of our phenotypes. Just as a mouse could never form the concept of an electron, or justice, or of a meaningful life, so too might there be concepts that we humans can never cognitively grasp, no matter how hard we might try. It's possible that in some cases we are aware of this: the extra spatial dimensions postulated by string theory might be an example. (Who understands extra spatial dimensions? No one, as physicists themselves are quick to admit.) In other cases, though, we will forever be ignorant that we are ignorant; such ungraspable concepts are, using Rumsfeldian phraseology, permanent "unknown unknowns." The relevant issue with respect to science, then, is whether or not such concepts are needed to fully understand the cosmos or not. So far, the problem of fields like biology seems to be one of complexity: we struggle to understand such fields because they are so complex, not because they appear to be conceptually impossible to grasp.** In contrast, quantum mechanics is pushing against the absolute boundaries of human cognition; and some philosophers of mind (including myself) would argue that the same can be said of consciousness, which remains one of the deepest and most stubborn mysteries in the universe. Maybe these are not merely unsolved problems, but unsolvable ones.

Even this produces an extraordinary sense of wonderment, though. Here we are, these little terrestrial critters, walking around with "the most complex object in the known universe" between our ears. Over time, we've done an amazing job at bringing a kind of theoretical order to an extremely chaotic and complicated world. But maybe our evolved brains are simply not capable of understanding everything; maybe at some point (soon? already?) we'll run smack up against the unalterable limits of our own mentality, and progress will come to a grinding halt. In such a case, it may take some future descendant of ours -- cognitively more "advanced" for either evolutionary or cyborgization-related reasons -- to devise a complete theory of the universe, from the fermions and bosons that populate the universe to the emergent property of conscious thought.

And this brings me back to my original point. The stories told by science, the often unintuitive worldview that it's woven together, has proven to be far more moving -- emotionally as well as intellectually -- than the facile parables and tall tales of the Bible. Taking a step back, I find it difficult to believe that anyone would think that either of Genesis' two accounts (which quite overtly contradict each other) of the creation of the universe is a better story in any sense than science's version involving quivering atoms, exploding supernovae, swirling galaxies, evolving organisms and a peculiar species of bipedal metazoa with the cognitive capacity to ask questions like: "Why is there something rather than nothing?" If only more people took the time to study science -- that is, not just the ever-proliferating details, but the larger mural that science paints, extending some 13.7 billion years from the Big Bang to the "specious present," as it were. Given limited resources like memory and time, we are always fighting against the breadth-depth tradeoff: the more one knows about a particular subject, the less subjects one knows about; and vise versa. Nonetheless, I've found that the most moving moments have come when, to borrow a phrase from Wilfrid Sellars, I've attempted "to understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term."

The greatest story ever told is still being written by the contemporary poets of knowledge -- scientists. And it may or may not have an ending that we can ever understand. Either way, the world is more wonder-full than ever before.

Written by Phil Torres

For more on The Greatest Story Ever Told, see the last chapter of my book A Crisis of Faith: Atheism, Emerging Technologies and the Future of Humanity. In this chapter, I provide a short summary of science's account of how we got to where we are today, starting with the Big Bang and ending with anthropology's account of how Homo sapiens outlived every other twig on the once-bushy hominid branch, including a species of diminutive human that died out only about 10,000 years ago!


*To be more precise, there are many cases where scientific research has increased mystery. A new theory might be proposed that, while solving a number of important issues, simultaneously introduces a whole class of new problems. Overall, though, our description of reality is more complete, detailed and enlightening than ever before. There is a global trend even if there are local counterexamples.

**For more, see a paper I wrote a while back (under my pen name) entitled "Emerging Technologies and the Future of Philosophy," published in Metaphilosophy.