Mostly whimsical reflections on life
I avoid making New Year’s resolutions, but will make a slight exception this year with a New Year’s observation: In the face of an expanding, diverse universe, people are retreating to their own planets of belief.
You don’t need to be an astrophysicist to observe that people gravitate to “news” and “facts” that confirm their beliefs. In a way, we have returned to the time when people who believed the sun revolved around the earth scorned Copernicus and Galileo as radical heretics.
Even though physics was my most despised class in high school, I find myself strangely drawn to it as an adult. My latest book was “The Big Picture” by self-described poetic naturalist Sean Carroll.
This wonky book makes the case for a naturalist perspective of our universe, made up of atoms that behave relentlessly to unbending rules of physics. Humans are bundles of particles, which through eons of evolution have developed highly sophisticated chemical reactions and compartmentalized functionality. We’re not special, just advanced.
However, the part of the book that captured my deepest attention was the section dealing with what Carroll calls “planets of belief.”
Carroll describes planets of belief as a solar system of views with a central core and complementary coherence. For example, belief in the Bible, skepticism of science and opposition to abortion is an example of one kind of belief solar system. Another is belief in the scientific method, skepticism of mysticism and support for combating human-influenced climate change.
Many, if not a majority of people, hold a mash-up of views that are at once consonant and dissonant. They derive from a mix of scientific, intuitive and judgmental inputs.
Carroll doesn’t deride or dismiss human inconsistency. His point is to argue for a consistent way to test hypotheses. Science, he says, is all about questioning what you believe, not saluting it.
Scientists tend to talk in probabilities, not certain truths. They adhere to the scientific method of testing theories, not touting them without empirical evidence.
What struck me as I read Carroll’s discussion of planets of belief is how the historical collision of religion and science has skidded into politics. We’ve just witnessed a presidential campaign that some pundits dub the first post-fact election in our history. That may be an exaggeration. There has been a lot of skullduggery and prevaricating in previous elections. But the array and amount of fake news – stuff made up out of thin air – was stunning and potent. And the audience for fake news was at times a larger than for real news.
When it came to what readers trusted, it was as if The New York Times’ famous motto “All the news that is fit to print” transmogrified into “All the news that fits our beliefs.”
Conservatives swear Donald Trump won both the popular and electoral vote, even though Hillary Clinton received nearly 3 million more votes. Democrats believe FBI Director James Comey’s election-eve letter to Congress cost Clinton the election, even though there is scant evidence that’s so. People believed what they wanted because it comfortably orbited their planets of belief.
My New Year’s observation is that we all need to take heed about letting our beliefs cloud provable reality. We can cling to our opinions, but need to recognize what we believe is not always what’s true.
The Founding Fathers of America were prescient in recognizing the folly of mob rule, which is often ignited by half-truths. But as the United States has inched away from its “republican” roots to more of a direct democracy, citizens have a greater responsibility to see beyond their own planets of belief.
Disagreement over policies and political philosophies is healthy. Failure to acknowledge substantiated facts is not.
Whether or not you believe in science, it is hard to dismiss the laws of physics. Gravity prevents us from floating off into space. Brain waves help us move muscles and think. Water is the lifeblood of life as we know it. Some things are simply true.
Political facts may not be as clearcut, but they still have the aura of facts. Political debate loses its shape when debaters dispute the facts underlying what they are debating.
If I made a New Year’s resolution, it would be that all of us, including me, venture outside our planets of belief to visit other galaxies of thought. As we’ve seen in the movies, the journey to multiverses can be exhilarating, thought-provoking and even life-altering.