Wednesday, February 8, 2017

When did the world begin?

Bertrand Russell:
There is no logical impossibility in the hypothesis that the world sprang into being five minutes ago, exactly as it then was, with a population that 'remembered' a wholly unreal past. There is no logically necessary connection between events at different times; therefore nothing that is happening now or will happen in the future can disprove the hypothesis that the world began five minutes ago.
There's no logical impossibility, and yet we're pretty damn sure that it didn't happen that way. But have you looked deeply into why you're so sure?

Even more basic than that, you're certain that there is a real answer, whatever it is. Maybe it really did spring into existence five minutes ago, or maybe fifteen billion years ago, but there is an objectively true answer.

How would you set about proving such a thing?

Perhaps you can admit there's no way to be sure that the "five minutes ago" option is wrong, but insist there are ways to be pretty sure. But have you noticed that any reason for being more certain about one answer than another presupposes some things ("priors") which themselves suffer from the same problem?

I'm sure you can give me five perfectly good reasons why it's preposterous that the world was created five minutes ago, and why that's good evidence that it wasn't. But you're clever! If you try, you can come up with solid arguments why the world isn't as it seems, and that seeming evidence to the contrary is suspect. Why not be as awesomely skeptical as Elon Musk or Neil deGrasse Tyson?

If you were to be perfectly honest with yourself, you would be forced to admit that you really have no reason to be so sure.

Can you sense how hard that is?

We're not talking about intellectually admitting the uncertainty. That's easy enough. The direct experience of it is something quite different. It is as though the whole bottom drops out of reality. It dawns on you that this may actually -- actually! -- be the first moment you've ever existed, which in turn forces you to confront the impossible glory of it all, and brings you to your knees in wonder and gratitude.

Again, we're not just talking about merely thinking the thought "this may be the first moment I've existed" or even agreeing with it; we're talking about realizing it.

Normally we don't have access to the full degree of this realization. Our minds are generating our metaphysics at a very subtle level, normally below our conscious threshold. Full access only comes when your awareness can penetrate those depths.

What goes on in those murky waters before your metaphysics congeals? Before your universe congeals? Before "the" universe congeals?

But why bother to go down there? In any case, the world would continue to unfold exactly the same way it always has (for all these billions of years), regardless of your metaphysical beliefs about it. That much you can know for sure, because objective reality is what it is, after all.


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