What do We Really Know?

The kids and I sat down tonight to watch “Cosmos”, the reboot of Carl Sagan’s acclaimed from the 80s, now hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson. I (gasp) never watched the original, and my son Sam, 7, is old enough to actually have it keep his attention, I think. He likes to delay bedtime by asking me questions about space (“Why is the sky blue?” “Tell me that thing about how time changes if you go too fast again.” “I want a new interesting fact about black holes.”). We both know he’s only doing it to delay bedtime, but we also both know it’s going to work every time. Anyway, it seemed like a good time to start the series.

The first episode spends a lot of time focused on the ideas behind the Copernican revolution, in which western civilization traded the older Ptolemaic model of the heavens, in which the Earth is the center, with the Heliocentric model, where the sun is the center. Specifically, the episode delves into the story of Giordano Bruno, an Italian philosopher who lived after Copernicus, but died before Galileo made his first telescope.
Bruno’s real contributions, which apparently he eventually died for, were a few ideas:

  • The stars are, in fact, the same thing as our sun, just very far away.
  • The stars likely have their own planets around them, and therefore, likely their own life.
  • The universe is essentially uniform and infinite – not existing as a very large sphere around our sun.

I’m sure there was more to it than this, but keep in mind, my knowledge of this topic is essentially 45 minutes of television, plus some light skimming of Wikipedia.

Of course, prior to tonight, I was aware of all this, even if I really only had the bullet points down. People though the earth was flat, then maybe they accepted it was round, but still believed it was the center of the universe, then gradually discovered the nature of the universe as we understand it now. What I never had really considered was this: How difficult would it have been to challenge these theories at the time?

I think it’s easy to assume, through our historical glasses, that people of the time period were just waiting around to disprove the existing theories of how the world worked. That if you or I had been there, surely we’d have realized how silly it was to think the earth was the center of the universe. Except that that made perfect sense. What else could anyone have believed, given what we can observe with the naked eye, from the ground? And – bonus – at the time make an assertion that didn’t agree with the church’s ideas of how things worked, and you’d be ridiculed at best, tortured, imprisoned, and burned at the stake at worst.

But still, in the face of all the opposition, in spite of the fact that it would have been exceedingly easy to worry about the challenges of the day, how to get yourself a new carriage or the hottest chaperon, and not give a second thought to the prevailing theories about how the universe turned, people did it. People asked questions. Hard questions. They thought about things. And they did it without technology, or invented technology to help answer their questions. They just looked up, observed, and then thought.

Similarly, I’ve often wondered how I would have behaved had I been born an affluent white male in the south in the early 19th century. It’s easy now to look back and recognize slavery as cruel, unfair, evil. But if it was all you knew, what you had been raised around, raised to believe – would you question it? Would you even think to question it? I like to tell myself I’d never have stood for it, but I’m afraid that’s too generous.

But there’s good news: Our lives, our societies, are literally full of assumptions, of unquestioned prevailing theories. Universal truths that we all agree on without a second thought. Universal truths that we all agree on because we don’t even recognize that we’re agreeing to them, because they’re so deep that we can’t even recognize there’s an argument to be made. I think sometimes finding the answers is actually easier than finding the questions.

What if the universe is just a simulation? Do you actually agree with your supposed views on political issues like abortion, LGBT rights, or do you just accept what people similar to you say on Facebook? Do you really like chocolate milk? (spoiler: I really, really do)

These are lame questions, but the point is that the interesting questions are the ones that are hard to find, because people aren’t asking them. So, try thinking hard about what you take for granted. The things you’ve never even thought to question. It’s hard. If doing so, even in your own head, doesn’t make you uncomfortable, you’re probably not digging deep enough.

 

 

Header image by Bartolomeu Velho – Own work, Public Domain

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