In the vastness of space and time, humans are insignificant. That we can know this, makes us precious.
Since I was about 10 years old, I have spent much of my life learning about how people think. I have studied religions, the great philosophers, science, and especially the many people I have met around the world. During the last 50 years of my life, I have watched humans grow from small groups – geographical groups and groups with similar life experiences – to one worldwide interconnected community with a nearly unlimited ability to share knowledge. I have watched the good and bad effects of this massive change.
If humans plan to survive beyond the next few centuries, we must lose our arrogant belief that we are some extra special life form and learn cooperation, respect for diversity, the value of learning and teaching, and especially that our lives are incredibly short but our contributions to humanity are important. This site discusses these ideas in depth and, hopefully, will give the reader a different perspective on reality and our place in it.
It seems that human understanding of the universe is growing exponentially. Because of today's worldwide communication, scientists and engineers in multiple fields (astrophysics, quantum physics, biology, geology) are able to share and compare information and build increasingly powerful tools for observation and analysis.
The objects in space are so numerous and so far apart from each other that it is impossible to imagine the size of the universe. The definition of "life" is now evolving to include possible life forms on planets and moons where all of earth's life forms would perish. The possibility of travel to and communication with any life form on a planet around another star (even in our own celestial neighborhood) is impossible with our current tools. And, it may be well into the future before that becomes an opportunity.
The amount of time since the "big bang" is so vast compared to all of human existence, that our lives are almost unnoticeable. To make things more interesting, humans are just beginning to understand what time is. It is not the steady stream of occurrences that we once assumed. There are little things like gravity that appear to alter the "speed" of time. There is also some suggestion that the “big bang” may not have been the beginning of everything. Also, we don’t really know if time ends.
In the vastness of time and space, humans are truly insignificant.
Humans have been observing our environment since, well, probably before we were humans. We watched things change and learned to remember those changes for reference later. We learned to make tools to enhance our capabilities. We developed communication skills to share our observations and tool making skills. We created many tools for documenting our observations so that future generations would not need to relearn them.
Other animals on Earth have also accomplished many of these tasks. One big difference between the more advanced animals on the planet and all the rest, is that we have an imagination. We have the ability to see images and make plans that only exist in our heads. The imagination is a type of "sandbox" where we can experiment with new ideas and new methods to understand and interact with our environment without the dangers of physical experimentation.
Humans became masters at using our imagination. We have learned ways to communicate abstract ideas that only exist in our heads. This provides opportunities for the imaginations of multiple people to work together to make sense of our environment and to create ways to communicate our understanding to others, especially to the generations that follow.
Sharing ideas helps us to constantly make corrections to our understanding of reality. With the worldwide communications of today, many more people are contributing their understanding of reality to the whole of human understanding. This allows all of us to improve our understanding by incorporating the perspectives of others with our own.
Humans are precious because we have evolved into a rare animal that is capable of understanding just how insignificant we are in the universe. That deserves repeating: Humans are precious because we have evolved into a rare animal that is capable of understanding just how insignificant we are in the universe. Acknowledging our insignificance gives us the potential to become more significant in the future as we learn more and more about reality.
About the site name
A few years ago, I considered how tiny humans are in space and time. This phrase popped into my head and it seemed to describe my views perfectly. Only later, I remembered that this is actually a phrase from Carl Sagan's book "Contact" - a book that I loved. So, I guess the name came from my imagination but it was heavily influenced by Carl Sagan.
"I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever -- a vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny and insignificant and how rare and precious we all are."
To improve chances of survival, animals have developed senses for gathering various kinds of data about our environment which are then sent to a brain which was developed to interpret those data in order to recognize threats, food and procreation opportunities. Over millions of years and many evolutionary adaptations, the senses and the brain have improved survival chances of species that exist today. That includes humans. The adaptations that gave our brains good storage, an imagination and complex analytical circuits have allowed us to create incredible tools from our environment to enhance our ability to understand reality, and thus improve our chances of survival as a species. How the brain accomplishes these tasks has been a complete mystery until a few decades ago. We have developed tools and methods for observing brain functions. Our understanding is still a basic, but it is advancing extremely rapidly, fueled by the artificial intelligence community.
There are many scientists in many fields looking at how specific functions of the brain operate. Quantum physicists and biochemists are looking at how data moves from one neuron to the next. Neuroscientists are tracing the circuits which connect various specialized regions of the brain. Anthropologists who specialize in the evolution of the human brain and the evolution of human social groups can now use real evidence to speculate on how humans use our brains to understand reality and then communicate with each other what we learn from our senses. Humans have finally begun to understand consciousness. The key word is “begun”. Compared to a few decades ago, when humans created many mysterious explanations for consciousness, modern explanations are based upon actual observations. They are probably inaccurate, but they are far more accurate than the mystical explanations of our past.
There are many resources available for learning about current understanding of brain function. Our understanding is advancing rapidly, so check your sources as you try to keep up. Is the source an actual scientific body doing research and not simply an uneducated opinion? Is the article recent (within the last 5 years)?
From reality to consciousness
walk through the process of how we become conscious of reality. This
is based upon current knowledge of brain scientists in many fields.
Something in a person’s environment activates one of their senses – a photon hitting the retina, a vibration in the air causing the eardrum to vibrate, a chemical in the air finding it’s way into the nose. The appropriate cell functions change the stimulus into a chain of chemical and electrical processes moving from one neuron to the next until it reaches a specific part of the brain that evolved to process the data. Keep in mind that this is not a standalone occurrence. These processes are occurring in a constant stream from all senses all of the time. While the flood of data passes through the first part of the brain, patterns of data are compared to previously stored patters related to very negative or vary positive experiences. If found, then instructions are sent to parts of the brain responsible for physical movement. This is how we react to something before we are conscious of it.
Following the flood past the first stage, an interesting loop occurs. An extremely short-term memory of previous parts of the flood is used in our imagination sandbox and is altered by related items in storage in order to create a prediction of what the next part of the flood should look like. The current part of the flood is compared to our model. If it is different, then many other parts of the brain react to make sense of the difference. This is probably what is perceived as “attention”. All the rest of the flood becomes less important and is either totally ignored or is remembered for a short term to use for processing future parts of the flood. All the attention processes, however, are stored as new experience that improves our understanding of our environment (reality) and how to react (or not react) to it.
The more humans learn about brain function the more it appears that consciousness is not a thing, but a constant stream of experiences coming from that flood of data combined with previous memories.
But, how accurate can our memories be in providing an image of reality? Our eyes see a narrow spectrum of light. We are missing a lot more than we can see. Our ears can react to a very limited range of sounds. Again, we are missing a lot. This is true of all of our senses. For the simple reason that our senses are limited, it is obvious that we cannot perceive reality as it truly exists. We make sense of the flood of information from our senses by comparing against previous experiences. Those previous experiences had the same physical limitations, and were limited even more when the advanced parts of our brain determined some data was not important enough to store.
To better understand reality, human imagination kicks in. The human brain makes many associations between past experiences. We create “stories” to explain the associations. It could be a story as simple as “my coffee cup”, which associates memories of shape, color, memories of using the object for drinking coffee, flagging the group of associated memories with the concept of ownership, and many other experiences. A story could be as comprehensive and complex as a religion, a nation or a monetary system. These stories are what we think of when we attempt to describe reality. Because of our limited senses and limited experiences, we cannot possibly have an accurate understanding of actual reality. But, using our stories, our imagined construction of reality has been good enough to get us this far.
There are great minds and educated experts who have written on these topics. I am not going to pretend to be one. Anil Seth is very good at explaining these concepts in layman’s terms.
Humans are social animals. Over hundreds of thousands of years, we have developed languages that we can use in verbal and written communication to share stories with each other. Since it is impossible to experience everything ourselves, we also share experiences by sharing our stories. Although we learn a lot from each other, we can never know exactly what the other person is sharing with us. The stories that reach our consciousness are not the same as the stories that the other person experienced.
Based upon past experience, Alan feels it is in his best interest to share a story with Betty. His brain recalls all the associated, stored experiences and sends them through the speech part of the brain. That part organizes those experiences by first labeling them with the best words, recalled from previous experience. Then, it sends that data in the best sequence, which was also learned from experience, to the motor part of the brain. Then, that part of the brain uses processes, also learned from previous experience, to manipulate parts of the body to create the correct sounds and gestures, also learned from experience. Betty only hears a constant flood of sounds from her environment. Within that flood, she identifies sounds that match previous experiences of voices. Then, with more attention, her brain matches those sounds to the visual input of a human face. Her brain uses that association to recall other associated experiences, thus, helping her to identify and recall her “Alan story”. Now, the voice sounds can flow more accurately through her speech center into her attention area (consciousness). Because they are filtered by her “Alan story” her brain is better able to assign meaning to the voice sounds, which she learned and stored by trial and error from previous experiences with language and, specifically, from her experience of Alan’s use of language. Then, after listening and associating all of what she is hearing into her own story, constructed completely by her own experiences, her brain stores this experience and adjusts her more comprehensive “Alan story” to include the new story. The experiences within Alan’s story are totally reconstructed in Betty’s brain using Betty’s experience of interpreting sounds in order to assign them meaning, identifying the most important parts of the story for storage. Depending upon how similar their learned meanings are for specific sounds and mannerisms, and how similar their past experiences assign value to each component of the story, Alan’s and Betty’s stories could be very similar or very different.
A newborn can only communicate via genetically formed physical reactions to physical discomfort. Over time, storing experiences from trial and error exercises to attempt making sense of the flood of data entering the senses, the ability of the infant will learn to distinguish faces from the flood of visual data, voices from the flood of sound data, and eventually meaning from sounds and expressions coming from faces. Those will be some of the infant’s first stories, associating faces, voices, related feelings of safety or danger. During the first few years, their stories and individual experiences will guide their interpretation of the flood of sensory data entering their brain.
In our brains, we all build our own version of what people say to us via speech or writing. It is always useful to reply with the same concepts but choosing different words, so that the originator of the story can correct your version of the story. This will help both communicators to feel comfortable that the story was shared as accurately as possible. However, if the story originator is not available (writings, video, podcast, repeated by an acquaintance, etc) for verification practices, then the receiver should assume that their own reconstructed story is likely inaccurate and assign an appropriate amount of trust in using that story in the future.
Faith vs Knowing
“Knowing” something means that an individual’s constructed idea accurately matches that thing in actual reality. As mentioned above, our brains are incapable of doing that. The reality that our brains construct is based completely on the flood of data coming into our limited senses, filtered by whatever previous experience we have stored in our memories. It is important to understand that we actually know very little. When an idea in our constructed reality does exactly match that thing in actual reality, we still cannot be sure without an abundance of experience of supporting evidence. Even then, it is important to communicate with people who have a different set of previous experiences in order to determine whether they also have an abundance of experience of supporting evidence. Even if both of their imagined ideas match actual reality by using different sets of experience, they could still both be wrong. But, the chances of being right increase. So, a person cannot know something for certain. They can only assign a level of trust to the idea’s accuracy based upon their experience of supporting evidence. In a sense, everything we believe to be accurately real is simply that: a belief. That is different from having faith that an idea is real.
“Faith” is choosing to believe an idea is real with inadequate evidence. Everything we believe to be real is by having faith in the accuracy of our experiences. We cannot be 100% certain that an idea is real, but we can stack up experience of supporting evidence and assign it a level of confidence. We also can choose to have faith in an idea with almost no experiences of supporting evidence. An idea created by our imagination by randomly associating past experiences may not exist in reality at all. Also, an idea could be created similarly by another person and then communicated to us. We should choose to assign a low level of trust that the idea is real. But, we also could choose to assign a high level of trust and even use that story to guide decisions. However, having a high level of trust for an idea with little or no evidence could be dangerous.
Human imagination, the ability to create stories to define and understand reality, the ability to store lots of these stories and share them with others, the ability to assign a level of trust to the accuracy of our stories, are all human traits that our brains use to help us survive as individuals and as a species.
Religion as Reality Story
A “reality story” is a special type of story in the brain which is a comprehensive explanation of all of reality. Although it is impossible for an individual to create a story that accurately matches actual reality, humans need one story as a foundation that associates a set of stories which explain the structure of a portion of reality. These are stories to which a person assigns high levels of confidence. They give structure to an ambiguous and impossible-to-understand reality where we exist. All of an individual’s stories are somehow associated to their reality story. If a story cannot be associated to a person’s reality story, then it is assumed to be not true. Otherwise, the person would be forced to adjust their reality story and could cause some other previous stories to no longer be associated, and therefore cannot be trusted to be true. This can be traumatic because it shakes their foundational understanding of reality.
It has been observed by many people that animal groups of more than 150 members eventually split. It appears that members of groups smaller than 150 are capable of knowing many of the members directly and the rest of the members through another member’s experience. When the group exceeds 150, it becomes difficult to keep up with all members. So, some members are seen as strangers that cannot be trusted.
When humans began to create reality stories, all members of a group would share and agree with a description of portion of reality. It could be a leader’s definition of acceptable social habits or the idea that an item symbolizes a certain value in order to facilitate trade of goods and services. It could be the meanings of a specific set of sounds and gestures used by the group to communicate ideas. When a member meets a person who believes the same reality story, that member recognizes them as a member of their own group and can therefore be trusted. That is how human groups grew to tribes, cities, kingdoms, countries and now global groups.
Religion is a special kind of reality story. It is usually headed by one or more powerful beings, usually existing outside of actual reality and who is considered the creator or manager of actual reality. These powerful beings define social behaviors, sometimes economic behaviors, and are associated with a large group of stories that explain many unknowable parts of actual reality – what is reality, where did it come from, what is life, where did it come from and why, etc. When someone has this large, comprehensive set of stories in their experience, it provides a solid, foundational reality story to which they can connect all of their own stories created by their own experience. Then, when a person with one of these religion reality stories meets another person with the same reality story, they both immediately understand how the other thinks and behaves. It saves a lot of time and stress of trial and error trying to learn whether the other person can be trusted.
Reality stories do not need to exist in actual reality in order to be effective in allowing humans to form and retain large groups. It is only important that everyone in the group choose to have faith that it as real. So, are all reality stories wrong? Yes and no. All reality stories are wrong to members of groups that believe in a different reality story. They probably all contain some associated stories that appear in actual reality. But, no one can know for certain which ones. And since the reality story of a large group is probably what allowed that group to survive, it was a good thing for that group at that time.
Over the last couple hundred years, humans have been suddenly becoming one global group. Intercontinental travel and communications have connected nearly every group on the planet. Social media and other internet resources allow anyone to learn about other groups’ stories – their religions, languages, social rules, money system, and many others. However, since there is no single reality story that everyone in the global group can agree with, it is causing a great deal of turmoil in the human social structure. To make things worse, people are agreeing with portions of reality stories from many different groups, thus creating their own new reality story. Because of global connectivity, they are then able to find others with the same stories and they are forming new smaller groups. Similar to the 150 member problem, human groups seem to be splitting into many smaller ones. A new comprehensive reality story is needed to keep a global human group together. It is needed for our survival as a species.
A suggestion for a new reality story
Lets review some of the points of this piece.
Human existence has almost no effect upon the universe. From any point of view in the universe, at any time in the universe’s existence, humans are almost unnoticeable. We are unimaginably insignificant. This is true as a species and is also true on an individual level. There are billions of people on this little planet. If you count all the humans from the time when we first became somewhat human, there have been trillions of humans. Each individual, with their relatively short life, is insignificant in the mass of human existence. To enhance our insignificance, our senses do not allow us to fully understand reality. So, there could be countless generations of future humans observing, tool building and sharing stories before humanity could actually become significant in the universe.
We are the result of possibly billions of years of chemical reactions evolving into a living thing that has a brain capable of associating limited experiences into stories that describe reality well enough that we can continue to survive like no other species on the planet. We are able to continue building stories that more accurate describe reality because we can communicate stories with each other even over generations. Through communicating stories and using our imaginations, we can continue to build tools to help us better observe reality. We have already begun to learn just how amazingly insignificant we are in the universe. Knowing that we are insignificant is what makes us precious and worth protecting as a species, a global group of humans.
Ironically, in order for humans as a global group to survive intact, we must acknowledge our insignificance and our extremely limited current capabilities to understand reality. When we do this, we realize that we have it in us as a species to continue to improve our understanding of reality and communicate our stories to future generations. We need to resist the temptation to be certain of the accuracy of our reality stories in order to allow them to change when new conflicting stories emerge with new experiences of supporting evidence.
On an individual level, each individual in human existence might be insignificant, but each individual has a different set of experiences. That means that each individual has a different set of stories. Every individual can learn something from every other individual. An individual can only learn something from another if they acknowledge that they cannot know anything with certainty. Exchanging stories with each other is the only method, other than direct observation, that helps us better understand reality. Listening to people with similar stories might feel good, but only by listening to people with different stories will you have an opportunity to learn. Each individual is simultaneously insignificant and precious.
So, my suggestion for a base reality story to associate with all other stories is that humanity, as well as individual humans, are insignificant in the universe, but we have the potential to become significant if we work together in happy, healthy, supportive ways. Isn’t this the purpose of all religious reality stories: to help improve a social group’s survival by providing a framework of stories that help the group function at its best, to keep everyone healthy and happy, to give each individual a sense of value, to provide a sense of hope that the group will survive long into the future?