A Question of Scale

“You live at the boundary between the past and the future, surfing on the accumulated experience of a billion billion sentient beings.”

You are somewhere in this universe.

This should be obvious, but it cannot be overemphasized.

You are somewhere.

What is more, you are some size, and you will live for some period of time. This is key to the entire problem of knowing: our individual experiences of the universe are limited by the time- and length-scales on which we exist.

Your knowledge, no matter how considered and informed, no matter how validated and critiqued, is necessarily partial.

Partial as in incomplete. Also, partial as in situated.

Without the instruments and stories of the rest of the species, your knowledge is limited to the experience of a life of approximately 80 years, and scales between about the width of a human hair, and the distance you can travel on foot. This is as it should be.

Or rather, this is how it is.

You are not, however, without the instruments and the stories. You live at the boundary between the past and the future, surfing on the accumulated experience of a billion billion sentient beings. Their captured wisdom expands your horizons, down to subatomic particles, out to the edge of the visible universe, and back into the earliest moments of time. Their stories contain within them information on how to live, how to navigate the world you encounter, and what to do with the awareness of your (imminent?) mortality.

But then we confront the same conundrum: your own experiences of these stories and instruments come back down to the limits of a lifetime and the scale of the body that interacts with them. And what do we do with that?

These are the issues I consider in my writing. How do we (collectively) keep and advance knowledge, and how do we (individually) find our ways through the landscape of the collected knowledge? Where does consciousness come into all of this? What are the limits of knowledge and how do we develop systems that acknowledge and anticipate uncertainty, rather than assuming certainty until it is proven otherwise, even though scientific knowledge is supposed to be provisional?

What is more, why do I consider this a problem at all?

Here is another question of scale: humanity has expanded to fill all available space on the globe. The risks of being collectively wrong at this point jeopardize the future of life itself. Yet our ways of finding Truth have evolved over a period in which the risks of being wrong were limited to local extirpation, extinction of individual species, or the collapse of an individual civilization. The loss of culture, the loss of life, the loss of the knowledge of sentients who were eliminated because they tasted too good, did not conform or were considered unnecessary to somebody’s pursuits were (are) countless. But life itself continued.

In all reality, even if we were to eliminate ourselves, life would probably continue. We are unlikely to sterilize the planet. But it might take 2 million years to re-emerge, if it ever did.

This matters. We don’t have the right to imperil a world 4 billion years in the making so that we can avoid confronting the reality of the limits of our own knowledge. We no longer have the luxury of ignoring the consequences of our actions.