"Yes, happily language is a thing: it is a written thing, a bit of bark, a sliver of rock, a fragment of clay in which the reality of the earth continues to exist."
Where Are We
going? What are we doing on this planet? Why—if that's the right question—are we here? The question "Why are we alive?" was, according to a 2006 survey by the Chinese search engine Baidu, the second most often typed why question, right between "Why did they go on the Long March?" and "Why do we need to drink water?" In this book I use physics, evolutionary history, science fiction, knowledge of magic tricks, and even a little metaphysics to speculate on basic questions of who and what we are in relationship to the Earth and the universe. To anticipate, I conclude that life has a physical purpose, that there are many universes, that the Earth is an organized system that may be conscious, and that it has already begun a process of reproduction that may take its offspring—including, perhaps, us—to the stars. I conclude that linear time and free will are probably illusions, and that the typical notion of God is hopelessly naive. I use a professional knowledge of sleight-of-hand magic to treat real mysteries such as where consciousness comes from and the reasons we seem both so impossibly unlikely and yet so full of imperfections. I think you’ll be surprised at the simplicity of some of the probable answers.
This may be the only possible universe in which everything and its opposite can simultaneously be true.
What are the prospects for humanity? How can unfeeling particles give rise to feeling beings? Who are we from the broad vantage point of deep time, in which not just primates but also microbes preceded us, and God knows what will descend from or replace us? Is the biosphere imperiled? Are we? Can it, or us, be saved? How? What is the future of a biosphere that is more than four billion years old—approximately a thousand times older than the human species, and two million times older than the oldest cities?
I am interested in provisional answers to some of the deepest, most persistent questions we can ask ourselves. I look to science but also to the speculations of science fiction, the revelations of mystics, and the logic of philosophers. What are the most radical ways we can see ourselves that might possibly be true? What is the nature of ultimate reality? Of our odd, orderly universe? I will address these cosmic questions, but let’s start with the most basic thing—the Earth, the living part of which is known as the biosphere.
The very word biosphere is subtly subversive, undermining the nationalistic mind-set. Mere mention of it provides a clue that our ultimate allegiance is beyond politics and race. The very substance of our bodies comes from and will return to the biosphere when we die. We depend on other species, many of whose roles in maintaining the biosphere fit for life are more important than our own. Indeed, our rampant growth has perturbed the planet as a whole, arguably compromising its functioning in a way that will imperil and perhaps eliminate us.
On Earth there is no escape, no exit, from global ecology. We may ignore it but it is still there, like the truth. Still, we now know, maybe not enough, yet more than our ancestors did. Thanks to science, especially planetary exploration, we can look at ourselves in a more objective light. Just as the best part of a journey can be the new perspective it gives us on our life, so the greatest windfall of the space program is the new appreciation it gives us of our planetary home. Astronauts report that when in orbit, going around the Earth every forty-five minutes, time and space—or rather, our ordinary perspective on time and space—are radically disturbed. There is no day or night, no up or down. Sunrise follows sunset very quickly. In orbit, our star’s light cuts through the thin ribbon of the atmosphere, illuminating the interior of the capsule with all the colors of the rainbow. Then, forty-five minutes later, night falls. Earth (eclipsing the sun) becomes the place where there are no stars.
The concept dawns that we belong to the biosphere, and not just the biosphere of the Earth but of the cosmos as well. The nationless, mapless perspective of Earth seen by an astronaut in space—in which human beings are visible, if at all, only by the lights of our cities at night—puts us in our place. The new views of space, time, and home suggest that our usual perspectives are just that, perspectives. The way things are, the way we see them, depends on where we are and how we see. And those things can change.
"In what sense 'is there,'" writes Italian philosopher Maurizio Ferraris, "a star that exploded a thousand years ago, and that we see now? It is to be noted that, according to the distinction between phenomenon and noumenon, everything visible—ourselves included—could be nothing but memory and phenomenalization, no less than stars that have exploded, and appeared precisely when they have ceased to be noumena." Ferraris here refers to the philosophical distinction (first made by Immanuel Kant) between the way things are in themselves, which we do not know directly, and the way things come to us—necessarily altered—through our senses and brains. The thing-in-itself, das Ding an sich in Kant's native German, is the noumenon; how something appears to us in our perception, including our perceptions aided by scientific instruments, is the phenomenon.
The question Why are we here?—Why are we alive?—admits of various answers. It may be because of God. It may be because of chance. Or, as Ferraris suggests, we may not even be here. Everything may already have happened, and we may be an aftereffect of the type that occurs when a supernova explodes but the light takes time to reach our eyes.
Now you see it, now you don't.