Everything They Knew Was Wrong (or at Best, Incomplete)
They are the descendants of the utter simplicity with which their reality began. They are the products of the first patterns of organization, the first interrelationships of matter and energy, and the nucleosynthesis that was born in raging stellar furnaces. They came down from the first metabolic processes, the first chemical tests of reproductive success, the mindless chains of amino acids that gave rise to proteins, and the primitive, pre-RNA world. They were born of the remorseless Law of Whatever Works, as free-floating bits of nucleic acid were pitted in a ceaseless death match with each other. They are the inheritors of cells with membranes, and then clusters of cells, and then, after inconceivable lengths of time, of undulating organisms in prehistoric seas, organisms that were rewarded or killed off in a blind contest of sheer survival. They are the offspring of the vertebrate fish, the first gill and lung possessing animals that had pulled themselves onto shore, the synapsids who had become warm-blooded, the first ones who had given birth to live young, and the terrified, hairy animals which fled into the trees, perhaps to escape the ceaseless carnage on the ground, or simply to pursue food.
Their kind was honed, sharpened, and shaped in the terrifying environment of the world a hundred feet above the Earth’s surface, a world where being able to grasp objects with the end of one’s appendages, see dangers in color, perceive depth, and react quickly were the difference between being able to pass on these abilities and unmourned death. Their direct ancestors were forced to live once again at ground level, staggeringly different from those of their forebears that had initially escaped to the trees. They could stand upright. They could manipulate objects better than any other animal on the planet, the legacy of hands that had developed to defy gravity’s death pull. And in their heads was a mass of energy-matter that allowed them to see the world as a place of objects and causes and effects. They were more able to survive in the brutal, dangerous world of the savannah than their less gifted relatives scrounging the plains for food. They were the most intellectually advanced animals on the planet, but animals nonetheless. It was why they had to breathe, why they thirsted, why they hungered, why they felt pain, why they experienced pleasure, why they fought or ran away from danger, why they craved sex, and why they moved.
The world they lived on was an insignificant dust mote, orbiting in space around an utterly ordinary star, a star burning its resources in one of hundreds of billions of aggregations of stars of various sizes, in a physical reality so immense that their own little world practically vanished in comparison to it. The story of how they had come to be standing on that dust mote had taken the equivalent of almost 14 billion rotations of their tiny planet around their somewhat less tiny star. Their world had gone through vast upheavals, where the very continents themselves had split, clashed, been partially submerged, and pushed up against each other in a continuous, slow-motion, unconscious war. Life forms had come and gone in incomprehensible varieties and numbers. Objects from outer space had crashed and raised havoc, temperatures had fluctuated wildly, deserts had receded and advanced, forests had flourished and been wiped out, rains had been torrential and then absent, and sheets of ice had rudely shoved their way through the landscape and then melted away repeatedly. The upright animals had come on to the scene in only the last moments of this epic temporal journey. Their bodies had emerged from and conformed to the laws of physics, the laws of chemistry, and the laws of biology in succession. They were fully the product of the natural world, and an integral part of it. The energy-matter in their heads was there to help them survive long enough to reproduce, and it played ceaseless tricks on them, hiding as much as it revealed. And how much did these little upright animals, standing on the eastern or southern African plain in small, mutually-protecting clusters, know about all this? How much of their own place and their own story did they comprehend?
Absolutely none of it. None of it whatsoever.
They were left entirely to their own devices to figure out the world around them, and it could not have been any other way. They learned how to take and shape objects from the environment to do work their bodies couldn’t do unaided. They stuck together in the frightening world of predators, defending each other and learning the refined ways of violence. They reveled in the kill of game, and did the ordinary, back-breaking work of gathering plant food. They set up rules to govern the group, and punished those who broke them with death or exile. They fought with or made allies of other wandering groups. They learned to use sounds to convey messages to each other, and they learned to imitate the animals, especially the birds and their enchanting songs. They made babies and watched most of them die. Countless centuries of wandering and fighting for survival made their habits of life bone-deep. One group of them eventually became the genetic ancestors of all who would follow, and their descendants made the epic journey across the seemingly endless landscape, suffering and surviving in dramas that were forever to be unknown in all but the broadest sense. (Did they grapple with or intermingle with other, vanished types?) Their bodies and the minds that were part of those bodies were devoted overwhelmingly to the tasks of trying to get by from one day to the next.
But sometimes, around the campfires at night, they wondered aloud about the amazing world in which they lived, conjuring stories as the sparks flew upward into the darkened sky. Some of them wanted to know where their people had come from. Others asked how the world itself had come to be. Still others speculated about the mysterious world that jumped into being only during sleep, or the strange sights and feelings that came into view when certain kinds of plants were eaten. There seemed to be someone else living inside of them, someone watching more than participating. And there seemed to be something that existed beyond their sight, a world of phantoms and powers and beings that exercised tremendous influence on the world of sight, sound, and feeling. The impulse behind their questions was powerful and deep—the need for an explanation of why things were. The people who were inquiring into these mysteries possessed the ability to construct narratives and an unconscious propensity to see causation and pattern where none existed. Many of them also craved certitude; they wanted answers to their questions, answers that were definite in every sense, answers upon which they could build their beliefs about the world.
And so, as their languages grew and evolved and their powers of narrative deepened, elaborate stories of creation were constructed. They constructed ideas about the role and nature of the animals and the other objects around them. They devised stories to explain the workings of the mysterious spirit world that seemed to pervade physical reality, and they came up with ways of trying to influence this unseen world through the construction of altars, the painting or drawing of pictures, the creation of chants and songs, deep meditation, and various rituals which would allow them to enter its portals. And explanations flooded out of them, at least out of those who had the time and energy to devote to thinking about such things:
The stars are just beyond our reach and are appreciably closer if one climbs a tall mountain.
The night sky is where the gods live. It is perfect there.
The vault of heaven rotates around us, as does, of course, the Sun.
People get sick or go crazy because they are being attacked by unseen beings.
Illness can be cured by chanting sacred words.
The night is filled with demons, monsters, and all manner of vile, dangerous spirits.
The earth is a disk that is supported on the back of a huge animal, and the ocean surrounds the disk on its edges.
It is necessary to sacrifice things to the gods to guarantee a good harvest.
The world is exactly the way it looks.
And so on. Since they had moved to every corner of the Earth, and had adapted to every kind of environment, they had devised countless individual ways of life, what those who came much later called cultures. Every culture had its own explanations and used its own symbols to express them. But no matter what culture had generated them, these explanations all had something in common:
They were wrong. Every single one of them. We can’t fault our ancestors for this, because they were trying to figure everything out “from scratch”, and we would have done no better were we in their place. But the overwhelming falsehood of all their ideas of ultimate (not proximate) causation remains notwithstanding. The people who had constructed them were very good at the practical arts of everyday survival, and they passed their skills on with surprising effectiveness. They knew how to kill and process animals and utilize their flesh in a dozen different ways. They devised increasingly varied and sophisticated tools. They learned how to build more and more elaborate structures. They devised complex rules of conduct to govern themselves, and began the first large established ways of accomplishing big tasks, institutions. They tamed the wolf-like animals that had appeared at the edge of their camps, and soon learned to tame others. They eventually learned how to make plants grow where and when the humans desired. They found a method of storing information outside of their heads when they learned too many things to remember—writing. They learned first to count, and then to measure, and then to calculate. Hierarchies arose, and true governments were their outcomes. They forged weapons and organized groups of the strongest men into packs of warriors. Some ventured out on the sea and discovered previously unknown regions of the world and their strange inhabitants. They traded with others, fought with others, and formulated ideas about everyday life. Some began to compose and write down stories about the world. In some places true cities were built, and new divisions of labor arose that no one could have predicted. All of these practical arts and achievements were undeniably impressive, especially when measured by the standards of their ancestors, some of whom had kept the same technologies for hundreds of thousands of years.
But their ideas about the nature of the world itself remained just as erroneous and confused as ever. And life in organized societies and cultures had caused other ideas to arise in their minds. Some of these ideas had been taught to them by bitter experience. Others came to be seen as “natural” simply through custom and long tradition. Some of these ideas were:
The way we do things is both normal and right.
Other people must be viewed with suspicion. The world is us vs. them.
Those who look different from us or who speak differently than we do are less than we are.
Our gods are the best gods (even though we might borrow gods from others sometimes).
Men should govern, because women are weaker and therefore lesser than they.
It is right that those who violate the rules should be tortured.
And there were errors that arose simply because people didn’t understand the nature of their own senses, the fallibility of memory, the way emotion inevitably colors judgment, errors of perception, the prevalence of misjudgments, the power of sexuality, the dark origins of hatred and violence, the limitations and errors inherent in language, the extent to which they were ruled by their fears and hopes, and the most important error of all: the failure to understand that their brains were presenting a picture of reality that was not “objective” in the ultimate sense. (In truth, how could they have known such things?) Add to this the unique human understanding of the inevitability of physical death, and the fervent hope that death was not the end of the individual ego’s existence, and it is little wonder humans constructed systems of ideas so utterly at odds with what seems to be reality now.
Most people thought they were in a category apart from the animals, failing to see that they themselves were animals. They thought (naturally enough, in light of its size compared to their own bodies) that the Earth they lived on was immense. They (naturally, again) came to see the Earth and themselves as the center of all that existed. Their great faiths came into being during the period when these ideas were at their height. And when these same faiths promised that they, ordinary flesh-and-blood mortals, could live forever in bliss (or suffer eternally for wrongdoing), their sense of their own importance skyrocketed. God or the gods or the Universe cared about them specifically and personally. Humans were engaged in a great cosmic drama with the Divine, however the term “divine” was understood. Their conduct and their beliefs were of supreme importance to the Divine. They mattered in the scheme of things.
In short, in my view, much of our historic inability to understand the reality of which we are a part is rooted in psychological gaps, gaps that first manifested themselves in the thinking and expression of our ancestors. There was the gap between what they thought they were and what they really were. The gap between how they believed they had come to be and how they had actually come to be. Their desired place in reality as opposed to their true place in it. The world and the Universe as they seemed to be as opposed to how they actually were. The reality they thought was real as opposed to the reality that was beyond their grasp.
Our pre-modern ancestors accumulated an enormous store of practical knowledge about the world and how to survive in it. But their understanding of why the world worked the way it did was unbelievably inaccurate, as was their understanding of the nature of physical reality itself. Not just some, but ALL of their ideas about the world’s origins, physical composition, mechanical workings, and place in reality were utterly, totally, completely, absolutely false. I do not fault them for getting everything wrong. But I do fault them for thinking they were in possession of answers they didn’t actually have.
They saw the effects; they did not see the causes. They attempted to make inferences about the causes based on their woefully incomplete knowledge, and it led them astray. They did not understand what they thought they understood. Only in the last few hundred years did some of them begin to understand something about reality as it actually is in the human frame of reference.
And we are their inheritors.