21 Jul Ourselves (CARLO ROVELLI) | Part A’
What role do we have as human beings who perceive, make decisions, laugh and cry, in this great fresco of the world as depicted by contemporary physics? If the world is a swarm of ephemeral quanta of space and matter, a great jigsaw puzzle of space and elementary particles, then what are we? Do we also consist only of quanta and particles? If so, then from where do we get that sense of individual existence and unique selfhood to which we can all testify? And what then are our values, our dreams, our emotions, our individual knowledge? What are we, in this boundless and glowing world? I cannot even imagine attempting to really answer such a question in these simple pages. It’s a tough question. In the big picture of contemporary science there are manythings that we do not understand, and one of the things which we understand least about is ourselves. But to avoid this question or to ignore it would be, I think, to overlook something essential. I’ve set out to show how the world looks in the light of science, and we are a part of that world too.
‘We’, human beings, are first and foremost the subjects who do the observing of this world; the collective makers of the photograph of reality which I have tried to compose. We are nodes in a network of exchanges (of which this present book is an example) through which we pass images, tools, information and knowledge. But we are also an integral part of the world which we perceive; we are not external observers. We are situated within it. Our view of it is from within its midst. We are made up of the same atoms and the same light signals as are exchanged between pine trees in the mountains and stars in the galaxies. As our knowledge has grown we have learnt that our being is only a part of the universe, and a small part at that. This has been increasingly apparent for centuries, but especially so during the last century. We believed that we were on a planet at the centre of the universe, and we arenot.
We thought that we existed as unique beings, a race apart from the family of animals and plants, and discovered that we are descendants of the same parents as every living thing around us. We have ancestors in common with butterflies and larches. We are like an only child who on growing up realizes that the world does not revolve around them alone, as they thought when little. They must learn to be one amongst others. Mirrored by others, and by other things, we learn who we are.
During the great period of German idealism, Schelling could think that humanity represented the summit of nature, the highest point, where reality becomes conscious of itself. Today, from the point of view provided by our current knowledge of the natural world, this idea raises a smile. If we are special we are only special in the way that everyone feels themselves to be, as every mother is to her child. Certainly not for the rest of nature. Within the immense ocean of galaxies and stars we are in a remote corner; amidst the infinite arabesques of forms which constitute reality we are merely a flourish among innumerably many such flourishes. The images which we construct of the universe live within us, in the space of our thoughts.
Between these images – between what we can reconstruct and understand with our limited means – and the reality of which we are part, there exist countless filters: our ignorance, the limitations of our senses and of our intelligence. The very same conditions that our nature as subjects, and particular subjects, imposes upon experience.
Seven Brief Lessons on Physics