Changing the world for dummies, Part 1 (another temporary digression)

Here’s an important question for everyone. When will the world end?

A few years ago, in the Sunday comics section of our local newspaper there was an episode of “Opus”, the creation of Berkeley Breathed. In this episode Opus, a straight talking penguin, is sitting on a rock in his meadow, taking his ease and philosophizing to himself as he is wont to do, when he is approached by two of the neighborhood children with a serious question. “Opus”, they ask, “When is the world going to come to an end?” Nonplussed, Opus replies in platitudes, “Well, we really don’t know – lots of people have tried to answer that question – we’re not really sure – a long time from now––“ But the children are not satisfied, They press him over and over, “You must know, Opus, tell us please”. Finally he sees they need an answer, and says, “Well, in about sixty or so years from now”. Happy and having no idea of how long sixty years might be, they run off, satisfied. Opus, however, sits a moment on his rock, and thinks to himself, “Unless I get hit by a truck”.

That world didn’t begin long ago, not the biblical 6000 years or so, not millions or billions of years as science explains to us, It began at a different point for each one of us. When we became conscious and our senses began to build memories and connections in our brains, it signalled the start of a new world, perhaps a universe, for each us to carry around in our heads for a lifetime.

This is an important idea to understand. Almost from birth, maybe even before, we each begin to build a conceptual world around us from the information our senses provide, and the ideas and concepts we derive from those inputs. I watched this happening when my six-month old granddaughter sat next to me at lunch , picking up her food, tasting, smelling, sometimes eating it; speaking and singing aloud, then listening for the echo back; peering down at the dog waiting for his lunch snacks. She was building a world of her own that might one day be a universe. For some that creation  will be relatively simple and nearby, for some it may be rich and full and reaching far out, perhaps even into the cosmos. For all of us, that world will end when we leave it, whether gently or by being dispatched by a truck.

We are fortunate, of course, in that we can leave behind an account of the world we have built, to enrich subsequent generations in building their own. This notion, “subjective reality”, was put forth by among others, George Berkeley, an Irish philosopher, in his A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge. When Bishop Berkeley first put forth his ideas, they were too revolutionary by far. Famously, Samuel Johnson responded by kicking a rock, declaiming, “I refute you, thus!” But my experience has made me a neoberkeleyian. His ideas are still true, of course, for the “world in the head” which we all own and depend upon. It is it’s own reality, one we call on continuously to make our way in the other, outside world. It has some limitations. Much as we can look at Opus’s rock in the meadow and believe that it has substance only in our perceptions of it, if we approach it and kick it, our damaged toes will attest to the reality outside of our heads, even though we may know that the rock, like everything else is really only a complex wrinkle in the ocean of the cosmos.  Still, for us that inner world will ultimately disappear.

So, how do we change the world, again? Our success at changing the outer world has been mixed. Certainly we have messed it up pretty thoroughly. But I believe that inner one is one we can aspire to change for the better. My preferred approach is to try replacing ignorance with knowledge; answers with questions; cluelessness with consciousness. Where else can we start?

More to come.

About Charles Scurlock

Charles is a recently retired architect/planner and generalist problem-solver with a lifelong interest in science, physics, and cosmology, and the workings of the human mind. He has started this blog in the interest of sharing his ideas with others of like-(or not so like) minds.
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