Chapter 15 – So Much to Say
In 1999 I copied the best of my writings onto a computer disc, which I called ‘So Much to Say’, and which I gave to people I knew who had computers. This included published and unpublished writings, personal information, correspondence, selected passages from books, diaries and childhood photographs, but I think that the best part consisted of ideas that come to me from time to time and that I feel are so profound that they should be written down for other people to read. Here are some examples:
It’s a miracle that language and civilisation have evolved; it’s a bigger miracle that life has evolved from non-living matter; and it’s a bigger miracle still that the Universe has come into existence from nothing. The population of the world is greater than it has ever been; the average lifespan is longer than it has ever been; if we ignore minor fluctuations the average standard of living is higher than it has ever been – and yet people still find things to complain about. It seems to me that what is wrong is not the things that people complain about, but the fact that they do so.
Think how lucky we are that there happen to be light and sound waves in the air, and that we have evolved to make use of them. If it hadn’t been for hearing we would not only have been denied the pleasure of listening to music: we would have been unable to engage in conversation and share our ideas; there would have been no civilisation.
There are more insects in the world than people, and it is much more likely that you would have been born an insect than a person. If you had been born in the first 99.9% of the earth’s existence it would not only have been unlikely that you would be a human being: it would have been impossible.
Look back on your past life. Think of all the enjoyable experiences you have had and all the worth-while things you’ve done. Multiply that by a hundred thousand million, and you have the story of the human race.
When I’m in a good mood I feel that I live in a wonderful world and I know that I do; when I’m in a bad mood I don’t feel that I live in a wonderful world, but I still know that I do.
I have come to the conclusion that the range of pleasant and unpleasant experiences that make up life is unaffected in the long term by changes in circumstances. If you dislike something, and the thing you dislike disappears from the face of the earth, sooner or later you will find something else to dislike in exactly the same way and to exactly the same extent.
If you dislike something that has been caused by other people it means that somebody must like it, and if you believe that other people are just as important as you are it follows that putting right the thing you think is wrong will make things no better and no worse than they are already.
It is possible that human civilisation will survive for a thousand million years. If it does not last that long then it must go into a period of decline, in which case the people of the future will look back on the present time as a golden age.
There is no evidence that other people experience colours and tastes the same as I do. In fact there is some evidence that they don’t. Some people choose to wear clothes that I find unattractive; some people choose to eat food that I don’t like, but they must like the taste. This doesn’t necessarily mean that it tastes differently to them, but it suggests that this is likely. There is no way of finding out.
I can understand how muscles make the arms move. I can imagine being able to understand how nerve impulses make the muscles contract. I can’t even imagine being able to understand how I control the nerve impulses.
If there were no people in the Universe there would be no art or literature, but there would still be biology. If there was no life in the Universe there would be no biology, but there would still be physics and chemistry. If there was no Universe there would be no physics or chemistry, but there would still be mathematics. It might be said that there could be no mathematics if there were no numbers and that there could be no numbers if there were no material objects to count, but I believe that mathematics exists independently of the Universe because I can imagine a universe in which the mass of a proton is not 1836 times that of an electron, but I cannot imagine a universe in which 2 x 3 does not equal 6.
Extra-terrestrial life is an interesting question because it is possible that it exists and it is also possible that it doesn’t exist. Ghosts pose an even more interesting question because it is impossible that they exist and it is equally impossible that everyone who claims to have seen one is pretending.
Animals are alive, which means that they are aware of their existence. We are told that plants also are alive. Does that mean that they also are aware of their existence? If not, where do we draw the line? I am sure that dogs and cats are aware of their existence, but what about tortoises? What about goldfish or earwigs or snails? What about microscopic animals that are virtually indistinguishable from plants? A doctor was once asked if it was possible that plants feel pain, and he said that it wasn’t possible because plants have no nervous system – but surely you don’t need a nervous system to feel thirsty. If an animal feels thirsty when its body needs water, then why shouldn’t a plant do the same? And if it feels thirsty it must be aware that it feels thirsty and therefore aware that it exists. [I thought that I was the only person to think on these lines until I read something similar in a book called What Does It All Mean?]
Money is a peculiar thing. People only want it because they can buy things with it. But the people they buy things from only want it so that they can buy things from other people, and so on. So how does it all start?
The metric system is sometimes said to be completely rational and logical, but that is not entirely the case. One hears about hectares but not decares, decibels but not centibels, and milliseconds but not kiloseconds.
If you float a beach-ball on the sea when there is an off-shore breeze the ball will go up and down with the waves and move away from the shore at the same time. So why do some people have difficulty in visualising a photon as a wave and a particle at the same time?
It should be possible to look at human civilization objectively: not just to know how remarkable it is but to feel it. Imagine someone who lived a hundred thousand years ago and who was trying to build a primitive shelter and wondered if there would ever come a time when people lived in waterproof houses with transparent windows and lights you can switch on and off. You don’t have to wonder if it all came about; you know that it did. Now imagine that you were born in the twentieth century but had spent all your life in a box six feet square with plain walls and that a few seconds ago you walked out of that box for the first time. Imagine discovering that there are other people like yourself and that there are rows of houses and books and films and television programmes containing limitless information. We all know what there is to discover, but we are so familiar with it most of us take it all for granted.
I believe that my sense of wonder is greater than that of the average person, but I know that it is nothing like as great as it should be. Every moment of every day I should be thinking things like ‘Isn’t it incredible: that electric light really works!’, or ‘Water really does come out of that tap!’ or ‘That amazing adventure that began in 1942 really is still going on!’
I have always believed (1) that the mind can be explained by the arrangement of atoms in the brain, and (2) that a computer cannot have a mind. Then one day I realised that these two opinions are inconsistent. The second must be right. Therefore the first must be wrong.
Galaxies, quarks and so on are important to the human race because they provide an endless supply of interesting things for people to find out about.
We are led to believe that there is nothing special about the world: it’s just an ordinary planet going round a typical star in a typical galaxy. In the same way it might be said that there is nothing special about the present time: the earth has been going round the sun for thousands of millions years, and it will continue to do so for thousands of millions of years to come. On the other hand it could be said that there has been as much progress in the last hundred years as there was in the previous thousand years, and that there has been as much progress in the last thousand years as there was in the previous ten thousand years, and so on. Surely this can’t go on for ever. So we must be living in a special time.
The earth is a planet 8000 miles across in a universe that extends for millions of millions of miles in all directions. It therefore could be said that nothing that happens on that planet can be of any possible significance, but it is of the greatest significance to the people who live there. In the same way it may be said that in a world inhabited by millions of people nothing that happens to one individual can be of any significance, but it is of the greatest significance to that person; and if you believe that the human race is important, then you should also believe that your own life is important, even if your role in the world is a very small one. If you believed that you were the only person in the world you would not consider your life to be so insignificant. And if you then discovered that there were millions of other people in the world your life would be greatly enriched, and if it were greatly enriched it could hardly be regarded as being less important.