2010s >> 2019 >> no-1381-september-2019

Wood For The Trees: The Scale Of It All


We are going to die – and that makes us the lucky ones’ is a quote from Richard Dawkins. Despite its melancholic tone it is, in fact, a statement of celebration because he goes on to explain that of all of the millions of possible genetic combinations generated by sexual activity, the meeting of a specific sperm and egg is the product of a purely chance encounter; an unimaginable number of other people could have been born instead of us – but against all the odds here we are. This is an example of a perspective that can give us a whole new understanding of who we are and what we could and should do with our lives. Being conscious of the universe in which we exist is rare and, for all we know, possibly unique in the vast nothingness that is most of the universe. Together with awe this kind of perspective presents us with a responsibility to ourselves and to our species. We know that nature is indifferent to our survival as a species so it is our responsibility to protect the tiny corner of the universe (the Earth) that alone sustains us.

Many claim that they have no time for such philosophical considerations and certainly capitalism presents the vast majority with an unending struggle for existence that distracts us from what we do best – think. Of course the hysteria of modern wage slavery and consumerism can also serve as an excuse to avoid the fear that many feel when confronted with meaning and mortality. Education so often tells us what to think instead of how to think. But life is not a riddle or an equation with just one correct answer; it is more akin to a journey of experience and contemplation of not only the individual but of us all from the past, in the present and the future. Together with the idea of just how lucky we are to exist at all here are some other examples of perspectives that might help us to look up occasionally from the mundane monotony of life in capitalism.

The observable universe is 93 billion light years in diameter and a light year equals 9.46 trillion (9.46 x one million million) kilometres (the Earth is 12,742 kilometres in diameter). Such size and distance is barely conceivable and yet we have a number for it. This is the beauty of scale; once a standard measurement of size is achieved then everything else can be described as a magnitude of it. These numbers make most of us feel totally insignificant as individuals but what of the size of the collective intellect that produces them? If your physical size as a human being is important to you then the numbers concerning the infinitesimal are equally mind-boggling. The smallest known object is a sub-atomic particle called a quark and it measures minus 100,000,000,000,000,000,000th of a metre. The average radius of an atom is 300 trillionths of a metre which is some 10,000 times the size of its nucleus and the smallest form of life known is a virus that comes in at a mighty minus 10,000,000,000th of a metre. It feels as if we’re somewhere in the middle of the almost infinitely large and the possibly infinitely small; doubtless this has something to do with the ‘anthropomorphic principle’. This balance of perspectives can help protect our conception of ourselves from both the fear of insignificance and the hubris of over importance.

Having dealt with space let’s move on to time. The universe is 13.8 billion years old. The Earth is a mere 4.5 billion years of age and life first emerged a billion years later. Humans first came on the scene about 800,000 years ago. Again, in this context, our average 80 years or so of life doesn’t seem to amount to much but then some species of mayfly only live for a few hours. For the vast majority of its existence humanity lived in hunter/gatherer communities and communism would seem to be the default social organisation for our species.

Some 10,000 years ago in a very limited region the Neolithic Revolution took place and humanity began its inevitable and brutal journey into private property. The agricultural surplus was stolen first by nomadic raiders and then by those who controlled the warriors who evolved to protect it from such depredations. Given the incredible speed of technological advance we now find ourselves with the possibility of returning to our default socialist economic arrangement. We live primarily within a world we have created (a culture) which has stood outside of nature and it is only within this cultural arena of political action that we can liberate ourselves from the slavery of private property and re-enter the natural world as its protector. For those who are exasperated by the failure of the arrival of the revolution we can only point to the timescale of our incredibly young species and its meteoric cultural evolution. It took the capitalist class many hundreds of years, from its medieval origins, to achieve its present political and economic hegemony. In many ways modern socialism has just begun as both the knowledge and aspiration that can make it possible.

Some of the more scientifically-minded readers will observe something of an anachronism in the previous text; 100 years ago Albert Einstein synthesised time and space in his theory of General Relativity. This conjured up a demon that both science and philosophy have yet to fully comprehend, the black hole ‘singularity’. This one- dimensional object is supposedly infinitely massive, infinitely small and bends space-time, you guessed it, infinitely. It would seem that if we follow scale to its logical conclusion it loses its coherence and meaning because we cannot imagine the infinite. Perhaps everything – ideas, worlds, energy, matter and even nothingness will eventually succumb to the embrace of the singularity. To comprehend nature and to find our place within it is humanity’s true destiny but first we have to liberate ourselves from the infantile squabbles for money and power of the tiny irrelevant ruling elite. Part of socialist consciousness is to recognise the potential of our species after the resolution of the political struggle using our knowledge of philosophy and its young progeny, science.