Scientists have known for a while now that galaxies within a few million light-years of distance can affect each other in predictable ways. Gravity is a powerful force, and in local clusters, it makes itself apparent.
What they didn’t know, however, was that there are possible interactions that can supposedly occur between galaxies that are 10 and, sometimes, 20 million light-years away from each other that can’t be explained by our current cosmological models of the Universe and mere gravitational fields.
In a recent study published in The Astrophysical Journal, a team found that there are perhaps hundreds of galaxies that are rotating in sync with each other across vast distances beyond their local cluster. Although this is still an elementary finding, and it will require far more data before anything more can be said with certainty about what is going on, it’s just plain weird that objects so far away from each other can influence one another.
One possible cause is that these galaxies are connected by what are called large-scale structures (the largest known objects in the Universe) — that perhaps their knots and filaments tie many galaxies together into a cosmic web in some sort of non-obvious way that we haven’t yet fully detected.
We’ll have to wait and see if this finding and this hypothesis holds any merit. But there is something both strange and comforting about the image that this conjures up — a synchronized movement of galaxies across vast distances ruled by forces that we don’t fully understand yet. It’s a little bit like a symphony, where the Universe uses its invisible strings to harmonize the movement of its different objects in the chaos of spacetime.
What’s even more interesting is that this analogy isn’t too far detached from how our own lives play out on Earth. Much of the time, we live thinking that we know what is going on around us. We assign causes, and we assign effects, and from there, we watch things happen based on the information that we obtain from our senses. Sometimes, this is right, and sometimes, it is enough, but quite often, there are unseen forces influencing both our own behavior and the behavior of other people in ways that we simply don’t understand.
The term umwelt roughly refers to the world as experienced by a particular organism. For example, humans sense and feel different things in a jungle or a desert than, say, a snake would. There are some things that we can sense, based on our particular evolutionary history, that a snake can’t. On the other hand, there are things that a snake can sense that we can’t. The fact that our bodies aren’t programmed to sense something doesn’t mean that the thing isn’t there; it just means that it’s not necessary for our survival, so it wasn’t built into our body over time. Our senses are useful but incomplete maps of reality that don’t completely reflect the territory.
But humans are different from snakes. For one, we can create knowledge. That means that, even though I can’t see what a snake sees, I can use science and language to come up with theories to test something relative to that, which can then help me figure out what I can’t see, maybe even build tools to help me see it. I may not be able to see a black hole with my naked eye, but a telescope can get me there. We know our ignorance, thus we learn. In fact, knowledge is what allows us to know our own perceptive limitations.
In this sense, umwelt means two things: first, it means that the Universe is more complex than we are built to naturally perceive and understand; second, there are things that we can understand that do influence our behaviors, and we just happen to walk around blind to these influences. There is more to reality than meets the eye. There are invisible strings, say, like the large-scale structures of the Universe, moving us around that we can’t see.
Our gift, of course, is this knowledge, which means that we can learn to see many of these invisible strings over time. That’s what we do when we create art and when we do science. It’s what happens when we engage in philosophical inquiry. But another part of seeing the invisible — one that is overlooked, one that is perhaps more important — is the act of unlearning.
If our limited senses are our main way of perceiving and understanding reality, and if these senses don’t fully and accurately map to this reality, it’s not just a matter of deciding one day that we need to start looking for knowledge and going from there. These senses have been conditioned from birth to see the world a certain way by existing thoughts shaped by our past surroundings, and before more knowledge is added on top, we have to first break the illusion we have grown into.
Beyond the enigmatic mysteries of reality, there are two strings that move us around without us realizing: intersubjective myths (memes and ideas in our shared culture) and interobjective institutions (technologies and systems in our shared physical reality). Both myths and institutions shape our minds and bodies in unseen ways. In fact, many myths and institutions that we are born into, we never question, because we can’t imagine life without them.
In the world of myths, there are all kinds of stories that we absorb from those around us that give us our values, our moral compass, and our personal definitions of success and happiness. Many of these things we learn to distinguish between as we get older, as we pick our own path, but in many cases, there are things that we never even think to consider. We are all a product of our times, and even the best of us take things for granted about this time as if they are timeless truths when, in fact, they are not. Every old cultural theory we laugh at now was once considered new and groundbreaking. Many of the disproven scientific ideas of the past, too, were considered foolproof in their own time.
In the world of institutions, the influence is even more subtle. Like memes and organisms, physical institutions in the world around us work to perpetuate themselves. Not only that, but they also mold us for their own functions. Because institutions, say, like the media, or our education system, or the state itself, are often centralized bodies, they control the shape and the type of information flow in society. We often don’t realize their pull on our minds because we can’t imagine a world without them as the primary distributors of information. It’s all we know, and it’s all anyone around us knows. Even the form and the function of the technologies we live with change what we think about, how we think, and what we value, all in silent ways.
So, how do we go about unlearning all of this influence if it’s so subtle? How do we start to see these invisible strings instead of being ruled by them?
The answer is indeed knowledge, but not just any and all knowledge absorbed on top of what we think we already know. Rather, knowledge built from the ground up. Knowledge that has a foundation in first principles thinking. To see the world like nobody else, you have to ask the kind of questions that nobody else is asking. Those questions generally begin with one word: “Why.”
Why do you go to school for 20 odd years and then work for some 40 years after and then hope to retire after that? Why do you assume that what you read in the news or what you learn in the classroom is even close to true? Why are you so sure that your ideology is the right one when approximately 50 percent of the population believes the exact opposite? Why do you worship this flag or that flag when your place of birth is a product of randomness?
These aren’t exactly questions that lead you anywhere close to the bottom, and in fact, many people may even ask themselves some variation of them over time, answering them with whatever loose rationalizations they have heard from other people. But they likely don’t dig any deeper, because going deeper would mean questioning previously unquestioned beliefs, which is what unlearning is, and which can be incredibly painful, as it changes your entire meaning-making structure of the world. But that’s where the real magic happens, where the real game is played.
To see the world for what it is — to see the invisible strings moving us around in this grand theatre of life — we have to develop a first principle understanding of pretty much everything that we have learned to take for granted. We have to start from either the smallest part or the largest whole, and then build our world view on top of that, leaving room for iteration and improvement as we learn more over time. Even if you come to a wrong conclusion after digging that deep, the mere process of becoming aware of the nearly bottomless pit shows you patterns that weren’t visible before.
Our senses, and even our thoughts, might be fallible, but they don’t have to be completely out of touch with the movement of reality.
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