Brain Scientist Talks Tinnitus Treatment: Dr. David Eagleman
We will explain. Transcriber: Tanya Cushman Reviewer: Rhonda Jacobs By a show of hands, how many people know what the Deep Field observation is, by the Hubble telescope. How many have heard of that experiment? Okay, a few.
Okay, in 2003, NASA decided that it was going to take the Hubble Telescope, and it was going to point it at a little dark patch of sky. So, it had already done a low-resolution map of the cosmos. What they wanted to see is, what if we took this finely honed lens and we find a little patch of sky – about the size of a pencil tip at arm’s length – where there’s nothing there, and we point it there for a really long time, would we be able to see a star there where it looks like there’s nothing? So what they did, starting in 2003, is every time the Hubble came around the Earth, they pointed the lens there for 20 minutes to collect any lonely photons trickling in from the distant reaches of the universe.
And they did this 400 times. And in the end, they took all of this data and they compiled it, and they put together what was there in that little patch of space, and they didn’t find a star. What they found were 10,000 galaxies.
A galaxy contains 100 billion stars. So that’s 1,000 trillion stars that are all just like our sun, right? And they have innumerable solar systems and planets going around and life forms that we can’t even imagine.
Little patch of black space
That’s what’s teeming behind this little patch of black space. Now, if you mapped out the whole cosmos at that resolution, it would take a million years. So, I think this a really good consciousness raiser to start thinking about the size, the enormity of the mysteries that surround us. So I’ve spent my entire life in science, and I figured if we want to understand the mysterious existence that we have, there’s no better way than to study the blueprint. So that’s what I’ve been doing.
And science has been tremendously successful. We’ve been able to get men to stand on the moon, and we’ve cured smallpox and polio, and we’ve invented the internet, and we’ve tripled life spans. But what you really learn from life in science is when you get to the end of the pier of everything we know in science, when you get to the end and you stand there, you see that beyond, it’s all uncharted waters.
It’s all the stuff that we don’t know; it’s the vast mysteries around us, like dark matter and dark energy, or why mass and energy are equivalent, or how you build consciousness from pieces and parts, or what the fabric of reality is, or what life and death are about. These are all the things that are beyond the end of the pier in science. And what you really learn from a life in science is the vastness of our ignorance. Now, we will, as we move forward, continue to build slats out and get a little bit more each year, but in fact, it’s a giant ocean that’s in front of us.
And so there’s no guarantee how far we’ll get, and certainly in our brief twinkling of a 21st century lifetime, we’re not going to get that far. So we’re confronted with these very deep mysteries. Now, given that situation, I’ve been very interested by these recent books by the neo-atheists. So, these are very important and insightful books, but I think they’ve left the public with a misconception, that scientists don’t have the capacity to gamble beyond the available data, that scientists are acting as though we’ve got it all figured out: E = mc², F = ma – we sort of get it.
We get how to describe the cosmos in equations, or if we don’t know how yet, we’re pretty sure that our toolbox will capture it. But I actually think that’s not a very good description of science. Science, actually, is extremely open-minded: it doesn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater, where the baby is all the awe and the mystery that drew us into science in the first place. So science, instead, is very comfortable holding multiple ideas in mind, saying, “Well, it might be this, it might be this.
” The scientific temperament is one of creativity, making up lots of narratives, and then trying to find evidence to weigh in favor of one over others, but sometimes you just can’t find evidence. There are many questions that are beyond the toolbox of science, and in those cases, we’re perfectly comfortable holding on to all of those different narratives. There’s not a strict need to commit.
So that’s what really happens in science, and so I’ve been a little concerned about this voice from the books by the neo-atheists, whether this is how science is going to be represented. I think that we know too little to commit to a position of strict atheism where we act as though we’ve got it all figured out. On the other end of the spectrum, I think that we know way too much to commit to a particular religious position. There are 2,000 religions on the planet, and as has been pointed out by the neo-atheists, everybody already knows what it’s like to be an atheist because all you need to do is look at someone else’s religion, and you say, “Well, that’s patently ridiculous you would believe in that.
” And of course, they’re looking back at you and thinking exactly the same thing. So there are problems with committing to any particular religion. The holy books of these different religions were written millennia ago by people who didn’t know about the size of the cosmos and the big bang and bacterial infection and DNA and hallucinations and the fabric of reality – they didn’t know any of this stuff.
They didn’t even know much about neighboring landscapes or cultures. Now, what’s funny is, every time I sit next to somebody on an airplane, I always ask them, “Hey, have you heard of the Hubble Deep Field observation?” Nobody has.
But everybody’s willing to defend their particular religious story. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to realize that brains absorb whatever culture has poured into them. So if you’re born in Saudi Arabia, you’re going to love Islam, and if you’re born in Rome, you’re going to love Catholicism, and Tel Aviv, Judaism; in India, Hinduism; in Springfield, Ohio, you’re going to love Protestantism.
And it’s no coincidence that you don’t find a big blossoming of Islam in the middle of Springfield, Ohio, and you don’t find a blossoming of Protestantism in Saudi Arabia. If there were one truth, you would expect it might spread everywhere evenly, but in fact, we are products of our culture.
Willing to fight
That should be clear. The strange part is that people are willing to fight and die over this product, over the product of what gets poured into them and the stories they’re told. Now, Ralph Waldo Emerson pointed out that the religious stories of one generation become the literary entertainment of the next, right? So, think about Isis and Osiris or the Greek or Roman panoplies.
Nobody’s fighting and dying over that anymore – not too much. (Laughter) But I’m going to give you an example of this. I don’t know if anyone’s heard of the creation story from the Bakuba Kingdom in the Congo. But their creation story goes like this: There was originally a white giant named Mbombo, and Mbombo had a sharp pain in his belly and vomited up the stars and the moon and the earth. I’m not making this up.
And then he had – he was not over his illness – he had another pain in his belly and vomited again, and this time produced the people and the animals and the trees. And included in this second ejection was, and I quote, “The leopard, the eagle, the anvil, woman, the monkey Fumu, firmament, medicine, man and lightning.
” So, if you find the creation story of the Bakuba Kingdom an unlikely explanation for how we actually got here, just consider that if you were of the Bakuba Kingdom, you would look at the Western story of the naked couple and the talking snake and the prohibited produce, (Laughter) (Applause) and you would find that equally bizarre, right? And if you were Bakuba and you were living in Kansas, you would be fighting to put this in your children’s text books, right? (Laughter) (Applause) So, I’m not suggesting that the story of Adam and Eve is suspect because there are competing stories; I’m suggesting it is suspect because the available scientific evidence weighs so strongly against it.
The Biblical account
So, the Earth is about 4.5 billion years old, by the best of our estimates now. The Biblical account says it’s 6,000 years old. Well, that’s a problem because it has to account for why the Japanese were making pottery and the Magdalenians were painting cave paintings and the Persians were domesticating goats 4,000 years before the planet existed.
So there are problems here, and I think that we could sort of safely say that we know maybe too little to commit to strict atheism, but we know way too much to commit to any particular religious story.
So that puts me somewhere in the middle. And what has surprised me is the amount of certainty that you find when you walk into a bookstore. So I walk in, and I find the books by the neo-atheists and the books by the fundamentally religious, and those are your only choices.
What happens is these are very smart people on both sides that spend all of their energies polarizing each other and arguing against each other’s details. And I feel like there should be another voice in there somewhere, because in fact, if you imagine the space of possibilities – it’s enormous, right? I mean, you’ve got all sorts of possibilities for what might be going on.
So imagine this space, and take the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition. That’s one point in this possibility space. And take the Eastern religions – another point in the possibility space. And take the idea that we’re just atoms, and when we die, we shut off and we scatter – another point in the possibility space.