The Conference Room in the Sky Lauren Black
N: When I pass people on the street who are trying to convert me to their religion, standing next to stacks of flyers about salvation, it’s always kind of a shocking moment. It’s like all of a sudden, I’m seeing someone who’s visiting from another universe. And I don’t say that because I think their lives are so separate from mine—I just mean that in a sense we’re literally living in entirely different worlds. My universe began with the big bang, and theirs began with creation. The basic truths we’re working from are just different. We are both so sure that we’re right, and we’re never gonna find out who isn’t.
There’s a class happening at Brown this semester about theories of truth. In it, philosophy grad students meet up three times a week and debate the nature of true-ness and what makes a belief a fact. When I found out about the class, I decided to go talk with the professor, Richard Kimberly Heck, who by the way uses they pronouns. I wanted to see if they could explain to me what kinds of logic people use to decide what is and is not actually true about the world. To start, Heck set up this scenario:
R: suppose we were standing on the main quad, and I said something like you know, a dinosaur once stood at this very spot. I mean, that seems like something, okay, that could be true, that could be not true. Whether it’s possible for us to know whether that’s true or not just looks like a totally different question.
N: And people answer that question in different ways. In philosophy, there’s one camp called the idealists, and they believe that anything in the world that’s true, there must be some way for us to find that out for sure.
R: If it’s true that a dinosaur has stood there it must be possible for us to know that. And if it’s not true that a dinosaur stood there, it must be possible for us to know that, and if it’s not possible for us to know one of those two things there’s just sort of no fact of the matter as to whether a dinosaur once stood here.
N: On the other hand, realists say that surely there are some things that are just beyond our knowledge.
R: Like no look, it just could’ve been, right, that there was a dinosaur here and it’s just not something that we can know, it was too long ago and all the traces have vanished, you know, there’s nothing in the fossil record, I mean, so on and so forth that just looks like contingent accidents that we happen to be unable to know these things.
N: Professor Heck themself tends to be a realist. They think that there are some facts about the world that are true, but are just too big and complicated for us to ever really prove it. For example, there’s this mathematical theory called Goldbach’s conjecture, which says that every even number greater than two is the sum of two prime numbers
R: So, four is two plus two, six is three plus three, eight is five plus three, ten is three plus seven—
N: And on and on forever.
R: And people have run computer programs on this up into the billions, maybe beyond, to check. And no one has ever found an example of an even number greater than two that wasn’t the sum of two prime numbers. But of course there are infinitely many even numbers greater than two, so you can’t actually check them all. And so no one knows whether that’s true or not. Maybe it’s just true.
N: So, when we start talking on such a big scale, on questions that have to do with our beliefs about the functioning of the universe, what do we know about what’s really true or not?
Allow me to jump for a moment a random kid in Spokane, Washington. It’s 2002 and KellyAnn is eight. For an eight year old, she is super introspective.
K: I wanted thought lines, so in the car I would just furrow my brow and stare out the window so I would get thought lines.
N: At night, she’d often sneak out of her room to watch TV, but not cartoons or anything:
K: I really liked to watch the news. My parents actually had to move the TV like, it was in the living room, which was right next to my room. They moved into the basement because they would like catch me like asleep in the hallway trying to watch the news at night, and it’s never good. like it was, there were wars.
N: Thinking about all these chaotic world events made KellyAnn wonder, who is controlling what is happening out there? And this is what she came up with:
K: basically there’s like a giant conference room, in the sky, in space, in another location, and for Earth and presumably for all planets, there’s a yearly convening where one representative from every specie of life gets like zapped up to this conference room and has to make like, have a Roundtable discussion with all the the other representatives of all the other species and come to some decisions and like voice the needs of their species and come to some decisions about what’s [00:14:05] going to happen in the next year for the whole planet.
N: KellyAnn thinks some of this super-democratic stuff came out of what she was learning at the Unitarian Universalist church, where they basically taught her that spiritually she could believe whatever she wanted, but the most important thing was for everyone’s voice to be respected and heard. So in KellyAnn’s world, that’s what happened. Every species got a representative, and then they’d all debate.
K: I was very also interested in the idea of like feeling as a first language and so we would just like feel at each other certain things and like if you like wanted something or you had a desire for like your species, the table would just like all like simultaneously feel it when it’s your turn and they’d be like, oh like there they’re hungry, or they need housing or they need this or they need that, and then like what sort of have counter bids or whatever. They’re like, well you can’t because if you need housing, you know, we are trees and you can’t cut down the trees.
N: For a while, KellyAnn honestly, fully believed that this was how the world worked. But the thing that messed it up for her in the end was a classic philosophical problem, the Problem of Evil. Here’s Professor Heck again:
R: Why do all of these horrible things happen if the world if God controls everything and God is wonderful?
N: Substitute “God” there for “the yearly council of all species” and you had KellyAnn’s problem. At first, she just thought bad things were happening because the people getting picked as representatives weren’t prepared enough.
K: like there’s famine, and I’m like there’s famine because whomever gets Zapped is like not aware enough of the world and is too like self-absorbed, so they probably said like my family is healthy, you know as like the bid for Humanity for Earth.
N: But eventually that explanation didn’t cut it.
K: I think I just thought that the world was just like actually so fucked up that there was no way that there was a consensus process for the way that things were going, you know.
N: So, KellyAnn moved on to her nihilist phase.
R: Nihilism is there’s no plan, there’s no one in charge, and then you live, and life’s a bitch, and then you die.
K: so basically like, we are on this speck, like a speck of dust, or we just like a piece of debris floating around in a shoebox in like a Giant’s closet. And kind of what’s happening in the giant world and like the universe beyond that is like so far beyond the reaches of our tiny little minds that it’s just not even like worth us trying to figure out because like they’re on their own planet doing their own thing, and there’s like a whole universe beyond that and they might be in a shoebox and like, we’re never going to get that far like intellectually or physically, like we will never explore that far, and anyway at any moment these like giant creatures could open the shoe box and we’d all
be like vaporized from like the light so, you know, why bother trying to figure out what’s going on, we’re very insignificant.
R: Ha, dust in a shoebox, right? There’s no rhyme or reason, thank god the giant didn’t open the shoebox yet.
N: So. Here are two genuine beliefs from an eight-year-old. How do we know she’s wrong?
R: I guess I’m pretty confident that neither of them is true. Um.
N: Okay, okay yes. I’m not suggesting we believe her. I’m just asking why we don’t. Like, personally as a non-religious person, I don’t believe in heaven or hell. But tons of people do, and those people aren’t unreasonable—really, we just have no proof one way or the other. So, besides the fact that most organized religions have millions of followers and KellyAnn just has KellyAnn, what makes her animal council that much less believable?
Heck admits that we actually cannot prove that there’s no yearly meeting in the sky. But, outside of math, you can’t really prove anything, and even KellyAnn will admit there’s some decent reasons to think that the council isn’t real. Like, if someone is actually getting zapped up to the animal council every year, why aren’t more people talking about it?
But interestingly, Heck doesn’t shoot down KellyAnn’s second theory quite as quickly:
R: The shoebox one’s a little harder, right because you might, again I think we have good reasons to think that that’s not true, but, there are, even in physics I mean some kind of crazy theories about, actually there are lots and lots of universes, there’s not just one.
N: And one philosopher, David Lewis, who believed in multiple universes, also believed
R: that for every possible thing that could happen, there is a universe where it does happen.
N: Take a second to imagine this. This multi-universe theory comes from the idea of infinity. The thought is that if time and space are infinite and go on forever and ever, everything that ever could possibly happen, has to happen. Sometime, somewhere. How could it be otherwise?
R: Right so, there’s a universe in which you and I spontaneously combust in three seconds, and there actually is a universe like that. So for anything that is possible, there is a place where it actually happens. You think our world is bad, right, haha. There are worlds where people are just blowing up like left, right and center for no apparent reason. Those are really bad, right. So that doesn’t seem so far from the shoebox view. Hell, by Lewis’s standards, there is a world where our universe is in a shoebox! And the
giant opens it, and it, right, cause that’s possible, so there really is a world where it happens, it just happens that it’s not our world.
N: Or at least, if it is our world, the giant hasn’t opened the lid yet.
But anyway, Heck doesn’t believe in the multiverse theory. Apparently, some physicists do think there are multiple universes, but most don’t.
So, say by this point you’re pretty convinced even though we can’t prove anything, there’s probably not any animal council in the sky, and we probably don’t live in a shoebox either. In that case, your best bet is to believe the scientists, so here’s what they’re saying these days about how the universe really works. For starters, there’s just one universe, and it’s not infinite.
R: You’re looking puzzled so just, the short version is, there was the big bang, and then the universe started getting bigger after that, but it’s always been a finite size. It’s just still getting bigger. Some people think it will keep getting bigger forever, some people think no, a bunch of it’s gonna start coming back on itself and then we’ll have what they call the big crunch when the entire universe collapses into a single point and blows itself up.
N: Okay so, there’s one universe, it’s maybe ever expanding, or maybe not…
R: And it should also be said that you can never get to the edge of it, even though it’s finite you actually can’t, it’s not like you could go see the end or something. There are physical reasons that you can’t do that.
N: Heck says that for some reason they can’t explain without a lot of math, the universe seems infinite from the inside, but it’s not. But also there’s no outside.
R: There is the inside, and it’s finite, but there is no outside. So it’s not like a balloon and there’s inside of the balloon and there’s the outside of the balloon, there’s the universe, and there is the inside, but it’s still only finitely big. So, it’s a little hard to wrap your head around.
N: Yeah. That is hard to wrap my head around. I mean honestly, what’s more ridiculous? You’re telling me that the universe is like a giant balloon with no outside, that’s finite but you can’t get to the edge of it, and it will either keep expanding forever OR implode in on itself, we’ll see which?
I’ll take you scientists on your word that you have good premises for believing that. But as far as what sounds reasonable, I may as well be converted to the religion of KellyAnn.
L: Did you ever try to like tell any other kids and like warn them that they had to prepare?
K: Ha, yeah! Yeah, but I never really got anywhere. because I think I was also like, it’s kind of crazy, but it makes sense, and I think, I don’t know when I learned this from the Unitarians, but something that stuck with me was sort of that religion or just like worldviews and like cosmologies, or you know, metaphysics of different kinds are there to answer questions for us, and sometimes like you need that like you just need an answer, and it’s okay to like accept an answer that’s imperfect or doesn’t make a lot of sense, or might not be true if it’s like serving whatever purposes you need it to serve and I don’t think I was like conscious of it, but I was kind of like this is like serving a purpose for me right now and I’m like, okay that no one else believes in it, and on the off chance that I’m right, I’ll just be like “Heh!” later.