Ep 19: Waking Up Inside The Cave [Pt 1]: Everything You Know Is Wrong
As promised in the episode, here is a reading list to dive deeper into the topics discussed:
- Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe | By Robert Lanza with Bob Berman
- The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes | Donald D. Hoffman
- The Demon In the Machine | Paul Davies
The Episode Brief
Welcome back to The UFO Rabbit Hole Podcast. I’m your host, Kelly Chase.
In many ways, our trip down the rabbit hole has been leading us, inevitably, to this episode. It’s in this episode that we reach a decisive inflection point. Nothing will be the same after this—maybe not even you.
Over the previous 18 episodes, I have done my best to make the case, not only that the UFO phenomenon is real, but that the complexity, ubiquity, and unintelligibility of the phenomenon are so great as to suggest that many of our most fundamental assumptions about the nature of reality itself may be incorrect.
This episode is my closing argument in the case of The Phenomenon vs. Consensus Reality. And when it’s done, I hope that you’ll agree with me that it’s time to burn it all down. Or at the very least, I hope you’ll agree that perhaps it’s time to consider some new models of reality that have the potential to reintroduce meaning and intelligibility into our broken world where impossible things won’t stop happening.
When I first began my own trip down the UFO rabbit hole, this is not at all the place that I imagined that I’d end up. I started out, like so many others before me, with the goal of using logic and science to solve the UFO mystery, once and for all. Either UFOs would prove to be some kind of a hoax or a misunderstanding, or it would be discovered to be some kind of a natural phenomenon with a rational explanation.
The naivete of that assumption makes me smile now. Because when you dig into the evidence for UFOs, what you find is a phenomenon that is both undeniably real and entirely irrational. UFOs can be neither explained nor explained away.
Because of this, there are many that have compared the UFO phenomenon to a Zen koan. A koan is a paradoxical question or statement used in Zen Buddhism to help students deepen their understanding of the nature of reality and develop insight into their true nature. One of the most famous examples is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
While they may sound nonsensical at first, the purpose of a koan is to help the student transcend conventional thinking and to awaken them to a deeper level of understanding. Koans are not intended to be solved logically or intellectually, but rather to be contemplated or meditated upon in a way that allows the student to move beyond dualistic thinking and experience a moment of insight or enlightenment.
The UFO phenomenon challenges us in this same way. It forces us out of our comfortable paradigms and it makes us consider the possibility of a transcendent reality that might be able to not just contain the paradoxical nature of the phenomenon, but make it somehow coherent and intelligible in a way that eludes us now.
And I am increasingly convinced that such a paradigm exists. It’s being developed and put forward right now by some of the top minds in fields ranging from cognitive science to religious studies. And I believe that this new paradigm has the ability not just to explain the UFO phenomenon, but to fix the fundamental issues with our models of reality. And if true, the transition to this new paradigm will undoubtedly mark one of the most significant moments in the history of humanity thus far.
But before we can get to that new paradigm, we have to tear the old one down. And so that’s what we’re going to do today in this episode. We’re going to take a wrecking ball to everything that we thought was true—starting with the “official story of everything.
The “Official Story Of Everything”
The “official story of everything” is the name I’m giving to the narrative that we generally use in western society as the container for what we know about ourselves and the universe. It should be very familiar to you. It goes like this:
Everything in the known universe came into being in an event called the Big Bang, around 13.8 billion years ago. Starting out as a single point of infinite density and pressure, it began to expand rapidly outward in a massive explosion. This explosion was so intense that it took 380,000 years after the Big Bang for things to cool down enough for the first atoms to form.
Over the next several hundred million years, those atoms that were in denser regions of the Universe began to coalesce through gravitational attraction. Over time these regions became increasingly dense, eventually forming gas clouds, stars, galaxies, and other astronomical structures that we are familiar with today.
The early Universe was a chaotic place, with lots of newly formed objects slamming into each other and creating new objects. But over time the force of gravity continued to bring these massive objects together creating more and more order within the universe.
Our own planet formed around 4.5 billion years ago, or a little over 9 billion years after the Big Bang. Over hundreds of millions of years, the planet cooled and solidified. The oceans and the atmosphere began to form. The Moon showed up—somehow. (If you want more details on that you can find it in episode 15.) And the Moon brought with it the tides which churned the oceans of the planet creating the conditions that make it particularly well-suited to life.
And in these favorable conditions, the first microscopic organisms appeared on Earth about 3.7 billion years ago. Over time, through the process laid out by Darwin, these microscopic organisms evolved into increasingly complex and differentiated forms of life over billions of years. Eventually, around 850 million years ago, some of these organisms developed early forms of consciousness.
Then around 2 million years ago our first human ancestors appeared. A million or so years ago they began to use fire. Then finally, after spending millions of years as hunter gatherers, around 12,000 years ago, right at the end of the last ice age, humans developed agriculture. 6000 years later the first civilizations appeared followed by writing, math, philosophy and the other trappings of high civilization.
Until finally we find ourselves here—as a newly space faring species with a stunning command of the world around us. The knowledge that we have developed over millennia has brought us to a point where we aren’t just able to put a man on the moon, but we are able to peer back into the unfathomable depths of time and understand how it all began.
Pretty cool, right?
The problem with this story though is that it’s almost certainly not true.
The Dream Of The Cave
The most important thing for us to recognize about the official “story of everything” is that it is just a story. It’s a narrative woven loosely together connecting various popular theories. The only thing that holds it all together is the mere agreement that this is what is true. And this story is the lens through which we view the world, ourselves, and the cosmos. It’s one of our most basic meaning-making devices.
The problem is that if you drill down into literally any aspect of this narrative that we use to form the foundation of what we deem to be possible and true, you quickly find that this foundation is built upon rapidly shifting sands. Virtually all of the theories and models upon which this story is based have been fatally wounded, if not outright disproven, over the last century. The few that remain largely owe their explanatory power to the fact that they are impossible to verify one way or the other. And yet, still this story hobbles on, barely held together with duct tape and fairy tales.
We’re going to go through this story in just a minute and I’ll show you, point-by-point, how every bit of this narrative is likely untrue—and how this fact is too obvious to be denied. And as we do that, you might start to wonder to yourself, “How did this happen? How did we get here? How could we be so wrong about so much and not know it?”
In his book, The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruis uses ancient Toltec wisdom to explain how the basic agreements about the nature of reality that are made between groups of people end up becoming deeply entrenched norms that people are taught to accept without question. In the Toltec culture it was believed that all of human life is a dream, that the fundamental nature of a human is that of a dreamer, and that the beliefs that we hold create and shape our reality. He writes:
“Humans are dreaming all the time. Before we were born the humans before us created a big outside dream that we will call society’s dream or the dream of the planet. The dream of the planet is the collective dream of billions of smaller, personal dreams, which together create a dream of a family, a dream of a community, a dream of a city, a dream of a country, and finally a dream of the whole of humanity. The dream of the planet includes all of society’s rules, its beliefs, its laws, its religions, its different cultures and ways to be, its governments, schools, social events, and holidays.”
This dream of the planet is taught to us, by rote, from the time we are born. First it’s taught to us by our mothers and fathers, and then by school and the outside world. Through this shared dream we learn what is good and what is bad, what is possible and what is impossible, what is acceptable and what is unacceptable. We learn how to live in society, and one of the most fundamental agreements that is required of us to be accepted by our community is that the dream of that community is objective truth.
Ruis emphasizes that all the things that we claim as our most fundamental beliefs are not really our own. He writes:
“It was not your choice to speak English. You didn’t choose your religion or your moral values—they were already there before you were born. We never had the opportunity to choose what to believe or what not to believe. We never chose even the smallest of these agreements. We didn’t even choose our own name.”
And so if we’re asking how it is that we could be so wrong and not know it, the Toltec answer would be that it’s simply the nature of the shared dream. And the Toltec culture weren’t the only ancient people to hold this sort of view of reality.
Over the last two episodes, in my interviews with Dr. Diana Walsh Pasulka and Dr. James Madden, we took a deep dive into Plato’s allegory of the Cave. If you haven’t gotten a chance to listen to those interviews yet, I highly recommend that you go back and do so. The ideas there serve as a great introduction and means of framing the ideas that we’re going to talk about in this episode.
One of the most important ideas presented through Plato’s Cave is the idea that the default state of human civilization is that of illusion. The people in the cave are tied up and forced to watch shadows on the wall which they mistake for reality. When, on occasion, one of these strange prisoners manages to untie themselves they discover the fire behind them and the people casting shadows on the wall, and are confronted with the disturbing realization that what they thought was reality was only a shadowplay emanating from a reality that is quite literally more real.
And to any of these escaped prisoners who return to the cave to tell the others what they have seen, nothing good awaits. The prisoners don’t want to know that they are prisoners. They don’t want to consider the idea that everything that they thought was real was only an illusion. And the idea is easy to push back against because it sounds crazy to them—preposterous even. So the people who return to the cave to try to tell them the truth end up being labeled as crazy. They’re ridiculed and shunned. They might even be killed.
But it’s important to recognize that the dream of the cave isn’t the result of a conspiracy, per se—or at least, it isn’t necessarily the result of a conspiracy. Rather it is an emergent phenomenon resulting from the beliefs of the people who came before. The dream of the cave is self-creating, self-perpetuating, and self-enforcing. The vast majority of people live their entire lives inside of it and never know the difference.
It’s no easy task to wake up inside the cave. Everything about the cave reinforces the reality of the cave. Everything you learn in school, everything you see on TV, and the answer to every Google search is in some very real way a manifestation of the cave. And should you ever catch a glimpse of anything that suggests that the shadows on the wall might not be all that there is to your reality, the other prisoners are quick to remind you that such thoughts will only result in isolation and ridicule. Most of us learn to ignore such things.
Because we are so strongly disincentivized from questioning the nature of our reality, it often takes something drastic to shock someone awake. I think it’s significant that in Plato’s Cave, the prisoner who manages to get out of the cave doesn’t escape of their own volition—they are dragged out of the cave. Because in many cases it is a traumatic event or an anomalous experience that can’t be easily explained away that first causes a person to begin to question.
But, thankfully, trauma and ontological shock aren’t the only ways to escape the cave. If you’re sufficiently open-minded and curious, it’s also possible to think your way out. And if you can manage it, that’s definitely the way to go. Because while there are still plenty of trials and pitfalls along the way for those who take that path, it certainly beats being dragged.
So where should we begin?
Just like in a 12-step program, the first step in beating our addiction to consensus reality is admitting that we have a problem.
Everything You Know Is Wrong
And boy, do we have a problem.
As you recall, in 1897, the physicist William Thomson, Lord Kelvin looked at all the tremendous advancements in electricity, astronomy and biology that marked his age and concluded: “There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.”
And our boy simply could not have been more wrong. Just two decades later, the discovery of quantum mechanics blasted a hole in the hull of classical physics, and it’s been taking on water ever since.
When William Thomson, Lord Kelvin made that infamous statement at the turn of the 20th century, it represented the prevailing view of the time. And the fact that he was proven to be decisively wrong has done little to prevent that from being the prevailing viewpoint today. Even among scientists who acknowledge the clear issues created by the discovery of quantum mechanics, most still seem to be functioning under the assumption that all of this is just a temporary setback—that what is broken about physics is fixable.
I simply don’t agree. The more we discover about the universe and nature of reality, the less it makes sense. Instead of moving ever closer toward a theory of everything that would unite the various theories of science into a coherent whole, such a theory seems to be receding rapidly away from us.
As a result, there is a rising chorus of voices from within the scientific establishment itself that is making the very strong argument that it might be time to admit that our current paradigms are no longer tenable in the face of emerging scientific discoveries. And humanity might be on the precipice of a profound shift in perspective to which quantum leaps of the past, from the discovery of fire to the recognition that the Earth revolves around the Sun, surely pale in comparison.
And before we begin, I just want to make a few things clear:
First of all, though I recognize that I’m making some big claims in this episode, I want to emphasize that nothing that I’m saying here about various scientific theories is particularly controversial. These aren’t fringe theories. By and large, what I’m presenting here in this episode is the exact partyline of mainstream science.
The only thing that is controversial about what I’m saying is that I’m asking, “Does this actually make sense?” I’m asking if perhaps the Emperor might have forgotten his clothes. Because, as I’ll argue, these theories heavily rely on a combination of unsupported absurdities and outright denial of the question at hand as the duct tape barely holding this old jalopy for a worldview together.
And we won’t need PhDs to explore these ideas. We don’t need to get deep into the weeds with the particulars of these theories themselves. Because, as we’ll see, the issue with these theories doesn’t lie in the details. The rot is structural. It’s in the very foundation of the ideas themselves.
The second point of clarification that I’d like to make is that, because of the way these conversations are usually framed in our culture, you might hear my arguments against consensus reality as an argument for the existence of God. That is not my purpose here, and I intentionally have stayed out of that debate. What I’m advocating for here is that we work toward new theories that have the ability to integrate all of human experience and discovery. Those theories may or may not end up pointing to the existence of God, but that is well above my pay grade.
And the final thing that I want to make clear is that I don’t think that any of what I’ll talk about in this episode is the result of some sort of conspiracy among scientists and academics to hide the truth from us. Nor do I think that mainstream scientists are inherently dogmatic, backward, or dumb. In my experience, these people tend to be extremely intelligent, hardworking, and do their jobs in good faith for the betterment of humanity as a whole. And I think it’s extremely important that when we challenge the scientific establishment that we not forget that it’s made up of good people who are earnestly doing their best.
The reality of science is that, given a long enough time line, even the brightest minds end up on the wrong side of history. Our quest to understand the cosmos and ourselves has always been fraught with setbacks, deadends, and circuitous detours that bring us, maddeningly, right back to where we started. Men and women will dedicate their entire lives to developing one single idea only to have it washed away like a sandcastle by the next wave of discovery and innovation.
There’s a real nobility to that. It’s something that I deeply respect. Nothing that I’m saying here is meant to be an attack on the institutions of science and academia. But I hope that it might serve, in some small way, as a call to action.
As we’ve discussed in the past few episodes in our exploration of Plato’s cave, humans are natural cave builders. We create meaning-making narratives to explain our world, and our society functions on the basis of our agreement to those narratives. These narratives are usually very useful. They help us with everything from building a spaceship to quieting that nagging voice in the back of your head that something about the nature of your reality isn’t quite right.
And so we become very attached to these narratives. Because they help us. But we need to always be aware that just because an idea is useful doesn’t mean that it’s true. “My Very Educated Mother Just Made Us Nine Pizzas” is a useful pneumonic device for remembering the order of the planets, but it doesn’t have any truth value on its own. And “Pizzas” aren’t even a planet anymore.
The argument that I’m making in this episode is simply this:
Our current meaning-making narratives have outgrown their utility. We have progressed to the point where we need new ones. And if we look at the ways in which our current models fail, those things might point us in the direction of a new “official story of everything” that allows for the full scope of human experience and which allows us to draw better conclusions about the nature of our reality.
The Big Bang
Let’s start with the Big Bang.
Terrence McKenna famously said, “Modern science is based on the principle: ‘Give us one free miracle and we’ll explain the rest.”
The Big Bang is that “free miracle”. Though it’s presented to us in school as the “scientific explanation” for the existence of everything, if you ask even the most basic and immediate questions that come to mind, you may start to get the sense that the Big Bang isn’t actually all that scientific—and that it doesn’t really explain anything either.
The miracle of the Big Bang is how it manages to get everything from nothing. It’s the ultimate magic trick, but instead of pulling a rabbit out of a hat, the Big Bang pulls everything that ever was or ever will be out of absolute nothingness. It’s a task so big that it was once believed that it could only be the work of God. But since it was proposed in 1931, the Big Bang has become the prevailing theory for the origins of the universe—at least among 99.9% of the members of the National Academy of Sciences.
However, if you look closely, you’ll see that the Big Bang doesn’t actually dispatch any of our questions about where the universe came from, it just tucks them conveniently out of sight with some quick sleight of hand.
I’ll show you how it works. We’ll start with one of the most obvious questions that an elementary school student might have upon hearing about the Big Bang: What happened before the big bang?
The official answer is this: Time can only arise alongside matter and energy. There was no time before the Big Bang, so the question has no meaning.
See? Sleight of hand. Now you see it, now you don’t.
Let’s try another one: What is the universe expanding into?
And the official answer?
You can’t have space without objects defining it, so the question doesn’t have meaning. Also, you can’t think about the Universe from the outside. There is nothing outside of the Universe, so the question is nonsensical.
Do you see what I mean? The Big Bang theory doesn’t really explain anything when it comes to the origins of the universe. It just shuffles things around so that all of the most profound questions that we have are out of bounds.
And there’s something deeply unsatisfying about that. Because when we inquire into what it was that brought the universe into existence, most people aren’t asking about the exact series of events that immediately followed its creation, which is ultimately all that the Big Bang deals with. We’re asking where the universe came from. We’re asking why it happened—what caused it and how?
And those are the very questions that proponents of the Big Bang theory tell us are meaningless. It’s a very Wizard of Oz moment. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain!”
I suspect that this might be the reason why, despite the fact that the vast majority of scientists believe in the Big Bang, a majority of Americans aren’t so sure.
In 2014, an AP poll reported that 51% of Americas said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the statement “the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” was correct. And basically all of the news outlets that covered this story included quotes from road-weary scientists throwing up their hands in dismay over the fact that people just aren’t accepting the science. But I’d argue that, in this case, scientists are asking people to accept their answer to a question without recognizing that it’s fundamentally not the question that was asked.
Think about it this way. Even if you could account for every single thing that happened in the minute immediately following the initial impact of a car accident, you still couldn’t be entirely sure of what caused the accident. You could make a decent guess based on the trajectory of the cars and people involved, but that wouldn’t tell you the whole story.
Was it caused by road rage? Negligence? A drunk driver? A heart attack? An honest mistake? We have no way of gaining the full picture of what happened if we only look at the aftermath.
And it’s the same with the Big Bang. We tend to think of the universe like billiard balls with objects smashing into each other and knocking each other around in predictable, measurable ways. And in that way, we aren’t that much different than our old friend, William Thomson, Lord Kelvin. We assume that the laws of physics are more or less figured out, and that given enough time and processing power that we could look at the speed and direction of all the objects in the Universe as they are now and run back the tape to the very beginning of time to see what happened.
And in a lot of ways, that’s basically what we’ve done with the Big Bang. We know that the Universe is expanding rapidly outward from its center, and so we assume that it must have started from there. We run the tape all the way back to the first microseconds of the universe and make assumptions about what must have happened and what the conditions must have been like. But even if all of the many assumptions that we’ve made all turn out to be correct, we still haven’t answered the question about who hit play in the first place.
And you might think that question is falling into the trap of anthropomorphizing a physical process. “Just because we don’t know how it happened, doesn’t mean that ‘God did it,’” you say as you shake your fist.
And I don’t disagree. “Who pressed play?” may not be the right question. But what we’re talking about here is trying to understand where we got this perfectly tuned universe in which every physical action has a physical cause. And we find that there are only two explanations within our current paradigm. Either 1.) the universe is infinite and has no beginning or end, which doesn’t seem likely, or 2.) it was set into motion by some uncaused cause. A first mover—something outside of the bubble of space and time that erupted into being at the start of the universe. You can call that God, or not. It doesn’t really matter for the purposes of this conversation.
But the question is there, and the question is legitimate. And the question has not been answered by science. The only thing that science has succeeded in is convincing people that the biggest questions that we have about our origins are meaningless, while giving us nothing to replace them. And that is not an answer.
Now, to be fair, science actually does have an answer for what caused the Big Bang. The official party line is this:
We observe particles materializing in empty space and then vanishing; these are quantum mechanical fluctuations. Given enough time, one would expect the fluctuation to involve so many particles that an entire Universe would appear.
So basically, one of the many weird things about quantum mechanics (which we’ll get to shortly) is that particles can sometimes appear and disappear in space. And so given enough time, eventually this would randomly happen to so many particles simultaneously that the universe would spring into being much in the manner that we see with the Big Bang.
But I’d argue that there are serious and glaring issues with this idea, as well. First of all, the idea that given enough time an unspeakably vast number of particles would randomly appear in the same place at once to create the universe requires time. That implies a timeline and a reality existing outside and separate from our universe, because, as we already established, space and time didn’t exist before the Big Bang. So once again we’re given this hint that there is something on the other side of the curtain. But if you want to be taken seriously in polite, educated society, you are only allowed to gesture at it vaguely. You aren’t allowed to ask what it is.
And my other issue with this is that it uses the loophole of infinity as a crutch to explain the unexplainable. This is a trick that is used in a few different places in the “official story of everything” to prop up some of the ideas for which there is literally no rational justification. And, frankly, I call bullshit.
The entire argument rests on the idea that given an infinite amount of time, everything that could happen will eventually happen. And there are a few issues with that.
First of all, we don’t have proof that infinity even exists. Infinity is generally regarded to be simply a useful idea. We use it in math and science all the time to do calculations that would otherwise be impossible, and it works. But like the square root of -1, we don’t have any proof that infinity is something that can exist more than hypothetically.
So for this idea to work, we have to assume infinite time (something for which we have no proof) and this infinite time has to exist somehow apart or separate from the space-time in which we currently find ourselves embedded, which means that we can’t verify it or even meaningfully inquire about it.
And listen—that still might be the right answer. But when we’re talking about introducing an idea for which there is no evidence, and which by its very nature can’t be proven one way or another, there is literally no reason for us to show any kind of preference for that answer over any other. To do so requires a blind leap of faith that would make the most stalwart young-Earth creationists proud—if they weren’t too busy disagreeing with the conclusion.
And there are other issues with the Big Bang. For example, the Big Bang explains where everything we see, everything that has form, and all of the known energies in the universe comes from. However, all of these things only comprise 4% of what the actual universe is made of. 96% of the universe is composed of dark matter and dark energy, and we literally don’t know what those things are. So it’s actually quite bold of us to assume that we have definitive answers on where the universe came from, when we don’t even know what 96% of it even is.
The Ghost In The Machine
And while the Big Bang is the “one free miracle” to which Terrence McKenna referred, if you look closely at the “official story of everything” you begin to realize that scientists are asking for more than just that one miracle. They’re asking for several.
One of the biggest mysteries about the origin of life is how the universe came to be so perfectly tuned to support it. All four of the universe’s four forces and all of its constants don’t just allow for life, they seem to be specifically coded to encourage it. And the chances of things just happening to unfold that way are astronomically small. The slightest change in the initial conditions of the universe could have resulted in a version of the universe where life isn’t possible.
For example, if the Big Bang had been one-part-in-a-million more powerful, it would have expanded too quickly for the galaxies, and therefore life, to develop. If the strong nuclear force were decreased by just 2 percent, atomic nuclei wouldn’t hold together, and the universe would be filled with nothing but hydrogen. If the gravitational force were decreased by just a hair, stars (including the Sun) would not ignite.
The carbon that is in our bodies and that is necessary for life as we know it to exist is created by nuclear reactions inside of stars. But until about 50 years ago scientists weren’t sure how this happened. Most nuclear reactions occur when two extremely fast-moving atomic nuclei or protons collide and fuse to form a heavier element that is usually helium. It shouldn’t be possible to manufacture carbon by this process because all the intermediate elements from helium to carbon have highly unstable nuclei. The only way for it to work would be for three helium nuclei to collide at the same time. But the likelihood of that happening is miniscule—and it certainly couldn’t happen at a rate high enough to account for all of the carbon in the universe.
What scientists eventually discovered was that carbon has a resonant state at just the correct energy that causes helium to come together in precisely this way. As a result of this resonance, stars are hardwired to be able to produce carbon in large quantities.
These examples are just a few of more than 200 hundred physical parameters within the solar system and universe that had to be precisely calibrated for life to emerge. Given that fact, it’s clear that by far the most likely result of the Big Bang would have been a lifeless universe. In fact, the chances are so miniscule that a universe suitable to life as we know it could emerge, that it’s led some scientists to ask how it could be that we happen to find ourselves in this exceedingly unlikely “Goldilocks Universe” where everything seems to be just right.
And the official answer contains more of the familiar sleight of hand. It goes like this:
If gravity was a touch stronger, or if the Big Bang had just a little less bang, we wouldn’t be here to ask about it. Because we’re here, the universe had to be calibrated in a way for us to emerge, so it’s actually not unlikely at all. Case closed.
If you find that answer to be unsatisfying, you’re certainly not alone. In his 1989 book, Universes, philosopher John Leslie wrote:
“A man in front of a firing squad of one hundred riflemen is going to be pretty surprised if every bullet misses him. Sure he could say to himself, ‘Of course they all missed; that makes perfect sense, otherwise I wouldn’t be here to wonder why they all missed.’ But anyone in his or her right mind is going to want to know how such an unlikely event occurred.”
Once again, the answer that we’re given isn’t an answer. It’s a non-answer that attempts to sidestep the question by making it meaningless. And the fact that the universe is perfectly calibrated to support life is only the first of three “miracles of life” that we have to account for.
The second “miracle of life” lies in the fact that it emerged at all. We have no idea how that happened. There are theories, of course. Most involve slow, random changes over billions of years. Like we discussed in episode 15, the Moon may have played a role in the emergence of life by churning the oceans and causing the tides, turning the surface of the Earth into a giant chemistry set that eventually, by dumb luck, struck upon the formula for life.
And sure. Maybe that’s how it happened. But it’s just a theory. And the reality is that, even if that’s exactly the series of events that led to the emergence of life on Earth, we still don’t understand the mechanism by which that happened. We have no way of explaining through any current theory how inert matter can somehow become alive.
Even the simplest single-celled organism contains an inner complexity that makes it difficult to imagine how it could emerge entirely at random. The simplest single-celled organism has been shown to require somewhere between 265 and 350 genes to survive and reproduce in a lab. But where did the genes to create the first single-celled organisms come from? It’s the ultimate “chicken-and-the-egg” scenario. And like with the Big Bang, we’re given elaborate descriptions about how a fire grows in response to our question about what lit the first spark.
And the third “miracle of life” is that despite being able to describe many of the processes of life, we have no real idea of what life is. Scientists have not even been able to strike upon a consistent list of the characteristics of life. A commonly accepted list of traits includes: order, growth and development, homeostasis, metabolism, reaction to stimuli, reproduction, and evolution.
However, it’s extremely easy to begin to poke holes in this list of characteristics. There are exceptions that can be found to every rule. For example, crystals are not generally considered to be alive, yet they are highly organized and they grow. A fire consumes energy and grows. And on the other end of the spectrum, bacteria, tardigrades, and even some crustaceans can enter long periods of dormancy where all growth, change, and metabolism cease entirely, yet they aren’t technically dead.
The strange truth is that we don’t really know what life is. We believe instinctively that there is a clear and obvious difference between a dog and a crystal, between a bacterium and a grain of sand. But when pushed to clearly identify what that difference is, we find that we come up empty. There seems to be a ghost in the machine, but we don’t have the right language to name it.
Some have gone so far as to argue that the reason that we can’t name the difference between things that are alive and things that aren’t, is that there is no difference—and that life doesn’t actually exist.
In an article for Scientific American entitled Why Life Does Not Really Exist, writer Ferris Jabr argues:
“Life is a concept that we invented. On the most fundamental level, all matter that exists is an arrangement of atoms and their constituent particles. These arrangements fall onto an immense spectrum of complexity, from a single hydrogen atom to something as intricate as a brain. In trying to define life, we have drawn a line at an arbitrary level of complexity and declared that everything above that border is alive and everything below it is not. In truth, this division does not exist outside the mind. There is no threshold at which a collection of atoms suddenly becomes alive, no categorical distinction between the living and inanimate, no Frankensteinian spark. We have failed to define life because there was never anything to define in the first place.”
And this is exactly the absurdist position that we find ourselves in again and again. We inquire after the origins and nature of life, and finding that our models aren’t sufficient to explain it, it is decided that it’s not a question worth answering anyway. Anything that doesn’t make sense about it is just in your head. And if you question that, you’re the crazy one.
The Hard Problem of Consciousness
And if life is hard to explain within our current paradigm, it has nothing on what is perhaps the most baffling mystery in all of science—consciousness. At least in the case of the origins of life, we may not know what lit the initial spark, but we have a pretty decent idea of the biochemical processes that make it work. The discovery of DNA, in particular, has helped us to literally decode many of what used to be life’s more mysterious aspects.
With consciousness, however, we’ve made no such progress. In fact, not only can scientists not explain how consciousness arose, our current scientific models don’t even allow for the existence of consciousness. I’ll say that again: our current scientific models don’t even allow for the existence of consciousness.
And this is a major problem. In fact, there is no bigger problem in all of science. Because all of science, all of logic, all of human accomplishment, and even our ability to sit here and have this conversation is only possible because of consciousness. Everything that you’ve ever felt, seen, thought, or experienced has been a result of consciousness.
In the words of famed theoretical physicist, Max Planck: “We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
And yet, despite this self-evident and entirely undeniable fact, we don’t have a single way to account for consciousness with any of our current models. The best we’ve managed to do is to sort the things that we don’t know about consciousness into two buckets: the easy problem of consciousness and the hard problem of consciousness.
The easy problem of consciousness has to do with explaining how various phenomena related to consciousness work. These phenomena include things like:
- the ability to discriminate, categorize, and react to environmental stimuli;
- the integration of information by a cognitive system;
- the reportability of mental states;
- the ability of a system to access its own internal states;
- the focus of attention;
- the deliberate control of behavior;
- the difference between being asleep and awake.
And we refer to this as the “easy problem of consciousness” because, even though we don’t know how any of those things work right now, we are holding out hope that some kind of a breakthrough will do for consciousness what DNA did for the understanding of the processes for life. Perhaps such a breakthrough could provide us with some sort of a Rosetta stone that will show us how these phenomena map to particular structures and processes within the brain.
It’s not actually an easy problem at all, but it’s at least easy in comparison because we think we have some prayer of solving it at some point in the future. With the hard problem of consciousness we have no such expectation.
The hard problem of consciousness is a philosophical issue that has perplexed scholars for centuries. It is the question of how subjective experience arises from physical matter, or more simply put, why and how our brains create consciousness. Despite the significant advancements made in the fields of neuroscience and cognitive science, we still do not have a satisfactory answer to this question.
At the heart of the hard problem of consciousness is the idea that consciousness is not reducible to physical processes. While scientists can observe brain activity and measure neural responses to stimuli, these observations do nothing to explain the subjective experience of consciousness. In other words, science can describe some of the neurological processes that occur in your brain when you see a red apple, but it can’t explain why you have an experience of the red apple.
Think about it this way. What actually happens when you see the red apple?
The process of seeing the apple begins when light bounces off of the apple and enters the eye through the cornea, the clear outer covering of the eye. After passing through the cornea, the light enters the pupil, the black circular opening in the center of the eye. The size of the pupil can change depending on the amount of light present, with the pupil constricting in bright light and dilating in low light conditions.
The light then passes through the lens, which adjusts its shape to help focus the light onto the retina, a layer of light-sensitive cells at the back of the eye. The retina contains two types of photoreceptor cells: rods and cones. Rods are more sensitive to light and are responsible for our ability to see in low light conditions, while cones are responsible for our color vision and our ability to see fine detail.
When light hits the photoreceptor cells in the retina, it triggers a chemical reaction that produces an electrical signal. These signals are then transmitted through the optic nerve to the brain, where they are processed and interpreted as visual images.
The brain then combines the signals from both eyes to create a three-dimensional image of the world. This process, known as binocular vision, allows us to perceive depth and distance.
And all that is well and good. You might even be persuaded to think, based on all that, that we understand how sight works. But when you look at the red apple, where does that “sight” occur? You aren’t seeing “with” your eyes. Your eyes are just acting like a switchboard sending the signals to where they need to go in your brain. It’s your brain that then translates that signal into sight.
And strangely, these visual impulses are translated into what you see in the occipital lobe, which is in the back of your head, nowhere near your eyes. So where is it that your experience of sight takes place?
Maybe you’ve never thought about it before. Most people haven’t. Our subjective experience is the most fundamental element of every aspect of our lives from birth to death and so it takes a bit of an intuitive leap to be able to zoom out and begin to ask questions about the nature of your experience and what it means.
We have no way to explain the interiority and the subjective nature of experience. We can’t explain why it is that you have a sense of being you and I have a sense of being me. Even my cat seems to have her own unique lived experience. If we are nothing more than complex arrangements of physical matter, we have no way of explaining how it is that matter, when arranged in particular ways, takes on the quality of being aware of itself and wondering what it will have for dinner.
And the fact that we each have our own subjective experience is what makes this problem even more difficult to solve. If you’ve ever wondered to yourself when you look at the sky if the blue you’re seeing is the same as the blue someone else sees, then you understand the crux of the issue.
When we talk about the color blue, we assume that we are talking about the same thing. But because I have no way to access your personal, subjective experience of the color blue, and you have no way to access mine, we will spend our entire lives talking about the color blue without ever knowing if we’re talking about the same experience.
And that’s what is so baffling about the hard problem of consciousness. Because we are conscious, intelligent beings, we are able to do things that would otherwise be impossible. We can go to the Moon, take an x-ray of a broken bone, and talk to friends on the other side of the world with the push of a button. And yet, although all of this is only possible because of our conscious minds, we have absolutely no idea what consciousness is or how it works. It’s actually kind of stunning when you think about it.
Quantum Mechanics Breaks Everything
And the mystery concerning consciousness doesn’t stop there. As we’ve discussed previously, about a hundred years ago quantum mechanics delivered such a shocking and decisive blow, not just to physics, but to everything about how we conceptualize the world, that a century later, we still haven’t figured out how to put the pieces back together. And at the center of the mystery that took a wrecking ball to Newtonian physics, is consciousness.
If you want to do a deeper dive on this, check out the first half of episode 5 which deals with the interdimensional hypothesis. But here’s a quick refresher.
The reason that quantum mechanics breaks our understanding of reality can be summed up in a famous experiment called the double-slit experiment.
So imagine you’re in a lab and you have a beam of photons that you can point at a screen that has two vertical, parallel slits cut into it. When that beam passes through the slits and hits a screen on the wall, what you’ll see is an alternating pattern of light and dark called an interference pattern.
The reason you get an interference pattern is because waves of light work in the same way as waves in a pool of water. When you drop a stone into a pool of water, ripples form in concentric circles that move outward. If you drop another stone in the pool next to it, another wave pattern will form. And when those waves run into each other, in some places the crest of one wave collides with the trough of another wave, causing those waves to cancel each other out. This same sort of process results in the alternating pattern that you see in the wall.
What’s strange is that, even if you stop the beam of photons and you only shoot one photon at a time at the screen with the double-slits, waiting for each photon to hit the screen on the wall before firing the next one, you will still get the same interference pattern. Which, to be clear, is completely mind-melting. How are the photons interfering with each other to create the interference pattern if we’re only sending one photon through the slits at time?
But the insanity doesn’t stop there. There is a second half to the double-slit experiment. In this part of the experiment, we introduce a device that tracks which of the two slits the photons go through. And what we find when we do the experiment again, firing one photon at the screen at a time, is that the interference pattern is now gone. The photons now form a pattern on the wall in two straight lines corresponding with the two slits on the screen.
So what is going on here? The truth is we don’t really know. What we do know is this:
If we don’t look to see which of the slits the photons went through, they behave like a wave and go through both of the slits at once and we get an interference pattern. But when we do look to see which of the slits the photons went through, they behave like a particle and only go through one slit or the other, so we don’t get an interference pattern. And although this experiment has been replicated more times and through more permutations than almost any other, this is what happens every time. And the inevitable conclusion is that the mere act of observing the photon alters its behavior.
The problem is that we have nothing within our current scientific models and paradigms that can help us understand how it can possibly be true that subatomic particles behave as though they respond to conscious thought. And yet, they do. The specifics of quantum mechanics, despite being seemingly impossible, are extremely well-documented. And we’ve used what we know of quantum mechanics to make everything from electron microscopes to lasers to atomic clocks to quantum computers. So while we can’t explain how quantum mechanics works, we know that it does work, and we can use it to understand and predict other things to an extremely high degree of accuracy.
So we find ourselves in quite a pickle. We are in a position where we have no grounds to accept the obvious conclusions of quantum mechanics, and yet we absolutely can’t dismiss them either.
Nobel physicist Richard Feynman once said, “I think it’s safe to say that no one understands quantum mechanics. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will go ‘down the drain’ into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped.”
And this seems to represent the thoughts of mainstream academia, in general, when it comes to quantum mechanics. We recognize that particles behave as though they respond to conscious thought. But in our current paradigm, we’ve decided that can’t possibly be right. So instead we’ve proceeded for the last century either under the assumption that quantum mechanics is entirely inexplicable or we’ve come up with elaborate and entirely unverifiable explanations to attempt to account for it.
Within these two camps, you’ll find the two most popular theories for the explanation of quantum mechanics, both of which have major flaws.
The first is what is known as the Copenhagen Interpretation, which was introduced by famed physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in the 1920s. This is the version that is most often taught in schools. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, we can explain the double-slit experiment by understanding that the photon exists in a blurry, indeterminate state as a wave function of probability. It doesn’t actually have a definite position until its wave function collapses—something that only happens when it is observed.
So basically, the conclusion here is that the photons actually are responding to conscious thought. But there are two major issues with this interpretation. The first is that we have no way to explain how that happens. And the second is that, if it’s true, it breaks everything that we thought we knew about the nature of our reality. You know, just a couple of minor issues.
Because the thing is that literally everything that we interact with is made up of subatomic particles. So if the Copenhagen interpretation is correct and we take the double-slit experiment at face value and accept that a photon doesn’t have a specific position until it is observed, then the clear implication is that nothing has a specific location until it is observed. And that just simply flies in the face of everything we’ve come to believe about the nature of our reality, and so there are those who simply throw up their hands and say that quantum mechanics defies explanation.
In an attempt to save physics from the implications of quantum mechanics, other interpretations have been introduced, the most popular of which is the Many Worlds Interpretation. Developed by Hugh Everett in 1957, the Many Worlds Interpretation states that the wave function is the true nature of reality, and therefore, it never actually collapses—it only appears to collapse because we can only see one of a potentially infinite number of outcomes.
When the observer looks to see which slit the photon goes through they see just one possible outcome, because they are only aware of one world. But in reality there are many, potentially infinite worlds, in which every possible quantum probability gets a chance to play itself out. And every world is equally real to the people living in it.
So in your world you see one outcome, but there is a world that exists for each and every possible outcome, and in each of those worlds “you” are experiencing only that outcome. And if that hurts your brain, consider that the photon isn’t the only quantum system in this scenario. You, as the observer, are part of the quantum system, as well. So each of your actions and decisions plays out in this same way with every permutation of every possibility playing out somewhere out there in a world that looks a lot like this one, but isn’t.
The basic premise of the Many Worlds Interpretation is that everything that can happen does happen. And, as we discussed earlier, I take issue with this approach. First of all, we don’t have any proof that either infinity or other dimensions actually exist—they might, but we don’t have one shred of tangible proof for that. So when we are backed into a corner we can’t just pull the escape hatch into infinite other dimensions and call that an answer.
One of the most problematic elements of the Many Worlds Interpretation is its implications for free will. Because with this theory it’s not just that everything that can happen does happen, but that everything that can happen has to happen. And when taken to that extreme, an infinite reality is, inherently, a deterministic reality—and any illusion that we have of making a choice is simply the forced perspective of only having awareness of one reality at a time.
And that’s unsettling. I don’t think that anyone likes the idea of being just another cog in a cosmic wheel. We want to believe that we have choices and that we can shape our own destiny—or at the very least, that what we do matters.
And I personally don’t think it’s just the protestations of our fragile human egos that makes us feel that way. We all seem to have a deep sense that free will is intrinsic to our humanity. It’s hard to fully embrace a theory that deals so dismissively with something that seems so foundational to our lived experience.
And sure, I can admit that just because I don’t like the idea that we might not have free will doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. It could be. But I’m deeply suspicious of any framework that attempts to solve our deepest existential questions by insisting that some of the most self-evident realities we encounter, like the existence or free will or even the existence of life as something fundamentally different than inert matter, are mere illusions—especially when there is not a single shred of tangible evidence to back up those claims. And especially not when it’s done in an effort to prop up a failing theory that’s already shot through with theoretical bullet holes.
Space-Time Is Doomed
And it’s not just the issue of consciousness that makes quantum mechanics incompatible with our current paradigms. Quantum mechanics also manages to break the concept of space-time in such a profound way that it’s led many scientists to speculate that the view of space-time as the fundamental fabric of reality is ultimately doomed.
The core problem with space-time arises from the conflict between general relativity and quantum mechanics, the two most successful theories in physics. General relativity describes gravity as the curvature of space-time, while quantum mechanics deals with the behavior of particles and fields at the microscopic level. However, when these two theories are combined, they give rise to mathematical inconsistencies and contradictions that suggest the breakdown of the space-time concept.
One of the major issues with space-time is that it assumes that the fabric of the universe is continuous and smooth, which is not consistent with the quantum nature of reality. In quantum mechanics, particles and fields are described in terms of discrete packets of energy, and their behavior is subject to the uncertainty principle, which makes it impossible to know both their position and momentum precisely. This means that space-time cannot be a continuous fabric, but must be made up of discrete units or quanta.
Moreover, the space-time concept is also challenged by the existence of singularities, such as those found in black holes. According to general relativity, the gravitational force of a black hole is so strong that it warps the fabric of space-time to the point of becoming infinitely curved, leading to a singularity where the laws of physics break down. This suggests that space-time cannot be a fundamental concept, but rather a phenomenon that emerges from the behavior of matter and energy.
So once again, we find ourselves in a place where we are confronted with the walls of our known reality and the hint that something else might lie beyond it. After all, what happens inside of a black hole when space-time breaks down? And if space-time is just an emergent property of matter and energy, doesn’t that imply the existence of some deeper reality beneath space-time?
The Emperor Has No Clothes
I could go on for countless hours dismantling the official “story of everything”. It could be its own podcast called Everything You Know Is Wrong, and I don’t think we’d ever run out of topics for discussion. And even with the topics we have covered, just know that we’ve only scratched the surface. There is so much more that can be said. I’ll include a reading list for this episode so that you can dive deeper into any of these topics if you’re interested in learning more.
Yet, even though we’ve only just scratched the surface, I think that what we have covered is more than enough to compellingly make the case that our most fundamental meaning-making models are irretrievably flawed.
Let’s do a quick recap:
- We don’t know what caused the Big Bang. And the theory of the Big Bang does nothing itself to explain the origins of the universe, only what happened in the immediate aftermath of being formed. And even then, we can only account for 4% of what makes up the universe. The other 96% remains a mystery to us.
- We don’t know how the universe, against astronomically impossible odds, became so perfectly well-suited to life. And even in the context of this perfectly tuned “Goldilocks universe” we have no idea how it is that inert matter somehow gave rise to life. And actually, now that you mention it, we don’t even know what life is. Although its existence is self-evident, we can’t come up with a single working definition to describe what life is that makes it distinct from anything else in the universe.
- We also don’t know how consciousness arose. Our scientific models don’t even allow for the existence of consciousness. We have no way to account for the experience of consciousness. And although it is the result of our consciousness that we are able to know anything, we find that we are unable to say much about consciousness itself with any kind of certainty.
- We have known for a century that quantum mechanics breaks all of our existing models. The undeniable implication of the double-slit experiment is that subatomic particles, and therefore, reality itself responds to conscious thought. But because we’ve decided that can’t be true scientists generally throw up their hands and say that quantum mechanics is somehow inexplicable. We deny the clear implications of quantum mechanics even as we leverage the exact properties that we deny to create next-generation technologies.
- We have discovered through quantum mechanics that space-time, which we have largely regarded to be the fabric of reality, is actually an emergent phenomenon which implies a deeper, more fundamental reality.
And most damning of all is this: the fact that we are asking these questions presupposes the existence of not just the universe, but of life and consciousness, and yet our most basic meaning-making models can’t account for any of those things. They don’t even attempt to grapple with them. They are simply swept unceremoniously under the rug, and anyone who asks after them is shamed for trying.
So why are we so endlessly committed to these narratives? I mean, sure, our scientific models allow us to do incredible things in our physical world, so we don’t need to rush to throw the baby out with the bathwater or anything. But when they fail to answer our most basic questions about the nature of our reality, and when they fail to in any way account for the most significant aspects of that reality (namely life and consciousness) then our loyalty to them shouldn’t go any further than their utility.
So much of our inquiry into the UFO phenomenon boils down to a question of what is possible. And when we look at the models that we use to make those kinds of determinations, what we quickly discover is that we simply don’t have enough information to be making any kinds of proclamations about what is possible and what isn’t. There are holes in our theories that are more than big enough for an entire fleet of UFOs to fly through.
I think it’s time to admit that the emperor has no clothes.
The Walls Of The Cave
What’s interesting about this exercise of questioning consensus reality is that in the process of doing so we don’t just find definitive proof that the “official story of everything” is but a shadowplay on the wall, but the shape of the cave itself begins to reveal itself to us.
The problems with the narrative of consensus reality reveal themselves as limitations in the kinds of information that we are able to access. Everywhere we turn there are walls. When we inquire after the origins of the universe, we find that we run into this wall right at the moment of its creation. It’s there again at the furthest edges of the universe when we ask what the universe is expanding into. And inside of blackholes when space-time breaks down. Everywhere that we get close to answering the questions about the ultimate origins and nature of reality, there is this veil—a horizon past which we cannot see.
And there’s something about that reality that is unsettling. Why are we boxed in this way? Why are the answers to the most profound questions about who we are and what we are and where we are always on the other side of some impenetrable veil?
Is this just what it means to be a human and therefore a Platonian cave-builder? Or could it be that the walls of the cave aren’t only self-created. What if they were created by something else—something that wants to keep us contained?
And that’s where we’ll pick this up next time—with the question that arises inevitably from our discovery of the walls of our cave: are we living in a simulation?
Until next time.
- Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe | By Robert Lanza with Bob Berman
- The Case Against Reality: How Evolution Hid The Truth From Our Eyes | Donald D. Hoffman
- The Demon In the Machine |Paul Davies
- A Majority of Americans Still Aren’t Sure About the Big Bang | The Atlantic