I think one of the things most people simply don’t understand when talking about complex subjects is the importance of being able to shift one’s perception of scale. Some subjects and concerns are really on valid at a particular scale, yet I continually run into people who get stuck at a particular view and cannot seem to shift to any other. This is also true of people who are only able to think in terms of their own particular culture or belief system, I think most of us have encountered the religious people who are totally unable to step back and consider reality from any other viewpoint but their own, they are so intensely married to their religious beliefs that, as far as they’re concerned, no other valid beliefs can possibly exist. This problem does not seem to be one of ideology, it applies equally to atheists and theists, liberals and conservatives, rich and poor, young and old, black and white. Unfortunately, this is also true politically as well. People get convinced that their current beliefs, religious, political or cultural, are the only beliefs that could possibly ever be valid. It seems to be a human problem, but it’s one that we really need to deal with.
So what do I mean by “scale”? A scale is a particular measure of the world around us, it is a resolution at which we examine a particular item or idea. At any particular resolution, you both gain detail but lose scope. If you look through a microscope at an object, you will see things that you could not see with the naked eye, but you will lose much of the overall view of the whole object. A microscope is better at seeing some things and worse at seeing others. Your eyes, likewise, are worse at seeing fine detail than a microscope, but better at seeing more of the surrounding information than a microscope. A telescope, likewise, has good and bad points compared to other resolutions. The trick of gaining the best understanding of any particular subject matter rests on selecting the proper resolution at which to examine it.
Lots of people are simply incapable or unskilled at doing so.
Let’s look at some of these.
Scale 1: The Individual. This is the scale of you. If I had to pick one scale from which the most problems stem, it would be this one. Far too many people seem entirely unable to distance themselves from their own beliefs or their own positions. Every argument they make, every position they take, is from the point of view of their own outlook on life. Most of us have encountered this when we debate the religious. How many theists have told us that morality can only come from their religion? Why? Because they believe that’s the only place it can come from. They are unable to set aside their own beliefs and look at things from any other perspective. As far as they are concerned, no other perspective can possibly exist or be valid. This is certainly not a problem only for the religious, it’s a political problem too. Lots of people think their political views are the only valid views out there, simply because they hold them. Like it or not, there are more people, more ideas, more morals, more beliefs in the world than just theirs, in fact, it could be fairly said that all of those things exist differently for every single person on the face of the planet and every single person who has ever, or will ever, lived. Therefore, the idea that any particular view automatically applies or appeals to every single person is ludicrous on it’s face. You probably couldn’t get two people who agree on everything.
Scale 2: The Group. This can be any group of people, from a handful of individuals to an entire society or nation. To be honest, this seems to be where a lot of people get stuck as well. It comes when people are unable to see beyond their own social or cultural biases, they assume that because the culture in which they live sees things a certain way, that all other cultures must see it the same way, or any cultures that do not are automatically wrong. There are also plenty of people who assume that whatever the modern-day morals, views and opinions of reality must be factually true, therefore they can be made to apply to any culture at any time in history. If they don’t agree, they must have been wrong. Once you start talking about people outside of your particular group, this resolution loses a lot of value, there’s no reason to think that everyone does, or ought to, share your views. Change your viewpoint.
Scale 3. The Planet. This seems relatively commonplace among people who seem to be under the delusion that humanity is generally important and therefore has some form of authority. Even on a planetary scale, we’re not that hot. Certainly, we’ve managed to find a way to live in most places on the planet, but let’s not forget that this planet was never made for us. 70% of the planet is covered with water, a place we’ve not evolved to live. Much of the land surface is equally inhospitable, deserts or ice fields, places we cannot live without massive alterations to the landscape or technological aids to ourselves. Yes, we have managed, through artificial means, to shape the planet to our wills, but often as a detriment to the other species we share this world with, as well as ourselves. We need to stop pretending that everything revolves around us and take a larger, non-humanocentric approach, especially as we become more technologically savvy and gain the ability to move away from this tiny blue ball we call home. I think it’s safe to say that if we ever do meet intelligent life out in the universe, they’re not going to be impressed.
Scale 4. The Universe. I think there are more people who should think at this scale than actually do sometimes. In fact, there are so many people who seem absolutely enamored with our frail human bodies and our tiny pale blue planet, how important we must be to everyone and everything in the universe. However, if we can step back for a minute, it becomes painfully clear just how little we mean in the grand scheme of things. We’re just an insignificant species on an insignificant planet in an insignificant solar system, on the spiral arm of an insignificant galaxy. If we, as a species, simply vanished tomorrow, nobody would ever care. No matter how many other forms of life may exist in the universe, the overwhelming majority would never know we had ever existed. Those few that came across our bleached bones might find us a biological curiosity, but certainly nothing more. All of our art and music, our architecture and achievements are meaningless against the grandeur of the universe. Let’s not fool ourselves and think we’re God’s gift to reality. We’re just not. In fact, that’s a good point to those who think some imaginary friend in the sky made everything just for us. There are at least 100 billion galaxies in the visible universe, each with billions of stars. Are you seriously telling me that some all-powerful deity created all of that, only to stick us on an insignificant rock in the middle of nowhere? Seriously?
Scale 5: Temporal. This is an oddball, but I bring it up because I find it creeping into debates quite often. It is the position that only the beliefs or positions that existed at a particular point in time, are valid in any time period, that people must accept that a particular position is applicable at all times and in all places. Most often, this seems to apply to morality, that the ideas we find moral today, just because we find them moral today, automatically can be applied to any time or place in history and they over-ride whatever morality they happened to value at that time. Yes, it’s absurd but it happens pretty consistently, both from the theist and atheist side of the aisle. The fact is, our morals are subjective. We view things through a particular social lens, we think things are right or wrong, good or evil, based on the society and culture in which we live or were raised. The idea that that society or culture is automatically perfect and totally objectively correct is really pretty ridiculous, you can go through history and every culture out there has thought the same thing, but according to you, they’ve all been wrong. 100 years from now, when society and culture have changed, they’ll look back at you and think you were ridiculous too.
I think we’d have better conversations if everyone, on every side, got over themselves and started seeing the world from different perspectives. So many times, I just watch people talk past each other, they’re hardly even speaking the same language, much less looking at the world from the same resolution. We, as rational beings, owe it to ourselves and to others, to at least make an attempt to debate critically and to understand the views of those we’re talking to. If we can’t, or won’t, how can we possibly hope to actually accomplish anything?