Sunday, February 28, 2010

Significantly Tiny

Ian's ambition was to build the Total Perspective Vortex. The machine was once an artifact of science fiction, but Ian had toiled to make it a reality. Whoever entered into the vortex could see their true place in the Universe. In science fiction, this piece of truth was so debilitating to humans who realized that their existence was so insignificant in the grand scheme of things, that it crushed their very soul. But Ian being an intelligent scientist, had tweaked the machine such that everyone would see the same thing, reasoning that all of us human mortals are insignificant to the approximate degree. He was also convincing himself that contrary to the science fiction, he would be strong enough to face the truth and not let it crush his soul. Yet, as he stood in front of it to test it out, his trepidations started gnawing him again. Would he be able to face such a shattering truth, even he, who was intelligent enough to build such a powerful and perceptive machine? (Original Source: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, by Douglas Adams)

Those familiar with "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" must be able to identify this machine, and the courageous character who survived this machine, claiming that he was shown to be a "terrific and great guy". We can always interpret his response in two ways - he was either quite strong to face the truth, or his ego was so bloated and his perception of truth scaled in proportion to the Universe, that he was happy that he could place himself, however infinitesimally, in the huge Universe, whereas a little ant could have probably not even found his tiny dot.

The most interesting question here is - How significant should something be, for it to be significant. When I write down significance so many times, the first thing that I am reminded of is statistical significance. A man-made cut off of 0.05 is really more arbitrary than statisticians would want us to believe. Although, I now have a genial Advanced Statistics Prof, who laughs off saying he no longer believes in empiricism and experiments, for even if your experiments yield nice p values, there is something called as Type 1 Error, according to which 5 % of all published experiments could be false. An extreme view, one might think. But there is a lot of truth to it. We are all aware of how easy it is to toss away the results of a Control as being insignificant when it inches to 0.06, and how we celebrate the results of the Treatment that just about stops at 0.051. Papers are still written and accepted with such marginal significance and insignificance, and hypotheses and speculations fly high. Ah, there is replication validity, some might say. But how many complex experiments are replicated? And how many "simple" experiments are replicated more than a 100 times to catch those stray 5 false positives. Truth is arbitrary, and it is manipulated by significance.

The next interesting question is - Why would a man be so crushed to see the truth of his insignificance? Our lives propel due to us attributing meaning, purpose and significance to everything that happens to us. If someone were to tell a toiling student that his efforts, his aim for success and his life are tinier than a piece of grain in the grand scheme of things, he would lose his mind and his sense of identity. It's crippling to face the truth that our lives are meaningless and our pains and angst are worth a naught. If motivation, purpose and meaning are removed from our lives, it becomes nothing. Existentialists argue that we need to therefore create meaning and purpose for ourselves to combat this feeling of lack of purpose. Associating causality is part of human nature, else he wouldn't have survived.

So the next pivotal question is - How significant should our lives be, for us to find purpose and meaning? If significance is arbitrary and subjective, it follows that it has its own scale of measurement. A doctor who witnesses a woman in labor finds hardly any significance to the whole episode. But to the woman, it is one of the most significant moments of her life. The scale of such qualitative impressions are markedly different from person to person. If one were to step into the machine and see that his life is as big as the tiniest meteor in the galaxy, it still doesn't say anything! Size can be no valid scale! We have teeny tiny deadly viruses who can significantly wipe out human existence! If we believe that every little speck of dust on the Universe plays its role in the shaping of the Universe, then each of us have our own tiny significance. And that's exactly what Beeblebrox from the science fiction, perceives. Our minuscule significance is notable, considering our limitations and the expanse of the Universe.

At this point, there are serious questions on whether such a machine can even be built. What can it be its measurements to come up with the value of significance. Significance is a proportion, something that can exist only in comparison to something else. A virus's significance to Earth may be very high, but its significance to other planets may be very low.

But the aim of the Total Perspective Vortex is to instill a sense of humility in all of us. It helps us reevaluate our values, our priorities and the way we conduct ourselves in relation to others in the Universe. Even though what matters is each of our perceptions of significance and meaning, it is a worthy exercise to be made aware that everything and everyone around us are equally significant in their own little ways. Every time we feel the burden of our life weighing on our shoulders, it helps to reflect on our real place in the grand scheme of things.

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