Image credit: NASA

What to trust

The Expanding Universe

You may have heard that the universe is expanding. We can tell because the light from distant stars is redder than it should be. Like the sound waves of an ambulance siren as it speeds away from you, the waves of light from these stars speeding away from us are stretched. Longer sound waves are deeper, longer light waves are redder. It’s easy for me to believe that this is true, though I’ve never measured the wavelengths of light coming from a distant sun.

I first read Hawkings A Brief History of Time when I was 14. I maybe understood 15% of it. But I’ve re-read it a number of times since then, and things have gotten more clear on each pass through. The Big Bang makes a sort of sense, and with the Big Bang, the expanding universe. Explosions push things outwards. At first I was a bit shocked by the observation that in every direction we look, stars are receding from us. Are we the center after all? But no - analogy helps here too. Hawking tells us to imagine dots drawn on the surface of a balloon - as the balloon is inflated, the dots surrounding any given dot get farther apart.

But what exactly are we expanding into? Here our intuitions break down - the physicists tell us that we’re not expanding into anything. There’s nothing beyond the universe, by definition. Instead, it’s spacetime itself that’s stretching, just like that balloon. In fact, we ourselves are expanding along with the universe. Not that we could measure the increased size - our rulers are expanding at the same time.

This and many other scientific notions seem to fly in the face of reason. I don’t feel like I’m getting bigger. Then again, we did not evolve to see the world as it is. And knowing what I know about science and the scientific establishment, I trust what I read. The trust is not unconditional, but I’m confident despite not understanding the equations myself.

Consciousness and Free Will

People I respect have told me that free will is an illusion - in fact the notion of a self to do the deciding is itself a fiction. The logic all makes sense to me - I see evidence of a mechanistic world all around me, and there’s no reason to suspect that our neurons are imbued with some mysterious √©lan vital. But my sense of self and of my own free will are strong. My own experience is difficult to ignore.

About a year ago, I started practicing Zen meditation. I’m intrigued by the notion of no-self, and I’ve read the scientific papers on the benefits of mindfullness, but my teachers tell me many things that seem to fly in the face of reason. One goal of sitting is to attain enlightenment, but also to have goals is a hindrance and there is no attainment. But in any case, they say, I’m already enlightened and sitting zazen will help me recognize it. But I shouldn’t sit to do anything. All things have Buddha nature. But dogs don’t. Sometimes it seems they’re saying I can have my cake and eat it to. But in fact there is no cake. And eating is a delusion.

I suspect that most of the preceding paragraph is rooted in misunderstanding (incidentally, my description of astrophysics above might make an actual physicist wince), but knowing what I know about the people providing instruction, I trust what they tell me, crazy as it sounds. The trust is not unconditional, but I’ve been devoting a not inconsiderable amount of time to practice something that at times seems nonsensical. And yet, I’m confident is worthwhile.


Many people in the world believe irrational things. I used to think that science and data were sufficient to persuade, if only those of us that knew the truth spoke clearly enough. It’s now clear to me just how much we rely on people we trust to tell us the truth. And when we try to persuade, we’re mostly not talking to people’s rationality anyway. At moments, I struggle with the difference between many of my beliefs, which are based on what people I trust say, and those other beliefs that I know to be false.

But there is a crucial difference - physicists don’t ask me to believe things on faith or just because they say so. I’m not about to get a PhD in physics and do the experiments to validate what they tell me, but I could. And I’m sure those physicists would be the first ones to encourage me to do so. My zen teachers do not ask me to blindly accept the things they say. The seemingly contradictory statements are not articles of faith, but are claims to be investigated in my own mind.

We can’t know everything, or investigate every claim. We’ve evolved as social creatures, and our ability to trust the word of those around us is the foundation of our advancement. But we can make intelligent decisions about who we trust. I trust people and institutions that have a history of seeking out the truth, who correct themselves when they make mistakes, and encourage others to verify their claims. I don’t trust these sources unconditionally, but they wouldn’t want me to. And that makes all the difference.