Next, a hierarchy of stages about the extent to any of us understands the universe. (Which is distinct from simply being aware of it, though it overlaps it somewhat.)
- At the base level is the understanding of primitive tribes about the world and its extent, especially those in isolated valleys (e.g. Borneo) or isolated island (e.g. North Sentinel Island, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/North_Sentinel_Island). They know only what they explore on foot or can see from the highest mountain. (The language in the Old Testament reflects such a view of the world.) These tribes engage in story-telling to explain where things came from and how things work, applying instinctive attitudes of human nature to “explain” their existence, the weather, and so on, revealing the innate need for narrative, i.e. cause and effect, to everything in sight.
- Next, learning the world is bigger than just your local tribe. There are worlds beyond the hill, other tribes with different languages and customs. Broadly, then, learning that the things in your experience aren’t the best just because they’re yours. Understanding that followers of all religions think theirs is true and all the others false. Being cosmopolitan. Being, to an extent, savvy. (But: the preference for narrative explanation still prevails here.)
- Third, possible only in the past century or so, becoming aware of the age extent of the universe, how vast it really is, how tiny our Earth is within it, and given this, how naïve and parochial it is to think that our world or our tribe is somehow special in the eyes of that agency-detected creator. Analogies of the extent of time—fitting 14 billion years into a single day, in which humanity appeared on Earth in the last few hours or minutes on December 31st (the Cosmic Calendar, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cosmic_Calendar)—help to intellectually understand this, but it’s difficult for anyone with a human brain to appreciate these scales emotionally. The lesson is that reality is larger than human intuitions; be humble, be savvy.
- Fourth, finally perhaps the intellectual understanding that cause and effect simply don’t apply at cosmic scales. Again, quantum mechanics, or Hawking’s notion that time and space are intertwined in the sense that time began at the big bang, so there was nothing before it; it doesn’t make sense to ask what “caused” the big bang, or what happened before it, than it does to ask what’s north of the North Pole. Here is where the intellect is needed in place of actual understanding. And somewhere here is the recognition of certain human geniuses, like Feynman, like Ramanujan, seem able to perceive (perhaps understanding isn’t the right word) things as impenetrable and counter-intuitive to ordinary humans, as human understanding of mathematics would be to dogs.
So science fiction informs this hierarchy at every level, though it’s most effective in evoking the third and suggesting the fourth. (The first level is reflected in a certain set of SF stories about primitive or enclosed societies that discover they are, for example, actually on a generation starship, and have forgotten their origins.) The third, the discovery of the vastness of time and space, is what the hoary phrase “sense of wonder” is about. And the fourth is suggested by those few science fiction tales that suggest realms of time and space that are incomprehensible to humans (if perhaps not to aliens).