All sorts of people and disciplines try to define what is “real” in the world. Science is after “the truth” as much as religion is. But study science or study religion and you’ll see that “the truth” changes over time. You realize that what we thought was real – what once was fact centuries ago is now considered ridiculous by modern standards.
This theme resonates throughout literature, but especially in the world of Michael Crichton. He’s the guy that wrote Jurassic Park, Timeline, and the Andromeda Strain. His novels combine science with philosophy; writing fantasy that seems so real and so true.
One of my favorite passages comes from The Lost World. It concerns Jack Thorne, a materials engineer who specializes in building field equipment, vehicles, and weaponry for scientists all over the world. In this particular section, he’s speaking to Kelly Curtis, a young woman fascinated by science. In talking about some detailed scientific theories, he says to her:
"Are you listening to all that?" Thorne said. "I wouldn't take any of it too seriously. It’s just theories. Human beings can't help making them, but the fact is that theories are just fantasies. And they change. When America was a new country, people believed in something called phlogiston. You know what that is? No? Well, it doesn't matter, because it wasn't real anyway. They also believed that four humors controlled behavior. And they believed that the earth was only a few thousand years old. Now we believe the earth is four billion years old, and we believe in photons and electrons, and we think human behavior is controlled by things like ego and self-esteem. We think those beliefs are more scientific and better."
"Aren't they?" [Kelly asks.]
Thorne shrugged. "They're still just fantasies. They're not real. Have you ever seen a self-esteem? Can you bring me one on a plate? How about a photon? Can you bring me one of those?"
Kelly shook her head. "no, but . . ."
"And you never will, because those things don't exist. No matter how seriously people take them," Thorne said.
"A hundred years from now, people will look back at us and laugh. They'll say, 'You know what people used to believe? They believed in photons and electrons. Can you imagine anything so silly?' They'll have a good laugh, because by then there will be newer and better fantasies." Thorne shook his head. "And meanwhile, you feel the way the boat moves? That's the sea. That's real. You smell the salt in the air? You feel the sunlight on your skin? That's all real. You see all of us together? That's real. Life is wonderful. It's a gift to be alive, to see the sun and breathe the air. And there isn't really anything else.”
Crichton writes about science, he obviously believes in its value. And so do I. Scientific discovery is exciting and essential. It heals people; technology helps us communicate, machines make living easy or possible; science explains our natural world and our bodies, helping us to make healthy decisions. It’s vital.
Crichton’s reminder is important though. We can’t lose track of what’s real: our emotions, the rhythm of nature, the way we humans need one another.
These are the constants. As Maimonides wrote: “Truth does not become more true by virtue of the fact that the entire world agrees with it, nor less so even if the whole world disagrees with it.” It’s still truth, whether we call it that or not.
Truth. We may perceive it, we may not, but it’s there somewhere. Sometimes we discover it, sometimes we ignore it. A lot like God. God is that constant. God is that reality. God is that Truth.
May we try to happen upon that Truth, to open ourselves to our most basic joys and tranquil experiences and to discover what is most real.