All reality is Interaction’ is the title of a conversation with physicist Carlo Rovelli, recorded before the COVID 19 pandemic. In this extract, Rovelli talks with Krista Tippett about complexity, the fragility of civilisation and the value of our life together.
Krista Tippett: you have a sense of the complexity of reality and the cosmos that is so far beyond our senses. So here’s the question: How does this change the way you move through the world? Is this something you’re able to work with?
Carlo Rovelli: Well, I don’t know if I’m able, but I do [laughs] work with it. The idea that our senses can mislead us — this idea, it’s very old. It goes back to antiquity; in fact, it’s the key idea of a good part of Greek philosophy. Some philosophers took it even too strongly, saying we shouldn’t believe at all what our senses say; reality is completely different. Nowadays, of course, we rely on what we see, but we have learned, and I think we have learned deeply, that we are like children. Namely, we start with a naïve idea about the world; we start with a naïve vision about the world; and then, slowly, we learn more. We learn more because we grow. Like children grow, so society has grown, civilization has grown — and has grown by learning from experience, from other people, from books, from experiments, from all sorts of stuff.
And what we have learned is, as you say, the complexity. The world is much more complex than what it looks at first sight. I look at this glass of water, and it’s just quite transparent, but I know that, in fact, it’s a crazy zig-zagging of molecules down there, which do all sorts of stuff, and how fast they move the temperature, and so on and so forth. And this complexity, which is at all levels, guards us from being driven by too-simple-minded things. I think we should keep in mind that the world is complex. We have a good way of dealing with the world, right? Society works. Civilization works. We are alive, and we’re seven billion of us on Earth, and many more than before. And in fact, we are actually more of us on Earth which are out of deep poverty and have education and things to live, much more than in the past, so we’re not doing too bad.
But at the same time, we know that this knowledge we have, it’s fragile, and we don’t have full knowledge at all. Nothing guarantees that we do better tomorrow, at all. We’re not guaranteed by anything. Civilization could stop tomorrow. The Earth is becoming warmer, and it could be a catastrophe. We are too many on Earth, and this might lead to other catastrophes. And worst of all, we are fighting against us more and more, and this could get more catastrophe. So there is a sense of fragility, which I do have, both in the — I don’t think I know the truth. I think I know a little bit about the world, and I know deeply that I have no access to any final truth, to any absolute truth. I know deeply that my brain is limited; it’s something I understand. Sometimes I feel I understand better than somebody else, and sometimes, no, I feel that somebody else understands better than me. And I know that my life is limited. I have a certain number of years to live, and that’s it. Maybe humanity itself has a limited life. I don’t think there’s anything that guarantees us beyond that. Can we live this — with this uncertainty? Can we live with this fragility? I think we do, and we can. And even more, I think —
To read or hear the whole interview go to Onbeing