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  • Transcriber:

  • In the next few minutes,

  • I hope to change the way you think about the very nature of reality itself.

  • I'm not a physicist, and I'm not a philosopher.

  • I'm a historian.

  • And after studying the ancient Greeks and many other premodern peoples

  • for more than 20 years as a professional,

  • I've become convinced

  • that they all lived in real worlds very different from our own.

  • Now, of course, you and I here today,

  • we take it for granted

  • that there's just one ultimate reality out there --

  • our reality,

  • a fixed universal world of experience

  • ruled by timeless laws of science and nature.

  • But I want you to see things differently.

  • I want you to see that humans have always lived in a pluriverse

  • of many different worlds,

  • not in a universe of just one.

  • And if you're willing to see this pluriverse of many worlds,

  • it will fundamentally change, I hope,

  • the way you think about the human past

  • and hopefully the present and the future as well.

  • Now, let's get started by asking three basic questions

  • about the contents of our reality,

  • the real world that you and I share right here, right now.

  • First of all:

  • What is it that makes something real in our real world?

  • Well, for us, real things are material things,

  • things made of matter that we can somehow see,

  • like atoms, people, trees, mountains, planets ...

  • By the same token,

  • invisible, immaterial things -- like gods and demons,

  • heavens and hells --

  • these are considered unreal.

  • They're simply beliefs,

  • subjective ideas that exist only in the realm of the mind.

  • To be real,

  • a thing must exist objectively,

  • in some visible material form,

  • whether our minds can perceive it or not.

  • Second: What are the most important things in our real world?

  • Answer: human things --

  • people, cities, societies,

  • cultures, government, economies.

  • Why is this?

  • Well, because we humans think we're special.

  • We think we're the only creatures on the planet

  • who have things like language, reason, free will.

  • By contrast, nonhuman things, to us, are just part of nature,

  • a mere backdrop to human culture,

  • a mere environment of things that we feel entitled to use

  • however we want.

  • And third:

  • What does it mean to be a human in our real world?

  • Well, it means being an individual,

  • a person who lives ultimately for oneself.

  • We think nature has made us this way,

  • giving each and every one of us all of the reason, the right,

  • the freedom and the self-interest

  • to thrive and compete with other individuals

  • for all of life's important resources.

  • But I'm suggesting to you that this real world of ours

  • is neither timeless nor universal.

  • It's just one of countless different real worlds

  • that humans have experienced in history.

  • What, then, would another world look like?

  • Well, let's look at one,

  • the real world of the classical Athenians in ancient Greece.

  • Now, of course, we usually know the Athenians as our cultural ancestors,

  • pioneers of our Western traditions, philosophy, democracy, drama

  • and so forth.

  • But their real world was nothing like our own.

  • The real world of the Athenians was alive with things

  • that we would consider immaterial and thus unreal.

  • It pulsated with things like gods,

  • spirits, nymphs, Fates,

  • curses, oaths, souls

  • and all kinds of mysterious energies and magical forces.

  • Indeed the most important things in their real world

  • were not humans at all, but gods.

  • Why?

  • Because gods were awesome -- literally.

  • They controlled all the things that made life possible:

  • sunshine, rainfall, crop harvests,

  • childbirth, personal health, family wealth,

  • sea voyages, battlefield victories.

  • There were over 200 gods in Athens,

  • and they were not remote, detached divinities

  • watching over human affairs from afar.

  • They were really there, immediately there in experience,

  • living in temples,

  • attending sacrifices,

  • mingling with the Athenians at their festivals, banquets and dances.

  • And in the real world of the Athenians, humans did not live apart from nature.

  • Their lives were dictated by the rhythms of the seasons

  • and by the life cycles of crops and animals.

  • Indeed the land of the Athenians itself

  • was not just a piece of property or territory.

  • It was a goddess, a living goddess

  • that had once given birth to the first Athenians

  • and had nurtured and cared for all of their descendants ever since,

  • with her precious gifts of soils, water, stone and crops.

  • Indeed, if anything should pollute her soils with unlawful bloodshed,

  • it had to be expelled immediately, beyond her boundaries,

  • whether it was a man, an animal or just a fallen roof tile.

  • And in the real world of the Athenians, there were no individuals.

  • All Athenians were inseparable from their families,

  • and all Athenian families were expected to live together and work together

  • as a single body, like cells of a living organism.

  • They called this social body simply "demos," the people,

  • and they called their way of life "demokratia,"

  • but it was nothing like our modern democracy,

  • because Athenians were not born to be individuals living for themselves.

  • They were born to serve and preserve the families and the social body

  • that had given them life in the first place.

  • In sum,

  • the whole Athenian way of being human was radically different from our own.

  • Nature had programmed them to live as one, as a unitary social body,

  • and it had designed them expressly to coexist and collaborate

  • with all manner of nonhuman beings,

  • especially their 200 gods

  • and their divine earth mother.

  • Life in Athens was thus sustained by what we can call a "cosmic ecology,"

  • a symbiotic ecology of gods, motherland and people.

  • Now, of course, to us today in our real world,

  • we look at their real world and, well, it looks strange,

  • weird, bizarre, exotic and, of course, unreal.

  • But it has many major things in common

  • with the real world experienced by numerous other premodern peoples,

  • including, for example,

  • the ancient Egyptians,

  • ancient Chinese

  • and the peoples of precolonial Peru, Mexico,

  • India, Bali, Hawaii.

  • In all of those premodern real worlds,

  • gods controlled all of the conditions of existence.

  • Nonhumans were always expected to collaborate with humans

  • and vice versa.

  • And humans were expected to serve their communities,

  • not to live for themselves as individuals.

  • Indeed, in the grand scheme of history,

  • it's our real world, our reality, that is the great exception to the rule --

  • the exotic one, the strange one.

  • Only in our real world is reality itself a purely material order.

  • Only in our real world are nonhumans always subordinate to humans.

  • And only in our real world are humans born to be individuals.

  • Why this uniqueness?

  • Well, because our real world was shaped and forged

  • in a unique environment,

  • a historically unprecedented environment in early modern Europe,

  • with its scientific revolution, its enlightenment,

  • its novel, experimental, capitalist way of life.

  • Yet, despite this uniqueness,

  • we just take it for granted that our reality is the one true reality,

  • that all humans in history have lived in only our real world,

  • whether they knew it or not.

  • And just think for a moment of the colossal arrogance

  • of this assumption.

  • Basically, we're saying, "We modern Westerners are right about reality,

  • and everybody else in all of history

  • is wrong."

  • Basically, we're saying that all of those extraordinary civilizations of the past

  • were really just lucky accidents,

  • because they were all founded on nothing more

  • than myths, illusions and false ideas about reality.

  • Why are we so certain that we're right?

  • Why do we just take it for granted that we know more?

  • Why do we struggle to take seriously the real worlds of premodern peoples?

  • Well, because we think our modern sciences

  • provide the only truly objective knowledge of reality.

  • But do they?

  • For more than a hundred years now,

  • the very idea of an objective reality has been seriously and continually questioned

  • by experts in many different fields,

  • from physics and biology to philosophy.

  • Basically, these experts would suggest

  • that reality is not simply a material order given to us by nature.

  • It is something that humans actively participate in producing

  • when their minds interact with their environment.

  • Here's a way to think about it.

  • In order to make sense of experience,

  • every people in the past, in effect, had to devise a model of the real world.

  • They would then use that model as the basis for their whole way of life,

  • all of its practices, its norms, its values.

  • And if that way of life proved to be successful in practice, sustainable,

  • then the truth of the model would be confirmed

  • by the evidence of everyday experience: "It works!"

  • And thus, once the model became internalized in mind

  • and baked into the environment,

  • the effect of a stable real world would be generated

  • by ongoing interactions between the two,

  • between minds on the one hand, environments on the other.

  • Let's take a quick example.

  • Why are we so convinced in our modern world

  • that we're all, ultimately, natural individuals?

  • Well, because a bunch of social scientists in early modern Europe

  • decided that we were,

  • and because their model of a world full of natural competitive individuals

  • became the basis for a new, capitalist way of life

  • that generated unprecedented levels of wealth --

  • at least for the lucky few --

  • and because all of us who've been raised in capitalist nations ever since

  • have been continually socialized to be individuals by our families,

  • our schools and our societies,

  • and because we are treated precisely as individuals

  • almost every day of our lives

  • by the structures which control those lives,

  • like our liberal democracy and our capitalist economy.

  • In other words,

  • our minds and our environment continually conspire

  • to make our individuality seem entirely natural.

  • In sum:

  • no human being has ever experienced a truly objective reality.

  • Different peoples have always experienced different realities,

  • each one shaped by whatever model of the world

  • happened to be embedded in minds and environment at the time.

  • In other words,

  • humans have always lived in a pluriverse of many different real worlds,

  • not in a universe of just one.

  • Let me close with three thoughts that follow from this conclusion.

  • First of all,

  • we modern Westerners need to stop thinking that all premodern peoples

  • are somehow more primitive or less enlightened than ourselves.

  • Their real world, with all their gods and magical forces,

  • were just as real as our own.

  • Indeed, those real worlds

  • anchored ways of life that sustained the lives of multitudes

  • for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years.

  • Their real worlds were different;

  • they were not wrong.

  • Second:

  • we modern Westerners need to get over ourselves.

  • (Laughter)

  • We need to be a little more humble.

  • For all of its extraordinary technological accomplishments,

  • our brave new modern real world

  • has imperiled the whole future of the planet in barely 300 years.

  • It's made possible all manner of historical horrors:

  • genocides across entire continents,

  • mass exploitation of colonized peoples,

  • industrial servitude,

  • two disastrous world wars,

  • the Holocaust,

  • nuclear warfare,

  • species extinctions,

  • environmental degradation,

  • factory farming

  • and, of course, global warming.

  • The evidence is there if you want to see it.

  • Our model of reality has failed catastrophically in practice.

  • Third:

  • other models and other real worlds are possible.

  • Other worlds are being lived right now, as we speak,

  • in what remains of history's pluriverse,

  • in places like Amazonia, the Andes, Southern Mexico,