Do we care what’s true? Does it matter? Where ignorance is bliss, it is folly to be wise; wrote the poet Thomas Gray. But is it? Edmund Way Teale in his 1950 book Circle of the Seasons understood the dilemma better:
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care how you got your money as long as you have got it.
It’s disheartening to discover government corruption and incompetence, for example; but is it better not to know about it? Whose interest does ignorance serve? If we humans bear, say, hereditary propensities toward the hatred of strangers, isn’t self-knowledge the only antidote? If we long to believe that the stars’ rise and set for us, that we are the reason there is a Universe, does science do us a disservice in deflating our conceits?
In The Genealogy of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche, as so many before and after, decries the “unbroken progress in the self-belittling of man” brought about by the scientific revolution. Nietzsche mourns the loss of “man’s belief in his dignity, his uniqueness, his irreplaceability in the scheme of existence.” For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring. Which attitude is better geared for our long-term survival? Which gives us more leverage on our future? And if our naive self-confidence is a little undermined in the process, is that altogether such a loss? Is there not cause to welcome it as a maturing and character-building experience?
To discover that the Universe is some 8 to 15 billion and not 6 to 12 thousand years old improves our appreciation of its sweep and grandeur; to entertain the notion that we are a particularly complex arrangement of atoms, and not some breath of divinity, at the very least enhances our respect for atoms; to discover, as now seems probable, that our planet is one of billions of other worlds in the Milky Way Galaxy and that our galaxy is one of billions more, majestically expands the arena of what is possible; to find that our ancestors were also the ancestors of apes ties us to the rest of life and makes possible important – if occasionally rueful – reflections on human nature.