Some of the greatest concepts in human history start with the question What If? What if our generally accepted ideas are wrong?
Chuck Klosterman is a pop culture critic, author and essayist. His 9th book called, What If We're Wrong? Thinking About the Present as if It Were the Past. He asks us to challenge what we are absolutely certain about and to think about the present from the vantage point of the future.
Read an edited excerpt from the interview below:
Was there one What If? question that got you started on this journey?
Probably not. It is almost like these things happen in stages. There is the superficial reason as to why this book exists, which I was watching a documentary series on television about science and it occurred to me that there has been this long history of everyone accepting an idea and then one individual or scientist or observer has a new idea and within one generation, it almost becomes as if that new idea is what people had believed all along.
It kind of struck me that this must be what is happening all of the time, but we don’t recognise it because we’re in the system and we are actually involved in the situation and the people experiencing any given time period, who are actually in the worst position to dictate or decide or even understand how that period will be remembered. It’s people who come later who recontextualise that period who actually galvanise it as history.
In another sense, my last few books have moved in this direction. Maybe not so overtly, but in a lot of ways this question of, what is reality? Is reality an illusion, were integrated into a novel I had written and two non-fiction books.
And on the third level, I have just always kind of been this way, I think even when I was a little guy and I didn’t have the language to explain this feeling, I still felt as though there was something about the way that we viewed the world was just fundamentally flawed, as if we’re just creating an answer where none existed, almost to feel more secure about our sense of being alive.
So I think it’s those three things, it wasn’t necessarily one question that made me feel like this must be addressed.
And as you say, there have been plenty of times in the past where humanity has thought it has had something right, only to realise they had it wrong. But surely we are more certain now, given what we know. Were they certain? They didn’t think they had the answer particularly right.
I don’t know. Almost every period of time and every generation does feel that this time, we are closer to being accurate. You can go back to the 1400s and that sense of, ‘100 years ago, people believed that illness came from the sky and the gods, but now we know it is trolls and gnomes.’ There is always this belief that we’re closer. We’re always building on the past, so in a certain sense, of course we have a better understanding of life and we’re a little closer to this final answer, but we don’t know if being a little closer gets us even half way there.
I always use this example, but when I was interviewing scientists for this book, I always wanted them to not think I was rejecting climate change or was trying to say that science was fake. So I would always try to frame it like this. I would say, ‘It’s not that I am trying to contradict what you believe, in all likelihood what you believe is what I believe. I just want to see if there is a possibility that our fundamental understanding of these things are wrong.’ And I would always say, ‘I know some things are off the table, like I know that gravity is a stable thing’. And one of the very first people I interviewed, the theoretical physicist Brian Green, I mentioned this about gravity and he goes, “Well, no it’s not. Gravity is up for debate.” So that made me think, well, if the thing I am using as the unchangeable idea is changeable, this book will probably work. There’s literally nothing we can find that we have any absolute certainty of, then it’s an entryway to examine virtually any idea.
We’ve been wrong about gravity before…
Yes, the clearest example is Aristotle’s idea. It was back in the period where science was more interwoven with religion and philosophy more so than math and his belief was that the reason why a rock doesn’t float was because a rock wants to be on the ground. Rock has agency and desires to be at the centre of the universe and of course, Earth is at the centre of the universe. At the time that was the belief. So a rock is trying to get to the centre of the world. You chuckle when I say that, and it seems funny, but this was believed for over 2000 years. Our current understanding of gravity really starts in the 1600s. We’re talking 500 years.
So the history of ideas is the history of people being wrong. It’s almost arrogant to assume that our understanding of this principle now is the last understanding. Although, it might be. It is possible we are at the top of this mountain, but if we are, that raises a whole bunch of other problems, like, what does it mean if there are no more questions to ask?