During the summer I try to steer my day so that when the sun sets, I’m outside, in a place where there’s nothing blocking the view. Sunsets are always worthwhile.
They’re also always fleeting. During any given rapt sunset experience, there’s always a moment when you realize that its brilliance has peaked and it’s beginning to disappear. Sometimes I arrive at the bridge or at the end of a Westbound street only to realize right away that I’ve missed that peak.
When that happens, at least I can be vicariously happy for the sunset-watchers some distance west of me, whose sunset is just beginning to get brilliant. That fact is a wonderful gift to human beings — the sun is always setting.
Thousands of miles past them, at the same moment, early risers on certain Pacific islands are about to see it rise. The sun is always setting and always rising, always high overhead and always nowhere to be seen. Objectively, this is as true as anything else we know. It is always setting, right now.
We have to acknowledge that truth is relative to the observer. If there were nobody observing the sunset there would be no sunset.
I daydream often about the wild sunsets that must be happening in a gazillion different skies out there in space, from the surfaces of foreign planets. There are trillions of stars, with differening colors and intensities, and each can be seen from different surfaces at different distances, through different atmospheres, over unthinkably exotic landscapes.
But there’s probably nobody there to see most of them, and so they are only really happening in my imagination. A sunset, after all, is an experience. So you need an experiencer, in the right place, for it to exist. You could still say that there are billions of potentially experienceable sunsets out there, but they’re not real until someone is standing there on that strange world, watching a blazing blue and green double sunset slowly dissolving over some mountains.
Science is by far the most helpful institution we have for making sense of our experiences, and for predicting what we might experience next. The way they do it is this: a bunch of different people observe the same phenomena from different angles at different times, and they talk about it and come up with a concept about what those phenomena are when no particular person is looking at them at all. They add all these conclusions together and put it in books, which purport to describe how things really are, regardless of what you may experience them to be personally.
To us, or to anyone, the universe is really only composed of experiences, or at least it has zero conceivable meaning except for our experiences of it. And so that means that what the universe actually is is dependent on who is out there to have those experiences. Everything we claim to know about it must be based on direct experiences. No amount of data or scientific theory about sunsets contains the truth of what they are. A sunset can only be actually known as a fleeting, subjective experience.
That’s the only reason we have science — to find patterns behind our experiences. These patterns are useful to understand, because they can help us know, for example, whether the upcoming festival is likelier to create a subjective experience of being rained on or subjective experience of being sunburned. We care about such things, because they are experiences, and there’s nothing else we can really care about because that’s all life is.
I think we are in danger of forgetting that scientific knowledge is there to help us understand the probable reasons for our given experiences, and therefore to predict and explain other experiences, rather than tell you what the experience actually is. The scientific process has, for better or worse, helped to create a mental image of the universe (which must be at least slightly different for each of us) that explains the patterns behind all kinds of experiences.
Yet the implication is that it always works the same way, whether you’re looking at it from here or there or not at all. It suggests that truths are absolute, as a rule. We’ve built this thing we call “objectivity” by collecting and organizing a whole bunch of different people’s subjective experiences, and often we imagine that objectivity was there first, and subjectivity is what we call it when a given person glimpses that objective truth. But objectivity is a projection — a complex, changing mental model that was built only from collections of those subjective glimpses, and outside of them we don’t even know what it is we are glimpsing.
We know now that truth is often (or maybe always) relative. Einstein helped us to begin to realize that we shouldn’t be regarding the universe’s apparent truths as absolute (and since then things have gotten even weirder). But we’re still in the habit of imagining that so-called “objective” truths were there first, before we ever witnessed any of it — that the sun doesn’t actually set at all; it’s out there burning openly no matter who you are or where you are. We bow to this model as the real truth, and deem our personal experience (the actual sunset) to be somehow less true — as if the sun doesn’t actually set, that it’s just an illusion, or at least an obscured view of what is really there.
I think that’s backwards. The sunset is real. It is the primary fact, as all experiences are. We pay too little attention to life as it unfolds in real-time around us and too much attention to our thoughts and beliefs about what it really is or really means. What’s more important, how much money you have or how wealthy you experience yourself to be? We all know it is possible for one person to have much more on-paper wealth than another, yet experience themselves to be poor and deprived, while the other feels abundance. These are subjective states, yet they clearly matter more in real life than the objective accounting of physical facts about those respective situations.
The state of the world, for example, is a relative truth. It’s mostly relative to how much news you watch. If you’re a CNN junkie, you live in a more worrisome, dangerous world than I do. You can argue all day that it’s the same world, but all that matters is what world you experience, not what the world is supposed to be like outside your experience.
So zoom in, live from here. Don’t let others tell you what the world is like, because they live in a different world. What matters is how things appear to be, from your perspective. Your quality of your life hinges on your perspective, not the theoretical state of the world, or “objective” assessments of your living situation. I would bet that most or all of your major breakthroughs in life amounted to a shift in perspective, rather than some external thing changing. Perspective shifts can be cultivated — gratitude can be learned, “bad people” can be forgiven, your whole self can change — and this is tantamount to changing the whole world.
Is the sun setting right now? It depends who you are.
Photo by Tambako the Jaguar