What is the purpose of belief in a world of innovation?

We are reading the penultimate short story in Ted Chiang’s collection Exhalation. Omphalos questions what it means to believe: in our world, in alternative worlds, and in ourselves. Given that beliefs are crucial to everything we do in innovation and science, I thought the theme deeply dovetailed with a lot of what TechCrunch readers care about. I’m excited to talk about it more.

Tomorrow, I will post analysis on the final short story, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom as well as some concluding thoughts now that we have cycled through all the short stories in this collection. What a journey!

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Reading Omphalos

Most of the stories in Exhalation have been pieces of deep imagination, filled with worlds that, while tethered to our experience on Earth, remain quite distant to it. Omphalos feels quite different: it very much is our world, but refracted just slightly at every point.

Chiang signals this to the reader right from the beginning, noting that the narrator is traveling to “Chicagou,” a city that is obviously recognizable to us, but just slightly off from our expectations. And indeed, as the story progresses, we learn that everything in the sciences are just a bit different from what we presume. Scientific discoveries that have happened in our world have yet to happen in this story (the discovery of DNA, for instance), while exciting fields in our world today like astronomy are essentially complete, with no further innovation to come.

The story’s central tension is between faith and science, but the tweaks that Chiang edits into this speculative world force us to observe our own world with new insight. The development of science as a human practice was highly contentious in our history, with Galileo and the fight over heliocentrism being one of many battlefields fought over the centuries.

In this story though, science isn’t at war with religion, but in fact provides a path to deepening devotion to belief, undergirding the pursuit of purpose in a world of mystery. Our narrator, an archaeologist, describes why she does her work, and why the single miraculous creation of the human race is so important to belief.

I asked them to imagine what it would be like if we lived in a world where, no matter how deeply we dug, we kept finding traces of an earlier era of the world … then I asked, wouldn’t they feel lost, like a castaway adrift on an ocean of time? … this is why I am a scientist: because I wish to discover your purpose for us, Lord.

Indeed, the Earth itself is the very creation of God, and therefore is studied with an intensity that we would find unusual, while astronomy and the exploration of the celestial world is relegated to the side.

I admit, Lord, that I’ve never had much regard for astronomy; it has always struck me as the dullest of the sciences. The life sciences are seemingly limitless; every year we discover new species of plants and animals and gain a deeper appreciation of your ingenuity in creating the Earth. By contrast, the night sky is just so finite. All five thousand eight hundred and seventy-two stars were cataloged in 1745, and not another has been found since then.

Chiang has pulled a bit of a legerdemain — we are more interested in the possibilities beneath our feet, rather than what floats above us in the skies.

That setup delivers the story’s main thrust: an astronomer has discovered that another planet elsewhere in the galaxy is actually the stationary point of the entire universe, which means that Earth’s orbit around the sun demonstrates not intelligent design or a message of purpose, but rather pure nihilism. It likely serves no purpose at all.

Chiang refracts our massive historical conflict over heliocentrism, and in so doing forces us to confront the true challenges of modern life. The astronomer’s discovery forces our seemingly devout narrator to question her own faith — not in religion, but actually in science. For if conducing scientific experiments was about finding purpose in life, why should we continue doing them when we know they don’t have a purpose at all?

The title of the story, Omphalos, comes from Greek mythology and symbolizes the navel of the world, or the place where the world is centered on. The astronomer’s discovery dissolves what we thought was the Omphalos — Earth — and prods us to search for a new point to center us and our lives.

Our narrator’s loss of faith causes her to stop praying and live in a cabin for a few months, but she ultimately comes to the conclusion that the openness of choice around these events is actually empowering for humans, forcing us to confront our own actions and realize we have agency over them.

If we had no evidence for the miracle of creation, we might think physical law was sufficient to explain every phenomenon in the cosmos, leading us to conclude that our own minds were nothing more than natural processes. But we know that there is more to what we observe than physical law can encompass; miracles happen, and human choices are surely among them.

Chiang isn’t critiquing religion or believers, but rather those rationalists who believe deeply in the thesis that we are bags of atoms pre-destined to make the choices we already have made at conception. It’s a relatively oblique critique, one only really brought into relief in the story’s closing paragraphs.

Earlier in the story, our narrator asks God, “Let me always be inquisitive, but never be suspicious.” That’s ultimately a comment about cynicism and nihilism, that the purpose to everything is nothing and useless. Even in a secular world, there is meaning in every action and reaction, and physics doesn’t determine how we approach our lives. With refractive lenses, we can see that we are each our own Omphalos, architecting the meaning of what we observe.

Reading Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom

As you read the final short story in Exhalation, here are some questions to think about:

  • Would you use a prism? Who would you talk to on the other side? What would you want to know?
  • What does the short story say about envy and empathy? Are we destined to constantly compare ourselves to others?
  • Is having more information about our alternatives better or worse for us? Is there a path of contentment through more information?
  • Do we need role models to redeem ourselves?
  • What does the story say about choice and predestination?