I’m currently reading a book (Brian Greene’s “The Hidden Reality”) that in part discusses whether or not the universe is finite or infinite. For theoretical physicists, much depends on the answer to this question. For example, if it is infinite, then what follows is a whole host of possible other parallel universes that logically must also exist. Still, let us admit right off the bat that for most of us it doesn’t really make all that much difference. This is especially so when we consider even the observable universe as we know it, that is, the billions of galaxies that swirl and speed away from us in all directions (the universe is expanding, we do know that much for sure). Even if this universe is finite, distances are so unimaginably immense that it would be hard for most of us to tell the difference. Personally, my money, for the little that’s worth, is on the infinite side, but again most of the time this doesn’t seem to change much in our every day lives.
Because the universe appears to the majority of us (non-scientists) as incalculably big anyway, we might even be able to say that it is both finite and infinite at the same time. I know this seems like a contradiction in terms, but think of it this way: even if it were theoretically possible to measure space, which of course we cannot do, human beings would still never be able to fully explore even the visible part of the universe and “see the end of it.” So, we may as well think of it as infinite. I like this idea of holding two diametrically opposing ideas in mind at once and feeling comfortable with them both. It’s so much the opposite of the black or white, up or down, good or bad kind of thinking that usually characterizes human interaction.
This same ability to tolerate uncertainty, the Beauty of Ambiguity, I call it, applies to the religious vs. non-religious debate. Is there a God? Why not let the answer be both yes and no? Yes, there is a God, if we are at a point in our lives where our thinking demands that we worship a being such as Christ, who is, as the Catholic Church decreed centuries ago, both human and divine. The Church, in fact, dealt harshly with the Nestorian heresy back in the 5th century, when it declared that Christ was simultaneously both human and divine (the so-called hypostatic union), while Nestorius had preached that Christ was born human, and then took on the divine nature later on. As much as this may seem like a pedestrian distinction today, it was a very big deal back in the 5th century, and there were those who were willing to die for it. So, we see immediately how uncomfortable people get with holding two opposing viewpoints in mind at once. The other side of the bigger question is why not equally posit no God at all, or at least one not limited by the normal categories we typically assign to him, and say that he (it?) is far, far beyond ordinary human understanding? In that sense, then, he does not exist, not according to the rules of our normal perceptual and cognitive abilities anyway.
My own view is that we are all Gods, even if we have no idea we are. Most of the time, we think of ourselves as very human, which includes all of the things that go to make for human greatness (love, compassion, self-sacrifice, the ability to give to others etc.), but including at the same time all of the profound flaws of humanity, as well. If there is a God, even one beyond ordinary human understanding, would his essence not be imbued in every galaxy, every star, every molecule, every atom, every photon, and every quark of his creation, a kind of materialization of his Divine Essence? From this point of view, then, we are either all Gods (or “parts of God,” if we can use that terminology), or we are mere accidental stardust left over from a Big Bang that itself had no beginning and no cause.
Which brings me back to Brian Greene’s book on the nature of the universe. How anyone can look up at the night sky and see the seemingly endless stars (even if they may not actually be endless), and not feel a sense of utter awe and wonder is beyond me. And yet, that is just the beginning. Humans have always longed to understand more and more of what this all means, and we have made great progress just in the last 300 years, or so. During this short period of time, we have gone from thinking that the earth was flat and the center of the universe to understanding that it is a minor planet circling a very ordinary star, stuck on one of the farther-out spiral arms of the Milky Way Galaxy. And what is more,the Milky Way is but one of millions and billions of other galaxies, each with billions of stars and multiple billions of planets.
Beyond even this, we now understand that this visible universe of ours actually had a beginning, a birth as it were, some 13.7 billion years ago. All of the material that we know today as making up matter was created at this juncture, and is still floating around the cosmos. As things cooled after the stupendous heat of the first blast of the Big Bang, things quickly began to slow down. It was this cooling process that allowed for the stars and planets to form. Even light itself was effected; it cooled, but could of course not slow down. Light, by definition, always travels at the same speed, never faster and never slower. That well-known figure is 186,000 miles per second, or 700 million miles an hour. Instead of slowing down, when the photons of light cooled, their vibrational frequencies slowed, causing a shift first of all in color (from violet to blue and ultimately to red), and then into the infrared category, and finally into the microwave range. We see this in what is called the “cosmic microwave radiation background,” the actual remnants of the Big Bang that can be measured and perceived today.
The ambiguity in all this is that we can understand any of it at all. Stephen Hawking famously referred to humanity as a bunch of very clever monkeys. We smart simians are, in fact, doing some extraordinary things. For one, we have the ability to look up and wonder, to think and hypothesize, and to test hypotheses. We have made art, educated ourselves, created technologies that serve us in every conceivable way, and have extended our lifespan enormously from what it was only a hundred years ago. We even dare to try to create life itself, a thing we once attributed only to God. But note what our same Stephen Hawking has said in this regard: “I think computer viruses should count as life. I think it says something about human nature that the only form of life we have created so far is purely destructive. We’ve created life in our own image.” That image obviously is one that can be extraordinarily ruinous and devastating. In other words, whether or not we will be able to think our way out of what might be called our lower selves, that is, the selfish, ignorant, greedy, self-centered side of who we are, the side that cannot see beyond our collective noses, is certainly another question.
For now, at least, we will simply have to live with this ambiguity, wondering if we will actually make it past the adolescence of our human evolution into a greater maturity. To quote Hawking one last time: “I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet. But I’m an optimist. We will reach out to the stars!”
Unfortunately, these “accidents” Hawking refers to are all too often of our own making. Yet, in spite of all, I say with him that I’m an optimist, and I’m willing to live with the present state of our own ambiguous and contradictory natures (what other choice does any of us have?). Let us hope, then, that God will smile upon us, or if you prefer, that we will smile upon our own selves, and upon each other, and upon all life. Uncertainty and doubt surely may be our lot, but so is faith, and trust, and an optimism that never stops hoping that we will do what is right for ourselves and for all of life on the planet. Maybe, in the end, we’ll reach out to the stars, not because we have to, but just because we can.