THE BEAUTY OF AMBIGUITY

By Paul

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.

THE PASSING OF THE PASSENGER PIGEON: A MORALITY TALE

By Paul

Human behavior is ever fascinating, even if not entirely unpredictable.  Among its most basic, bedrock features are a marked propensity toward shortsightedness and an equally strong penchant for egocentricity.  What I mean is that we have a great tendency both not to think through what the consequences of our actions may be, and as powerful a motivation not to care, but instead to concern ourselves only with what appears to work for our own good in the immediate moment.

It could also be argued that these are traits that have served us well in the past, that they are in the main responsible for our success as a species, and also that no other species on earth has demonstrated any greater foresight than we, or any less selfishness, for that matter.  It’s just that one of the things we humans like to do is to think well of ourselves, sometimes to our own ultimate disappointment.

I was recently reading an article in The New Yorker that in part deals with a review of a book about the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  It’s an amazing story.  There were not mere millions of these beautiful creatures (and by all accounts they were gorgeous birds), but billions of them.  Yes, that really is billion, with a “b.”  It was reported that one observer saw a flock that obliterated the noonday sun, and that this flock then took three days to pass by!   Such a recounting at first may sound like myth and stretches credulity for us today, until we learn that it came from no less a reliable a source than John James Audubon.   Another observer reckoned he saw a flock containing in excess of two billion birds.  They were so numerous that, when roosting, their combined weight would regularly crack the limbs off of trees upon which they landed.

And yet, within the space of a mere fifty years, this country went from a place where there were billions of passenger pigeons to one where there was zero.  How, we may well ask, could this have happened?  How could our ancestors have allowed such a tragedy to occur?  The answer, I’m afraid, harkens back to human shortsightedness and egotism.  Just as we do today, people back then did what was in front of them to do.  They ate and slept and raised their children; they worked, they made war, they made peace, they made love, and occasionally they played.  In other words, they did their best to survive, and they tried to have as good a life as possible while doing so.

And who, I suppose, could blame them?  After all, the very basis of the country is founded on the pursuit of happiness, is it not?  And of course no one set out consciously to destroy an entire species.  No one ever sat down one fine day and said: “Let’s devise a plan whereby we cause the mass extinction of this entire population of passenger pigeons.” And yet, there can be no denying that this is exactly what we wound up doing.  We even know when and where the last wild bird was killed, by a boy in Ohio, who shot it out of a tree with a twelve-gauge shotgun in the year 1900.  A few other birds languished on for a while in zoos, but these were creatures whose entire evolutionary history had prepared them to flock together in enormous groupings.  Ought it to be a surprise, then, that a few isolated pairs here and there, in a sense, lost heart and no longer reproduced?  Finally, on the 1st of September, 1914, ironically the year that also witnessed the beginning of mass massacres of hundreds of thousands of human beings in the World War I, the last passenger pigeon on earth expired.

There’s irony aplenty involved in all this.  And tragedy, as well, of course.  I can well imagine that the humans who had originally witnessed billions of these birds flocking together thought that there could never be an end to them.   And yet that end came, sooner than anyone ever could have guessed.  Just as, perhaps, we today think that there can never be an end to the human civilizations we have created, bound up as they are with and dependent on fossil fuels and ever expanding populations.  But there is no guarantee of that, either.

Another irony ought to be noted when it comes to the passenger pigeon, this time a more modern one.  There appears to be a movement on to “de-extinct” the bird.  De-extinction has actually become a useful word in today’s biological lexicon, a neologism that accompanies human over-reliance on and adulation of technology.  I suppose it’s obvious what it means: it is an effort to use DNA from long-dead pigeons which, when injected into chickens, would produce as close a replica as possible to their extinct forebears.  Whether or not these manufactured passenger pigeons could themselves reproduce is not clear, although it is highly unlikely.  And even if they could, once again, would they wish to do so?  This seems all the less likely, given the disinclination their zoo-confined ancestors demonstrated in the past in this regard.  And even if they did reproduce, would we actually want enormous flocks of hungry pigeons alighting in our fields of wheat and corn, now that so few of their original primary foods (acorns and beechnuts) are themselves available?  Would we, in fact, be creating a monster that we would have to “render extinct” all over again?

All this brings up questions regarding how we human beings relate to our environment.  The extinction of passenger pigeons is not so far removed from the continued extinction of numerous other species the world over that still continues to this day.   The passenger pigeon went extinct for two very good reasons.  One had to do with the fact that they apparently tasted good, so people hunted them and ate them, and two because humans have largely removed the favorite choice of food for the pigeons from the environment.  As noted above, they lived mainly on the nuts of hardwood trees such as beech and oak that abounded in the pre-contact (i.e., with Europeans) forests of North America.  There are far fewer of these trees today.

One of the things that we humans like to do is to fiddle with our environment.  We have never been satisfied with it the way it was, but wanted (and needed) to create housing to protect ourselves from the elements, to clear fields of pesky trees in order to plant grain, damn rivers, build roads and bridges and towns, and eventually make cities and now mega-cities.  To the point where most people today have lost touch entirely with untrammeled nature.  Is there even such a thing left in the world as a true wilderness?   Most of what we like to call wilderness consists of mere isolated parcels of what was once the endless forests and plains that stretched from coast to coast on any given continent.   We are left to “manage” our forests, a thing that hardly seems compatible with the notion of real wilderness.

In the meantime, countless other species continue to go extinct.  The passenger pigeon is but one of many, if a mega example of the process.  And we are not just talking about the dodo and (very nearly anyway) the North American bison, but also – just in the last ten years – the golden toad, China’s Baiji dolphin, the Hawaiian crow, the Pyrenean Ibex, the West African black rhino, and many other “lesser creatures” that do not even make it onto our lists.  What, we have to wonder, will make humans less shortsighted?  What will make us more concerned with “the other,” and less focused solely on our own immediate good?

I am not sure I have a very satisfactory answer to these questions, but I do think that we must ponder them.  We must in the end find a way to somehow coexist on this planet with other life forms, giving them the space they need to live, while we, too, live our lives.  Otherwise, while we concern ourselves blindly with our own day-to-day existence, we may suddenly realize that we have somehow wiped out whole legions of other creatures we thought would always be there.  And who, in the end, will one day protect us from ourselves?  Who will be there to stop us from creating our own demise?  We have, unfortunately, seen that it does not take long for billions of once successful creatures to entirely vanish.  Even if we see it only from the human point of view (and how else can we see it?), let us if nothing else remember that no law says that extinction cannot happen to human beings, too – those most powerful and most successful of creatures upon the face of the earth.