PLEASE HEAD TOWARD THE EXIT IN AN ORDERLY FASHION

By Paul M. Lewis

The Brexit vote this past week was a great shock to almost everybody, even to those who supported Britain leaving the European Union. And the fact that the decision to exit won by more than a million votes was perhaps even more surprising. The British bookies, too, lost their shirts, since they had placed odds on the UK remaining part of the EU. What happened? Why would so many people want the United Kingdom to part company from the union of European states it had, if slowly and somewhat reluctantly, joined over forty years ago?

There are many answers to that question, as pundits have been reporting on for some time now. Top among them is that many British voters, especially the English (as opposed to the Scots, the Northern Irish, and some of the Welsh) felt as though they were somehow losing their country to immigration. Within that context, many feared specifically for their jobs, in particular those that newcomers might qualify for if they did not come with a great deal of education or experience. Additionally, there has long simmered a feeling among many that the Englishness of England was becoming a thing of the past. That may in fact be true, if things are viewed in the short term. For the past several hundred years now, England has been more or less white, Christian, and of course Anglo-Saxon. It’s worth remembering, though, that those early Germanic settlers were not always there. According to most accounts, the Anglo-Saxons began arriving in the late 5th century. They did not come all at once, instead arriving incrementally for two hundred years or so, while slowly intermingling with the original Celtic inhabitants and the remnants of the Romans who had settled there.

The Celtic language had previously been used for centuries, with Latin coming to replace it as the language of business and culture around the middle of the first century of the Common Era (CE). Later, the Germanic languages of the Angles, the Saxons, and the Jutes—grouped together and coming to be known as Early English—began to meld with, and finally replace, both Celtic and Latin; the only exception being that Latin continued on for many hundreds of years as the language of the church and of education. French, too, could be added as an influence, after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

The point here is not to attempt, in so short a space, a history of the English people, but merely to point out the multicultural and multilinguistic heritage of England. It wasn’t until the 8th century, for example, that the famous historian, Bede, wrote his Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical History of the English People), a time when one could say that England was just becoming English, and so needed a history of its own to explain itself. Bede finished his great work in 731 CE, some 1285 years ago. On a planet that is four and a half billion years old, and within the context of modern humans evolving some one hundred and fifty thousand years ago, it’s not unreasonable to think that this is a relatively short period of time. Indeed, humans have been living and interbreeding among tribes and races ever since the beginning.

Given this longer historical framework, it’s a fair question to ask: What exactly is meant when people say that they want to keep England English? Or keep America American, for that matter? No one needs a lesson on the multicultural, multiethnic, multireligious, and multilinguistic heritage of the United States. Even the Native Peoples of this continent have been here for only probably 10,000 to 20,000 years, depending on which archeologist you believe. A long time in terms of human memory, to be sure, but not so long from other perspectives. Who, therefore, owns a country and its heritage? And what is a country even, but an arbitrary enough system of geopolitical borders? Granted, within those borders there is a shared history (for however long, or short, it may be), often a shared language, and to an extent anyway, shared religio-cultural values. But there is nothing to say that these borders, or these shared elements of human culture, are forever immutable. That’s not meant to imply that people can’t also have a kind pride in their shared history, but at the same time remember that the narrative chronicle of any country is always a relatively brief one. Countries, whole empires, that once considered themselves solid and unchanging have come and gone, and today we dig up artifacts from out of the dust that once belonged to glorious nations now no longer in existence. Nor should we forget that, not so far back, we all came from the same roots

Britain has made its choice to leave the EU, as much as there are those who are calling for a re-vote, a new referendum, now that the sober light of day is just starting to reveal the magnitude of what has been done. I do not believe that this will happen. The die has been cast, and the United Kingdom—or some form of it, if Scotland and Northern Ireland eventually choose to opt out—will have to make the best of things. Indeed, there is chaos enough already attempting to make sense of the consequences of the vote and to figure out how to disengage from the European Union without too much more damage being done. Further uncertainty and chaos, in the form of a new campaign for and against another vote on the Brexit, is not needed. What is best now is to move toward the exit in an orderly fashion, while preserving as much economic, political, and social stability as possible.

But neither does this mean that the enormity of the decision shouldn’t be studied in depth. It should, in fact, be dissected as cleanly and as clearly as possible, so as to understand both how and why it came about, and what it means in terms of how the British people now think of themselves. Other countries too ought to investigate the whys and wherefores of the vote, in order to understand how similar trends, feelings, and beliefs play out among them, and what that may portend.

Surely, the European Union itself, as a political entity, is not without some culpability. It is all too easy to find fault with the so-called ignorant (as some think) in Britain, who voted out of the union. But there is little doubt that the bureaucracy of the EU is itself partially to blame, as it has become an unresponsive and inflexible monolith. As such, many people—not just the British—believe they have had no real representation in Brussels. Americans in particular ought to remember what happens when a group suffers under the onerous and unfeeling mandate of a government that levies taxation without at the same time providing for equal and fair representation.

That said, I continue to believe that the Brexit was a grave mistake. The flaws of a system can surely be overcome, if there is enough political will to do so. The ideal of a common union of nations is a grand one, especially on a continent that has been the genesis of two utterly devastating world wars. What is needed now is not the resurgence of more and more nationalism, not walls, literal or metaphorical, but a wider, a more inclusive, a more open and welcoming embrace of humanity. In that sense, we can all learn from this serious mistake made so recently by the United Kingdom. And in the process, with luck and a good deal of work, perhaps we can also help our British cousins mitigate, or even begin to reverse, some of the more deleterious effects of so short-sighted a decision.

 

 

COSMIC MYSTERIES AND OUR NEED TO KNOW

By Paul M. Lewis

Watching Stephen Hawking’s “Genius” series on PBS recently has reminded me what fascinating topics theoretical physicists study. They specialize in asking such big questions as “Where did the universe come from?” and “Is there a center to the universe?” And while it’s true that there has always been a degree of contention in regard to how these questions are answered, there is at least general consensus on the Big Bang itself, that is, the very beginning of the universe. That term may be a bit misleading, however, in that physicists do not believe it to have been an actual explosion. In fact, the term Big Bang was coined as a kind of put down of the theory by an early doubter. Instead of an explosion, it was probably more of an almost inconceivably rapid expansion, followed immediately by what is called “an inflation,” indicative of the fact that the infant universe moved rapidly outward, expanding in all directions. And the universe continues to expand even now, 13.7 billion years after the initial expansion. No less a figure than Einstein, himself, long doubted the idea of an expanding universe, but even he finally came to accept it, due to the patient observations of another renowned scientist, the great astronomer Edwin Hubble.

How did the Big Bang come about in the first place? Where was it located? And doesn’t it make sense to think of it as having somehow occurred in what might be thought of as the center of the universe? These are all legitimate questions to ask. The answer to the first, that of how the Big Bang came about, is very simple: no one knows. In that sense, it becomes, at least for now and in the absence of further scientific break throughs, more or less a philosophical or a theological question, although naturally scientists do continue to explore it. Regarding the query having to do with the Big Bang being in the center of the universe, the problem it raises becomes a question of logic. To think in locational terms assumes there was some “place” to be. However, there could have been no place for the universe to begin in until there actually was a universe. In other words, how could there have been a physical place, before there was such thing as space to be in? This also means another way to think of it is that everywhere is the center of the universe.

Before the Big Bang, nothing at all existed. It’s extremely difficult for us to conceive of nothingness. Language itself begins to break down, but it’s clear that nothing cannot be “a thing.” The definition of nothing is “no thing,” a complete non-existence of whatever can be perceived by our senses. How can we imagine what this might be like? Some might suggest we can envision it in terms of outer space being a vacuum, that is, of it “containing nothing,” again, as if nothing could somehow be contained. But even that is not the case, since physicists now understand that space is actually filled with Dark Matter. And as much as Dark Matter is unperceivable, it is known to comprise some 80% of all of the matter in the universe. On the other hand, normal matter that can be seen (i.e. asteroids, comets, stars, planets, galaxies, cosmic gas, as well as you and I and all the creatures of the earth and on any of the other planets) therefore accounts only for about a fifth of the known universe.

Theoretical physics routinely deals with imponderables. It works at the edges, at the border between science and philosophy/theology, between what can be known empirically and what can be inferred, or imagined, or intuited. Take another question that physicists are currently studying, that of the multiverse. The idea is that there may be many universes aside from the one we live in. Some even suggest that evidence points to there possibly being an infinite number of these universes, all existing in parallel form. In part, this originates from studies done by the German physicist Erwin Schrödinger. Schrödinger is one of the founding fathers of Quantum Mechanics, which studies the mysterious workings of the micro world of atoms and subatomic particles. He posited that a quantum state is the sum, or the “superposition,” of all possible states, hypothesizing in his famous “cat experiment” that an imagined feline in a box could be both dead and alive, and that we simply point to one or the other state as a kind of convenience, a sort of book-keeping device, only knowing if it is one or the other when the box is opened and it is observed. Additionally, according to another famous student of the field, Werner Heisenberg, quantum particles can exist in multiple locations simultaneously. This is referred to as his Uncertainty Principle, whereby the location of a subatomic particle can be calculated, but not its speed; or the speed can be calculated, but not its location. Some subatomic particles even appear to spring automatically, if fleetingly, into existence from nothing. All this happens at the tiniest—the quantum—level.

At the macro level, on the other hand, String Theory has to do with the workings of gravity and the vastness of the universe, and may ultimately help explain both Dark Matter and Dark Energy (the latter being the mysterious force that is thought to drive the expansion of the universe). The holy grail of modern physics is to come up with a theory that would adequately explain the universe using both the laws of Quantum Mechanics and those of Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, which deals with the macro universe. So far, unfortunately, no genius physicist has yet been able to explain this so-called Grand Unification Theory.

As for the multiverse, speculation on that question has not yet risen to the level of an actual theory. In fact, it is useful to remember exactly what is meant, in scientific terms, by the word theory. What it is not, and what many non-scientists believe it to be since this is how the word is used in everyday speech, is a kind of guess—as in, “your theory (of whatever) is as good as mine.” Instead, scientifically, a theory is a system of ideas meant to explain something, based on principles independent of the thing being explained. Thus, we speak of the Theory of Evolution—which is not a guess at all, but a hypothesis that has been tested and retested over the years, and proven itself to be true beyond any reasonable doubt. This is also the case with Quantum Mechanics, whereas String Theory (admittedly, confusingly) has not yet been fully accepted by the scientific community as a whole.

So, we see from merely a short sketch that there are myriad puzzles, inconsistencies, and mysteries in the universe. Any number of others could be added, such as the inexplicable nature of Black Holes, and other singularities like the Big Bang itself. How the two are alike, or not alike, is as yet unknown. And what happens to Space-Time, when it enters into a Black Hole, if even light itself cannot escape its super gravitational pull? Does intelligent life exist on other planets? How did self-reflective consciousness come about? And what exactly is antimatter, which was created at the time of the Big Bang? In principle, when antimatter comes into contact with matter, the latter is annihilated. So, how do we exist? One possible explanation is because there is one extra particle of matter for every billion particles of anti-matter. And is this a matter of luck, or something more mysterious, more mindful?

Which ultimately brings us to the question of God, or if you prefer, some ultimately unknowable Universal Intelligence. How does he—or she, or it—fit into the picture? Does he exist? My own theory, to use the everyday vernacular form of the word, is that he does, and the way toward understanding him lies within, in private, not out there in the practices of organized religion. As Einstein once famously said: “Teachers of religion must have the stature to give up the doctrine of a personal God, that is, give up the source of fear and hope which in the past placed such vast power in the hands of priests.”

To be sure, science can help point the way, by examining the mysteries of the universe that we somehow have an innate longing to comprehend. Even if we never get there by using the scientific method, or generally through the normal processes of the human mind, at least we know we are trying to elucidate these ultimate questions. And if, as I believe, there is a Mystery Beyond All Mystery, one we will never fully plumb with our ordinary minds, then I should think such a Divine Being would really be pleased with the efforts of his clever, curious and ever-striving creatures.