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.

HARRY POTTER, YOGA, AND THE DEVIL: DOES SATAN EXIST?

By Paul

The head of the International Association of Exorcists, Father Gabriele Amorth, has recently written that, while we may think of the Harry Potter books, and even of the practice of yoga, as more or less innocuous pastimes, they are in fact intrinsically evil, because the Devil himself is at work in them.  Most of us think of such claims as utterly farfetched and bizarre, and rightly so, but they do raise the question of whether an entity such as the Devil actually does exist.

Satan, the Devil, the Prince of Darkness, the Father of Lies.  This is an entity that has long struck fear in the hearts of devout Christians, and in many others as well.  But the question of whether or not he (to use the masculine pronoun for simplicity’s sake) truly exists as a separate, identifiable, free-standing, if evil, being still remains.  Or is he instead the psychological embodiment, the dark symbol of all those negative forces and tendencies that are hidden at some level, buried deep within the unexplored and uncivilized parts of our psyche?

The concept, or if you prefer, the identity of the Devil cannot itself be explored without also inquiring into the notion of evil.  As seen above, we can hardly even begin any examination of Satan without also making reference somewhere to the words “darkness” and “lies,” which stand out in stark contrast to the notion of light and truth, those appellations so often associated with God.  All this brings to mind the ancient Zoroastrian belief in Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, the quintessential light and dark twins of that ancient faith.  Many mythologies, in fact, talk about a Creator God, who brings the world into being by somehow giving birth to a set of twins, who are separated at birth or otherwise set apart, one of whom brings light and life into the world, and the other of whom is the bearer of darkness and death.  These two then go on warring “until the end of time.”

But if this analysis sounds too academic, somehow too antiseptic almost, in any discussion of evil, we can think of it in another way: no matter how good or how moral we may normally think of ourselves, given a moment of utter honesty, could each of us not also conceive of ourselves as capable of committing deeds which might include us among the worst of humanity?  Can we not, for example, in the sheer folly and senselessness of youth, let us say, and within the all-encompassing ignorance of cultural conditioning, brainwashing, if you will, imagine having joined the Nazi Party during the Third Reich?  Or, if that is too evil even to consider, what of this?  Who could not see himself as capable of striking out in rage and a desire for vengeance under “the right circumstances” of a loved one grievously harmed or killed by another?  Indeed, as has been pointed out by more than one person in history, to be human is to be at some level capable of doing all those things which human beings have in fact done throughout the ages, from the most sublime to the most horrific.

In this sense then, there is no evil in the world except that which is created by humans.  Erupting volcanoes are not evil, nor are devastating storms or floods, or killer droughts, or ravenous tigers, or grizzly bears.  Yet all are more than capable of killing, more than able to inflict their degree of panic and horror and chaos on the world.  But still, we do not think of them as evil. We might say, “that was a devil of a storm,” but the vast majority of people acknowledge this only as metaphor, as a manner of speaking.  No one takes it literally, with the exception perhaps of the most outré, the most fringe of elements within religions, people who make connections between disastrous events and punishment by God for perceived sin on the part of humanity, or portions thereof.  And is that condemnation itself not also a form of evil in its own right?  One way or another, it turns out that it is only human beings who can actually bring about evil, and only humans deliberately inflict pain and cause death “for the sheer hell of it.”  And if this is so, does that then not suggest that Satan, the personification of evil, could also be the projection of the worst in the human psyche?

When I was a young monk many years ago, each evening we would gather together in the candle-lit chapel for Compline, the last of the so-called offices of the daily liturgy of the Catholic Church, and the cantor would intone (in Latin, though here translated) the following hymn:  “Brothers, be sober and watchful!  For your adversary, the Devil, like a roaring lion goes about seeking whom he may devour.  Resist him steadfast in the faith.” I remember this because it has always stuck me as odd that the Devil was being compared to an animal, a devouring lion in this case, whereas we have just posited that animals cannot themselves be evil (as much as they may be killers).  Maybe the message we young monks were supposed to get out of this prayer was that Satan was the embodiment of the “animal part” of our humanity?  This surely would fit in with Christianity’s bias for spirit, and its animus against, or at least mistrust of, the body.

But none of this negates the fact that there really is evil in the world.  What, for example, of violent rape, or of torture for whatever purpose, or acts of terrorism, which is killing for the sake of ideology, or of state-sponsored killing, or killing simply for the sake of killing, as some seem capable of doing?  And yet, as horrific and as abominable as these acts surely are, does it then follow that we must necessarily posit a single Evil Entity, a Prince of Darkness, who rules over and creates pain and lies and chaos?

There is no doubt that ours is a bifurcated world of opposites, where we are forever faced with the duality of choosing good or evil, right or wrong, that which is light or that which is dark, or at very least the appropriate over the inappropriate.  We must face the fact that most of us, most of the time, choose some of this and some of that.  This is the human condition.  It could be that what this points to is that the good is represented by God, and the evil is represented by Satan.  In this regard, the God we are speaking of is what might be called the more limited sense of the meaning of that word, and ought not to be confused with the Unnamable Spirit, about whom so little can be said because most things we wind up saying, due to the limitations of language, fall into mere categories, and when it comes to the All Absolute categories are entirely irrelevant.  The “God” that we usually mean when we so name him, though, is a different matter.  In this more limited sense, we are talking about the manifested part of the Unmanifest Being, the God of laws and of do’s and don’t’s, the namable God whose characteristics we can list.

God (in this more everyday sense) can then be thought of as the embodiment of all that is positive in the world of opposites, and Satan can be conceived of as the embodiment of all that is negative.  In this sense, if you believe in (i.e., if you “give reality to”) God, then you also believe in (i.e. “you give reality to”) Satan, as well.  It could even be said that Satan cannot “exist” without God, just as God (again in the normal meaning given to that word) cannot “exist” without Satan.  Or we can put it this way, that some dark, evil Principle, however we may choose to name it, in some way exists and counterbalances a light-filled and loving Principle.  Still we must add that, having said all this, it is always better to follow and to focus one’s consciousness on the light-filled and loving (i.e. on God, if you will) than on the dark and the evil (i.e., Satan), as God is a far surer path to the realization that, in any final and ultimate sense, neither actually exists at all.

In the end, inasmuch as within the context of our normal, everyday lives, and given our usual state of consciousness, God and evil do actually exist, we all know people who could be called good, and some who can be called bad, or even evil.  The same can even be said of places, by the way.  I once visited the notorious prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia (now a museum) called “Tuol Sleng,” where Pol Pot’s henchmen murdered thousands of innocent people.  I could barely remain for more than a few minutes within those walls, there was such a vibration of agony and terror that permeated and emanated from every molecule of the building.   I had to go outside and compose myself, in fact.  Later on, I went back in and made myself walk through the entirety of the place because I felt I needed to honor those who had died there.  But in my memory this will always remain an evil place.

So, can it be said that Satan exists as the personification of all that is dark and horror filled in our binary existence, just as God does as the embodiment of all that is good and light filled?  If you believe, yes, both do exist.  The names they are called are in the end not that important, and indeed they change from one culture to another.  No culture and no religion has a monopoly on these things.  Each religion (each mythological story, if you will) helps describe and fill out our knowledge of otherwise elusive and enormously complex principles of being, which cannot ever ultimately be fully and completely explained.  The converse is also true, that is, that these entities do not exist, not as stand-alone beings at any rate, if at some unfathomably profound level, you “know” they do not.  The Lord Buddha, sitting under the Bodhi Tree, was able to overcome all of his temptations and achieve Enlightenment, because he realized that everything he saw was nothing but a phantom and an illusion.

In this sense, the question of the existence of Satan, or ultimately of the God of most religions, makes little difference.  This is not the statement of an atheist, or even of a cynic, but instead of one who affirms that Spirit fills all, everything and every place.  Even Tuol Sleng, where evil also reigns.  The Unnamed Divine Spirit cannot not be in any place, although there are some locales, and even some people, where his presence is profoundly hidden.  Ultimately, what must be done is to see into and beyond the appearance of good and evil, beyond Satan and even beyond everyday notions of God, to where there is nothing to see, to where sight and even understanding are no longer applicable.  There, as The Buddha knew, these phantom images disappear like dew on the summer grass.  Here there is nothing left but light, and then not even light, but a thing far greater, so great that all we can do is wonder in awe, and ultimately in the silence that is beyond all expression.

WHAT TO WRITE ABOUT AS YOU TURN 100? WHY NOT THE UNIVERSE, AND WHERE IT COMES FROM?

By Paul

It happens that this is the 100th posting on our Two Old Liberals blog, and I was wondering what topic might be worthy of such an iconic number. By chance, it is also just over a year now (we began on Feb. 14, 2012) since Kevin and I first embarked on this endeavor.

During that time, and between the two of us, we have written about everything from art and culture (painting, writing, film, theater etc.), to family and personal histories, gay issues, global warming (including fracking, recycling, over population etc.), language, money and economics, mysticism, mythology, politics of all sorts, philosophy and values, popular culture, religion and faith, science, spirituality, the nature of consciousness, and work and what that means. And in this listing, I’ve no doubt left out several other topics that one or the other of us has delved into.

So I began thinking, what subject might be a proper one to mark this milestone, and I could come up with nothing grander than the universe itself. I suppose you could argue that all of the things mentioned above might simply be thought of as part of that universe, and no doubt you would be correct. But what I have in mind is more the nature of what we mean when we say the universe, or the cosmos if you prefer. I am thinking of such questions as: where does the universe come from, how could it appear from nothing, and are there other universes out there?

It goes without saying that I cannot claim to know the answers to the above questions, if there is in fact anything even remotely like a single answer to each of them. Far greater minds than mine have grappled with them, and they, too, have come up short. Still, I believe that such queries are quite legitimate ones, and in fact all human beings ought to ask them of themselves. They are, indeed, the most basic questions that we can possibly grapple with.

It is also true that these kinds of queries bring us to that mysterious borderland that exists somewhere between science and religion, or if you prefer (as I do), between science and spirituality. There was a time when science would not touch such questions, would not even contemplate them, inasmuch as they were considered to be outside its boundaries. But those borders no long pertain. Nowadays, science does not shy away from them, because tools have been developed which bring us to the very heart of such queries. Telescopes have been made which can peer back into the past and see the very beginnings of the formation of the first stars. And there are other tools, too, such as the Large Hadron Collider, which open up to us the smallest of worlds, and which search out the answer to what matter is and where it comes from.

Within the parameters of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, for example (which states that you can never be certain of both the position and the velocity of a particle, and the more accurately you know the one, the less you know about the other), some physicists now theorize that fluctuations of quantum particles, which spontaneously appear and disappear out of nothing, along with something called “an inflation” (a sort of hyper-rapid boiling of space), may have been the cause of the Big Bang. As of now, of course, this remains merely an interesting theory, not a proven fact. But still, if some day such a theory – or something like it – is proven to be correct, we could then posit that this caused the Big Bang, and therefore, it was the cause of the universe itself. And if that were to be so, does it then follow that there is no longer any need for God, or at least for a God in the sense that Thomas Aquinas meant, when he spoke about his concept of the Prime Mover?

Another fascinating fact, which science now knows, is that the physical universe, or the way we think of it in normal terms anyway, that is, the visible cosmos, the world, all matter, the stars, the planets etc., all this forms only about 1% of the actual universe. Personally, I find that astounding! And what this means is that 99% of the universe, our universe, yours and mine, the one we live and breathe in, is made up of something else. What is that something else? Well, we know that approximately 29% of that very same universe consists of dark matter, and the remaining 70% is composed of a thing called dark energy. Not a lot is known about these substances, if that is even the proper term for them, but dark matter does appear to play some kind of a role in keeping galaxies spinning in their orbits, and dark energy may, in whole or in part, be responsible for the continuing rapid expansion of the universe.

But returning for a moment to the fluctuations of quantum particles in a vacuum, it could also be deduced from this that not merely one, but many, indeed perhaps an infinite number of universes could be formed in this way. Ours, therefore, the one with life in it (as we think of life anyway) is but one example of millions, or even billions, most of which might not support life at all (again, at least as we conceive of it). But where are these other universes? And could there be other ways in which to conceive of life? If so, why are they hidden from us? The answer, if there is an answer, is probably because they exist within physical and mathematical principles which are so different from, or alien to, our own that they cannot be seen, or otherwise perceived by us.

But we are conditioned to think, and to believe, that every effect has a cause that brings it about. How, therefore, can we imagine that a fluctuation within a quantum vacuum can come about spontaneously and causelessly? And if there exists such a thing as laws which govern even quantum fluctuations, to say nothing of inflations, surely it is a legitimate question to ask, where do these laws come from?

So far at least, it seems to me that everything our greatest scientists have done has merely wound up backing up the basic question of where “all this” comes from. In other words, if the original question was, what came before (i.e., what “caused”) the Big Bang, and if we now theorize that it could have been the fluctuation of quantum particles in an inflation, then the question bumps back, and we have to ask, where do quantum particles, and the laws that govern them, come from? Right now, it is posited that they come from nothing. But can “something” really come from nothing? The old mathematical question remains: how do we get from 0 to 1, from nothingness to somethingness?

Many, but not all, scientists hesitate to posit a Divine Spirit, an Infinite Intelligence, if you will. If this is the case, however, in other words, if such a concept does exist, what it surely cannot mean is anything like the God that most of us were raised to believe in. Such a God, with his likes and dislikes, and his favorites and his not-so-favorites, his anger and his appeasement, his concept of sin and redemption, all this gets jumbled up in our minds with our own human needs, our desires, and especially our fears. God (to use that word only as a kind of short hand) must surely be so far beyond such concepts of ordinary human understanding that all we normally can do is catch glimpses of him. We see parts, while The Whole is beyond our everyday range of vision. And the very least that must be said is that such a Divine Spirit would never confine himself to speaking only from the voice of, let us say, a power-hungry politician-pope, or the fear-filled raging of some ignorant preacher, condemning sinners to the fires of an everlasting hell.

No, the universe is and must be far grander than that. There can be little doubt that, whatever it may be, it is light years away from anything that we can conceive of. It is filled with mystery and magnificence and unimaginable beauty. Dark matter, dark energy, swirling galaxies, exploding supernovae, human abilities to think and create and wonder at what is beyond, and below, and within, all this forms merely part of what is meant only by our own universe. And what of other universes, which by definition more or less defy our abilities to imagine what they could be like?

These are the things that should capture our fancy and our imagination. These are the questions which ought to occupy our spirit and our intellects. These, surely, are topics that must fascinate our minds, not only as we turn one hundred, but indeed all the days we are privileged to lead our lives in this magical and fascinating world, always and forever beyond our final understanding.

HURRAY FOR THE HIGGS BOSON!

By Paul

It’s not for nothing that theoretical physicists have been searching for the so-called Higgs boson for decades now.  It may sound to most of us like some indescribably arcane piece of scientific trivia, and arcane it may be (at least to the layman), but trivial it definitely is not. 

What is at the heart of all this is one of the most basic questions that humans can ask, namely, why is there “stuff” in the universe instead of nothing at all?  Why and how did matter form in the first place?  This is what is being asked.  And without matter, it goes without saying, we would not have stars or galaxies or planets, or things upon planets, like animals and plants and people, and all of the things that people appear to cherish so dearly.  We know that, at the time of the Big Bang, intense and unimaginably powerful energy suddenly exploded and radiated outward into space.  That energy, in fact, continues to expand today at velocities that seem to exceed even the speed of light itself.  So, wouldn’t it be logical to think that this energy would just keep on going and going and going, ultimately infinitely, if we can imagine such a thing?  What caused some of this energy instead to slow down, to cohere, and to begin forming the molecular structures which eventually themselves bound together to form what we think of as matter today? 

Physicists have long had their theories, of course.  That’s in large part what physicist do, they think about such subjects and they theorize ways in which, given the currently understood laws of the physical universe, it might be logical that things could have proceeded.  It was thus that the physicist Peter Higgs theorized many decades ago about an elemental particle so small that it could not be seen, even with the most sophisticated technology of his day.  He further posited that this particle would travel through an energy field, subsequently called a Higgs field, and slow down, in the process taking on some of the energy from that field.  The particle itself was called the Higgs boson.  The Higgs boson, however, would be a highly unstable form, and would quickly disintegrate into other forms, which themselves would be more stable, and which would then go on to form the basic building blocks of molecules. Molecules would form atoms, and atoms would create the various forms which we have come to know and to love. 

The problem was that it remained only an untested theory.  And in the end, scientists are nothing, if not practical.  If you cannot see it, not with the naked eye, of course (we can’t really see much with our eyes, at least not unaided), but with the technology that we create in order to “see more clearly,” then who was to say if Peter Higgs was right?  Higgs, himself, didn’t know, couldn’t know, for sure.  Maybe it was something else that “created matter,” and not his boson at all?  This, by the way, is why the Higgs boson has sometimes been referred to as the “God Particle,” because in most theologies, it is God who “creates the firmament.”  He (or in very old mythologies, She) it was who made something out of nothing, and brought about the world as we see and know and experience it today. 

Now we know that we do not have to rely on God in order for matter to be created.  Matter came into being, as it were, of its own accord, because an inconceivably tiny particle happened to travel through a certain kind of energy field, thus slowing down long enough for that energy to “stick” to it, and ultimately form what we know as matter. In my book, that is a big very deal!

But what’s an ever bigger deal is that scientists at CERN (the European Center for Nuclear Research – or according to its French title, le Centre Européen de Recherche Nucléaire) have been spinning tiny particles around at enormous speeds for several years, crashing them into each other, and then focusing their powerfully sophisticated computers in order to analyze the results.  The machine they used in order to do this, called the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC for short, has brought about as many as 400 trillion collisions just since June.  Now, 400 trillion as probably as close as I’d ever care to get to an unimaginably big number.  But in the process, they found actual evidence of the Higgs boson!  And that’s the big news in today’s paper, which will continue to roil the scientific world maybe for years, or even decades, to come.  At this point, they know it, or something very close to it, is no longer merely an elegant theory.  They know that it is actually the way things happen in nature.  They have been able to peer into these processes, see them, record them, and analyze them.  The theory has been proven. 

So, what now?  Do theoretical physicists sit back on their haunches and smoke a nice big cigar, sip a glass of champagne, and say we’ve done it?  Hardly!  Most scientists believe that this is really just the beginning of new and exciting research to come.  It appears as though this now opens the door into other, perhaps yet unimagined, ways of exploring the mass-generating capability of the universe.  And in another article, coincidentally simultaneously published in today’s same paper (the Los Angeles Times), there is a report that the bigger-picture cousins of theoretical physicists, astrophysicists, have discovered something of their own in regard to dark matter.  Dark matter is that mysterious stuff which fills a far, far greater percentage of the universe than does ordinary (perceivable) matter.  They have seen evidence of filaments of dark matter connecting whole galaxy clusters, and these filaments extend into many millions of light years in length.   Can it in fact be a total coincidence that these two discoveries, the unimaginably small and the unimaginably big, have come about so close to each other in time?  Perhaps, but then I guess it’s my bias that I’m just not so much of a believer in coincidence. 

How, after all, did energy itself come about, that massless something that we in a sense intuitively understand but cannot see or fully conceive of?  Why did the Big Bang bang in the first place?   Is it possible that such an otherwise inconceivably enormous explosion took place on its own?  Indeed, what was it that actually exploded?  And is thought, and our own energy, tied in some mysterious way to all of this other energy in the universe?  How could it be otherwise?  We are after all, at least in our bodies, made of star stuff; and the same kinds of Higgs bosons that created us also created dark matter, to say nothing of the trillions of whirling galaxies all around us. 

I don’t like to use the word God, because that appears to me to be so limited, so human in form and conception.  I imagine bigger, more immense, more utterly unfathomable.  The God of most religions is tiny and limited and concerned with whether or not we follow certain moral principles, which in the end are essentially man-made principles.   The Higgs boson may be the God particle of the physical universe, and I have no problem accepting this.  But the Divine Spirit that I see, or do not “see,” but feel and open myself to, in my own meditation is beyond any human category.  Whatever we say about God can at best only be a partial truth, because whatever that is will, in the end, only be expressed within the limitations of our ordinary human understanding. 

So, hurray today for the Higgs boson, and hurray, too, for limitless, inconceivable, unimaginable Spirit, who both is and is not within the compass of this, our glorious little universe.

THE BIG QUESTIONS, OR HOW I OUGHT TO FILL MY DAYS

By Paul

For whatever reasons, I have long been fascinated by what I think of as the “Big Questions.”  Is there a God, and what is he like, or He, if you will (using the masculine for want of a better, more inclusive pronoun)?  What happens after death?  Is there eternal life, a thing taught by most religions?  What, if anything, is the meaning of life, and how do we understand or achieve it, or align ourselves with it?   Why are we here in the first place?  Who created us?  What sustains us?  What do we actually mean when we say that we are alive?  What is consciousness?  How did life come about?  How did the universe itself begin, and will it someday end? 

I have read whatever I could find in both scientific and what might be called mystical literature, and I have meditated as well for most of my adult life, trying to grapple with even one of these questions.  I cannot tell you that I have found the answer.  Perhaps it is not given to any human being to be able to lay such a claim.  I believe there will, in fact, always be mysteries that we cannot grasp and fully understand with our limited human intelligence.  Having said that, however, I still believe that this in no way means that we ought not to keep on trying. 

As I get older, I have become more comfortable with the idea of mystery, (or again Mystery, if you prefer), what some mystics of the Middle Ages called the Mysterium Tremendum.  Nietzsche famously claimed that God was dead.  What could he have meant by that?  Some consider Nietzsche to be a kind of secular mystic, an individual who had somehow gotten beyond the need, if that is the right word, for a personal God.  If that is so, what he was able to achieve was an understanding of a Being beyond all characteristics that can be assigned by mere human categorization.  In that sense, it could be said that any anthropomorphized view of God that he may once have held had died.

But today philosophy itself is, in a sense, also dead.  The big questions that philosophers like Nietzsche and Kant, all the way back to Aristotle, once concerned themselves with have been taken over by scientists. Aside from the great mystics, physicists like Stephen Hawking now hold center stage in delving into the Great Mystery.  And the answers they give, as well as the questions they pose, must give all of us pause. 

Let us look for a moment, as an example, at the beginning of the universe.  Unless one posits esoteric and not well understood notions of so-called imaginary time, most scientists think that there was a beginning to the universe at an event called the Big Bang.  This event is thought of as a “singularity,” meaning a point in space-time at which the space-time curvature is infinite. What “came before” the Big Bang is therefore not a question that science can grapple with, inasmuch as all known laws of physics break down.  Who is to say that a Divine Spirit may have not have been, as it were, the initial energy of this initial singularity?  And, as to the question of who (or Who) made the Divine Spirit, such a question makes little sense, inasmuch as it assumes a “time before time.”  This puts us back again to an anthropomorphized view of “God,” that is, of some being (or Being) who operates within the limits of human understanding, or even of the laws of physics. 

The question all this raises, at least in my mind, is what may be the possibility of knowing this “God beyond God”?   Mystics the world over, of every religious stripe and tradition, as well as outside of any religious tradition, all point to experiences they have had which seems to answer “yes” to this question.  But this ultimately has to be left to each individual to know or to experience for him or herself.  If it is to happen, every mystic must ultimately be willing to “kill God,” that is, to move beyond formerly constructed conditions, notions, or images of God, to what is beyond, or more than, or simply outside of all such every day human categories. 

And what of life, too?  I recently read a fascinating article in the Los Angeles Times about subterranean bacteria found in a portion of the Lechuguilla Cave deep within Carlsbad Caverns National Park in New Mexico.  There scientists have discovered bacteria which have lived and thrived for at least 4 million years in total darkness with almost no water.  Life has been known to thrive, too, at great depths in the world’s oceans under conditions which we normally consider to be totally inimical to it.  The question this raises is not so much how that is, but more so, why that is. What does it mean?  If virtually all of our experience points to the fact that life requires sunlight in order to exits, how do we explain life that needs no sunlight?  And what does that do to our definition of what it means to “be alive”?   Does living mean being able to grow?  If so, are crystals alive, since we know that under the right conditions they grow?  Indeed, everything that is physical consists of atoms and molecules and their smaller subparts, elementary particles such as protons and neutrons and quarks.  These in a sense grow by combining with each other, and they move as well.  Indeed, they are in constant motion.  Could it be that everything, all matter, is in some sense alive?  Could it be said that it is imbued with the life or the energy of the Divine Spirit, that God who is beyond all of our notions of God?

As I’ve said above, I have no absolute answers to these Big Questions.  However, I believe that grappling with them is one of the most meaningful things that a human being can do.  Of course, at some point it is necessary to accept the fact that we will never be able to plumb such questions to their very core.  Not that this is an excuse for ceasing to try, or for throwing up our hands and saying that it’s all impossible. 

Mystery and our attempts to understand it have always been and will always be a sublime part of what it means to be alive.  In my view, most religions are inclined to give simplistic answers to the Big Questions.  We are told to believe in this dogma or that, in this incarnation of the Divine or that, and that He (almost always masculine) is the one and only true God.   I do not wish to claim here that there may not also be some good found in organized religion.  And if people feel that they need the support of a structured system, of a hierarchy that interprets for them, or of a book that is believed to be inspired, then who am I to say they are wrong?  But what I am talking about is beyond questions of right or wrong; I am trying to address what lies beneath, or beyond, or outside the categories we normally associate with religion. 

That is surely what is meant by the Mysterium Tremendum, the Holy Grail, the Cup that endless refills itself.  This knowledge is what is most worthy to strive for in life, even as we know that, at least with our every day human intelligence, it is a goal beyond our reach.  But if the great scientists of the world are right, we need to strive all the same, although this may be one place where science and mysticism part ways.  Scientists reason and make hypotheses, they test and experiment and observe and verify, while mystics sit and look within.  Both approaches have their champions, as well as their benefits.  In the end, perhaps it all comes down to intent.  What is it that we think is most important? 

There’s no doubt that humans seem more inclined to talk and to act than they do to sit and listen.  But either way, the Big Questions remain with us, and they await our humble and our thoughtful consideration.