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.

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.