Archive for category Science and philosophy

Something from Nothing

something

The world is mostly nothing.  And it came from nothing.  If you consider the amount of “empty” space between the stars and galaxies, well over 99.999999999% of the universe has nothing.   But if you also consider the stuff of every day — like this table my computer is resting upon — about 99.999999999% of it is empty space.   It feels solid to us, but the reality is that the distance between the subatomic particles is immense, and thus the reality we see as solid and real is actually mostly empty.

Of course, this could mean that our perceptions are illusions.   Consider: computer programs can create the illusion of vast worlds, all located on a tiny hard drive in the computer, used by an even smaller memory unit.   It still is only two (or perhaps three) dimensional on a screen, but the ‘feel’ of being in a vast world exists.   It’s not too much of a stretch to expand the metaphor to think of our reality.

That’s absurd, right?   Space and time exist.   But space and time are the same thing – it’s space/time.   And it seems to be a unified entity, meaning all space/time exists together “simultaneously.”   In other words, just as you can travel about in space, theoretically one could travel about in time; indeed to travel through space one must travel through time, they are unified.  Yet for some reason we don’t comprehend, we’re temporally uni-directional.   And it appears that while we can “speed up” our passage through time (if we traveled at near the speed of light we’d age much, much less quickly than those left on earth), we can’t go in reverse.

A quote from Einstein after the death of his friend Michele Besso

A quote from Einstein after the death of his friend Michele Besso

This is all very odd – and I’m not even going to delve into quantum and particle physics, except to note that they indicate that matter, or “stuff,” isn’t really a particle but a ripple in a field that has no precise location until it is measured or perceived.    That means that we’ll always see the world as having a real discernible form because we’re perceiving it.   If we ceased to perceive it, it would lose that form.

That makes no sense, and with all due to respect to Erwin Schroedinger, cats and other animals – and perhaps any form of life, including plants – perceive in some way.    Which ones magically solidify reality into one form?  Well, that’s anybody’s guess.

British clergyman Bishop Berkeley – who has both a university and a Star Trek character (spelled Barclay, the actual phonetic pronunciation of the Bishop’s name) named after him – thought material reality was simply a persuasive illusion.   All we have is perception and experience, but we can never truly judge the reality of those perceptions.  Dim witted people responded to Berkeley with things like “if reality is an illusion, why don’t you just jump off a cliff.”  Of course, the perception of and experience of pain or even death would still be real.  Whatever reality is.

Berkeley thought it was in essence God’s dream – we were products of God’s mind.   And if we keep the metaphor of a dream going, it’s apt.  Consider our dreams, especially dreams in which one knows he or she is dreaming.   Those dreams have space, color, sensation, but yet we’re silently (or perhaps not so silently) snoozing in bed, creating those worlds in our minds.  Perhaps waking reality is more like the dream world, but with different rules and laws.  Why would such a view make any less sense than the idea something exploded from nothing and we inhabit a world where we drift quietly with no discernible purpose?  Given our utter lack of knowledge about why there is something and not nothing, both possibilities are equally plausible.

Of course, a universe coming from “nothing” can also be seen as non-sensical.  Before the big bang time and space presumably did not exist.  The term “nothing” is a space-time term.   The beginning of the universe is a space-time concept.  Before space-time existed, time did not exist.  Neither did space.  Can you imagine a reality that is not defined by space or time?

We cannot conceptualize the reasons for our existence because they are completely outside our frame of reference.  We think in space-time terms, but space-time is a creation.    I’m not saying it was created by a God — and if one believes that, it just pushes back the core question to “where did God come from.”  Moreover by definition God becomes non-material, with attributes not defined by space-time.   Such a God would be utterly incomprehensible to humans, suggesting that our God-myths are just that – myths.    Perhaps they came about because people were trying to put into words some kind of deep intuitive spiritual knowledge but then again, perhaps not.

We cannot imagine what is not space-time, so we are constrained by the limitations of our perceptual capacities.   We think everything has a beginning and an end because we are unable to conceive of reality absent time.   We think everything has a location because we cannot imagine reality without space.

universe

But that says less about reality than our ability to understand it.  So it seems we inhabit a world that given our understanding of the laws of physics, should not exist – because it requires getting something from nothing.  Clearly our laws of physics themselves are not universal, at least not outside our space-time universe.   That means we can be reasonably sure of a few things:

1.   The belief we are in a meaningless universe of mechanical practices that follow the laws of physics without regard to anything immaterial (spirit, a god-concept or something like that) is unlikely to be correct.  It relies on an assumption that this is “all that is,” but that requires a contradiction: our world came from nothing, but you can’t get something from nothing.

2.  The idea that life is an illusion, a “dream of God” or some other fundamentally different nature is as realistic a belief as a belief that we experience an external world “out there” that we as discrete, separate individuals come in contact with.   In fact, the odds are greater that Berkeley was on to something, given how bizarre quantum physics operates.

3.  Science is defined by measurable material phenomena, and generalizes laws about the physical world – our space-time world.  Therefore science cannot answer questions about a deeper fundamental nature of reality, or where this world came from.  Thus science is pragmatic in the sense it tries to explain how the world works – or how we experience the world working.   While it can inform philosophical and spiritual speculations, it cannot give definitive answers.

4.  Neither philosophy nor spiritual/religious experience yields definitive answers to these questions either; to me that means one has to be playful, non-dogmatic and open minded.

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Synchronicity

synchronicity

From Wikipedia:  “Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner. The concept of synchronicity was first described in this terminology by Carl Gustav Jung, a Swiss psychologist, in the 1920s.”

One can look at synchronicity in terms of deep non-material causation, or as an interpretation of events that are not causally connected but to which humans give meaning.    If someone’s car breaks down outside a diner, and then he goes in and meets his future wife waiting tables inside, he might conclude that the car trouble was meant to be, designed to connect him to his soul mate.   It could,  however, have been mere coincidence.

I’m a believer in the first kind of synchronicity, that there are forces at work beneath the material that bring things together and create important opportunities and life experiences.    On its face that seems a strange belief, so why do I hold it?

1.  The inherent question of meaning.    Why is there something rather than nothing?   This question is unanswerable in any objective sense.   We can’t know.    This world is space-time, a realm in which you can’t get something from nothing, and where time progresses from start to finish.   Our space-time world cannot simply be, because that would contradict its own laws.   It had to come into existence at some point.   Why?  How?   The big bang 15 billion years ago may answer “how,” but that just pushes us to ask why the big bang occurred.

2.  The inherent limits of materialism.    Our thinking is materialist and rational.   We focus on measurable “stuff” in the world and try to generalize how that stuff acts and interacts.   Up until the 20th Century that seemed good enough.   Thanks to Isaac Newton people knew this was a clockwork universe and theoretically if one knew the speed, position and attributes of all that existed one could calculate both the complete past and the future yet to come.    By knowing the laws of physics, each moment had within it information yielding complete knowledge of the past and the future.

Modern physics blew that world to smithereens.   Now reality is relative to ones’ frame of reference, space and time are unified, and thanks to quantum physics, knowledge of the present only yields probabilistic knowledge of the past and future — and there is uncertainty even in that.    Matter, the “stuff” of universe, breaks down into ever small subatomic particles, which themselves are not so much particles as ‘ripples in fields.’    Things that we see are mostly illusion: Atoms are 99.99999999% empty space, meaning all matter we experience from our bodies to buildings and even the planet is almost completely empty.   A few interacting ripples in fields create the reality that our sensory organs interpret as the world we believe we inhabit.

In that light, the idea that material reality itself may be subject to non-material causal forces is quite plausible.   Especially since the act of observing is what solidifies a probable quantum reality into an actual one, material causality may itself be a misguided interpretation of our reality.

Physicists increasingly believe that our space-time universe is only part of a larger "multiverse"

Physicists increasingly believe that our space-time universe is only part of a larger “multiverse”

3.  The limits of rational thought and reason.    Reason is a tool; our assumptions about the world determine where reason leads.   Alter the assumptions, and reason yields a different answer.   Rational thinking and reason can’t determine meaning or truth, they only can help us figure out what works in the world.   Material causation may be an interpretation of reality that seems to work in the world, but there is no inherent reason it should be seen as superior to synchronicity or the idea that there are non-material deeper, “spiritual” forces at play.

4.  Intuition and Sentiment.   Intuition is often wrong.   Remember how the Republicans “felt” Romney would win, while the hard statistics analyzed by Nate Silver predicted the result we got.   We learn not to trust intuition.    Yet there are two kinds of intuition.   I may intuit something about the goings on of the material world (e.g., “I feel the Vikings are going to win this week.”) or I may intuit something about life itself – its meaning and my purpose.

Since reason cannot determine purpose or meaning in life, it makes sense to follow ones sentiment and intuition about those higher issues.   Intuition may be stronger there than in guessing particular material phenomena.

Synchronicity is also a superb album by the Police

Synchronicity is also a superb album by the Police

I am absolutely convinced that we are, to draw on another Police allusion, “spirits in a material world.”   What really matters are the connections and interactions with others, not the material stuff that surrounds us.   Synchronicity operates at that level.

Looking at life that way I have to change focus from the pursuit of goals defined in terms of material success towards what I learn from my life circumstances, and how I connect with and help/teach/learn from others.   That’s true reality, the material stuff is stage scenery.   It creates the story lines in which we live our lives.   But the story is not the purpose, the story is the vehicle in which we pursue our purpose.

bach

So when I go through the day I notice chance encounters, events that happen seemingly out of the blue but which connect to my thoughts, actions or personal dilemmas.   I try to see meaning in everything and everyone.  I see people and situations that push me away, realizing those dramas and situations are not for me.   Others draw me in.

Life lived this way becomes magical and meaningful.   There is a purpose, there is something profound in living day to day.   To get lost in the material pursuit of success and gain is akin to falling into a dream or trance; we need to wake up and experience the present and the meaningful.

And life lived magically, with an eye to meaning rather than stuff, goals or plans, has a reward:  one recognizes that happiness is available to everyone.    That’s because happiness cannot come from other people, stuff, success in the world or even family.   Happiness comes from inside, achieved by being open to the magic, focused on meaning and purpose.    That banishes fear and despair.  And once happiness is claimed one can turn to family, the world, stuff and other people with a renewed sense of confidence and clarity.

Don’t believe me?   Practice living that way.   Look for meaning, look for coincidence, look for signs and signals in the daily routine.  Look for magic.   Pay less attention to worldly pursuits and more towards whether or not you’re living a life that provides joy and meaning.    Just try it and see if it works!

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Disenchanted Humans

“Entzauberung” – literally to remove magic – is the term Weber used in its original German

Disenchantment was the term Max Weber used to describe the impact of enlightenment thought on humanity.   Humans moved from a world of deep spiritual significance to one that can be measured, analyzed and reduced to it constituent parts.    Rather than experiencing reality as a deeply meaningful and even magical whole,  it has become complex mechanistic set of causal mechanisms outside the self known as nature.   Any meaning it has comes from the human mind.

Such a view of reality is both implausible and untenable.  It is untenable because recent discoveries in modern physics, especially in the realm of quantum mechanics, defy a mechanized view of reality.     We don’t know exactly what the nature of reality is, but it’s definitely not some kind of mechanistic set of material chain reactions!   It’s implausible for the same reason we now see old geo-centric cosmological theory as misguided – it views human experience as the center of all reality.

The complex geo-centric models of the universe went to great lengths to keep the earth the center of everything; our current world view does the same for our minds

Think of it – a whole cosmos and the vast multiverse, all a lifeless, soulless set of material interactions with no meaning or core value.   All meaning, value and understanding in the universe takes place within the brains of carbon based life forms on one nondescript planet.   Even if we allow that there may be life forms similar to us on other planets, the result is the same:  a meaningless universe of causal mechanisms, forces and particles.   Meaning only comes as minds behold, label, and try to understand it.

Oh what vain creatures we mortals are!   We no longer believe our planet an unmoving center of the universe, but we think our minds are the essence of what gives reality meaning.   Without our minds to behold the world there would be no meaning, no value, just inanimate forces and particles buzzing about.  Looked at that way, the rationalist world view of enlightenment thought looks pretty absurd.

Still, the enlightenment was about liberation.   The individual now came first.   Rather than being products of a community, individuals were now seen as the creators of community.   As such they had to use reason to determine how to structure it, became responsible for their own happiness and success, and learned to question or distrust the religions and traditions which had provided meaning and social cohesion.

The biggest drawback, noted by first real critic of the enlightenment, Jean Jacques Rousseau, is alienation.   The individual used to be part of something greater than himself.    An individual in so-called primitive times was one with nature, a part of an enchanted world where every event, action and experience had meaning connected to that person’s life.    The boundary between the self and the wider world was imprecise.    Even after Christian thought came to dominate the individual was part of a community, had value due to his or her role, and had a network of support in the clan, village or extended family.   Religion provided certainty in life – as bad as things may be here, a paradise awaits!

Now we’re not so sure.   Most religion myths are seen as implausible, and ever since Montesquieu it’s been clear that the idea that salvation could be an accident of birth – a baby lucky to born in Iowa is likely to be taught the “right” religion while one born in Cairo may be doomed to hell – doesn’t seem likely from a loving God.  In fact the ability of one culture to think its religion the one true one is far fetched.   When you look at the claims of individual religions, their stories break down.

Moreover, individual responsibility for happiness, value and meaning in life — what the enlightenment liberates us to pursue — is a daunting task.   With advertisers insisting that you can’t have a happy life without the newest product, magazine covers defining beauty, and material wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, it’s easy to feel like one is failing.   Even Mitt Romney, the GOP Presidential candidate, stated that prosperous countries have “better cultures” than those with less wealth (he used GDP per capita as the defining principle).   Get that – a culture is judged to be superior ont the basis of its economic output!

There is so much societal pressure to create material possessions with meaning – something that always leaves us wanting more (which is what advertisers want!)

Disenchanted humans, burdened with these tasks handle the challenge in various ways.   Most will turn to existing religions, friends and family, their communities, and their own life experiences to find meaning.  Often this yields an outcome good enough to make life bearable, and sometimes even pleasurable.   Others lose themselves in a host of distractions – sports, gossip, politics, activism, life-dramas, entertainment, books, etc – and train themselves not to think about any deep meaning to life.   That may be hectic, but it makes life like sleep walking.

Yet this disconnection with the world has yet another sinister side, the violence and destruction which has accompanied western thought.  We have high GDPs, but we’ve had the most destructive wars and pioneered true weapons of mass destruction.  We continue to devastate the environment and treat plants and animals as mere products.   After all if only the human mind provides meaning, everything else is to be used.  Their value is measured by the utility they provide for humans.   Colonialism, war, and the destruction of cultures (which, of course, are inferior if they are economically lower — hence exploiting them is doing them a favor by extending western ideas to them) are all actions inherent in this disconnect between individuals and the rest of existence.

It’s time to recognize that enlightenment thought without a spiritual component is untenable.   It’s time to assert that meaning cannot just exist in individual disconnected minds.   It’s time to recognize that we are part of a larger reality where meaning permeates all of existence.   We may not buy the symbols primitive peoples held – indeed, we need to build on rather than reject western thought.   Religious fundamentalists fear modernism because of its disenchanting quality, we need to rediscover enchantment!

As a new information revolution expands our power to connect and communicate, as modern physics breaks down boundaries and shows how little we understand the true nature of reality, we humans have to discover the natural empathy within us.  Enlightenment thought turns off the deep connections we have with the rest of reality, forcing us to experience life through a stark dichotomy of internal and external.   Somehow we have to find a way to reach and feel beyond that.   If we can we’ll have a revolution in thinking that can open doors, expand understanding, and overcome the dark side of enlightenment rationalism.

I don’t mean some kind of new age mysticism or magic crystals.   I also don’t mean a complete rejection of western rationalism.     We simply need a re-enchantment of human existence.   I’m not sure how this will look, but the first step must be to think about the world differently.   See it as magical, see ourselves as connected, to try to feel those connections and the lack of a true boundary between object and subject.   Experience coincidence as synchronicity, see the internal reflected in the external and vice-versa. The world isn’t as meaningless, cold and separate as we’ve been taught to believe.

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Atheism, Spiritualism and Science

The curvature of space-time, digital art by Ricardo G. Silviera (http://fineartamerica.com/featured/curvature-of-the-space–time-ricardo-g-silveira.html)

Modern physics is only touching the big questions about the origin of the universe.  Do black holes spawn universes?  Are we in a multi-verse with parallel realities less than an atom’s length away?   Perhaps — those are the kinds of theories occupying modern physics these days as scientists probe the nature of the big bang and what may have caused it.

So what should we humans believe?   Clearly scientific knowledge is uncertain at best.   We know we are in a space-time universe, space-time appears to have come into being at an event called the “big bang,” and if we take quantum physics seriously, the world is probabilistic and far more weird and indeterminate as most of us would like to believe.   The old determinist Newtonian world of clear laws and causality is long gone, even though in every day life that is still the approach we take.

Nils Bohr and Albert Einstein – two early 20th Century physicists who helped shattered the old deterministic Newtonian reality

Consider: Since we live in a space time universe, we are incapable of comprehending or even imagining reality outside space time.   Something outside space-time has no beginning or end, since those are merely temporal markers.   If something is outside space-time it has no location, that is a spatial marker.   Yet there is no way to dismiss the possibility that reality includes entities outside of space-time.   We just can’t comprehend what they would be like or how they operate, it is beyond our cognitive capacities.   Just as an ant in the White House can’t comprehend the politics going on around it, our frame of reference and mental capacities are limited to the space-time reality we inhabit.

Many find solace in a well defined set of religious beliefs. Although the religions are often exclusive, there are vast similarities in core values across all faiths

For religious folk, this opens up the possibility for the existence of God – an existence that is not in denial of science.   If God is outside space-time, then we cannot imagine God’s nature.   God need have no beginning or operate under causal laws like we do.  This fits Buddhist, Islamic and Hindu conceptions of God well, though Christians and Jews have tended to anthropomorphize God and give it human traits.

That said, claims about God that can be tested in the material world are fair game.  The idea that the earth is 6000 years old, for instance, can be falsified.   But for those of us who are not religious, the real question here is what the term “God” means.   Is it a source for this reality from beyond space-time?

There are a few ways to deal with this question.   First, you can dismiss it as irrelevant.   There is no way to test any hypothesis about reality outside space-time, so contemplating it is at best a playful intellectual indulgence, at worst a waste of time.   This is generally the atheist/materialist reaction.   Speculation about something we cannot know is meaningless and beliefs about it are irrational and potentially dangerous.    Better to stick to trying to figure out the world we have access to and can study.

For Atheists the most rational approach is to focus only on what can be tested and experience – religious faith and spirituality is too mushy and uncertain

A second way to deal with this is to simply choose a religious faith and believe it.   We can’t know, but maybe a benevolent God gives us access to knowledge through the heart, with faith the key to achieving that kind of enlightenment.    Supplement that with emotional satisfaction about one’s perceived connection with God, and religious belief can be very satisfying, it can create a sense of meaning in life.    The trouble is that this is true for a vast variety of diverse and often contradictory religious claims.    Either people are choosing to believe in myth and fantasy, or they all grasp aspects of the truth but build human stories around it that can conflict, or (to me unlikely) one group has it right and the others have it wrong.

Others (like myself) believe that we can at least sense a deeper meaning to life through openness to a spiritual side of life.

A third possible reaction is to consider subjective experience and intuition as evidence to explore connections to a spiritual side of reality that may not be testable in the scientific/materialist sense.   That would involve consideration of dreams, feelings, meditation, and efforts at deep empathy.   The idea here is that we may be connected to the God/spiritual world outside space time, but not in a way that exhibits itself through what we can measure and test within the confines of space-time.    Any knowledge gained from such explorations is subjective and personal.

It seems that spiritualism of this sort would have to deny dogma, since dogma rests on claims of certainty.   Instead, ideas would be judged by how well they work in the world or each individual, or whether or not they ring true inside.   I can believe that I draw to me all my experiences through my state of mind and my choices, but I can’t prove it or demand others believe it.

Despite the uncertainty there is a sense of liberation in this approach.   If one takes a purely atheistic/materialist approach to life, there is a  kind of meaninglessness and emptiness to existence.   We all will die, the sun will eventually go nova, the universe will dissipate and everything we do and achieve will be forgotten.    Nothing truly matters, except for our transient and fading experiences.  These experiences can be very meaningful, to be sure, and atheists can find meaning in rational materialism – but to me a reliance on the material side of life seems incomplete.  I cannot look at the world that way.

For the very materialist, the meaning of life is secondary to ones plans and achievements

If one takes a religious approach, there is some heaven or judgment one looks forward to or dreads, with hope for some kind of paradise, be it union with the whole via Nirvana or a heaven of spiritual delights.   For a spiritual approach there is uncertainty and a sense that it is most important that one live true to oneself and ones’ beliefs and reflections.   Success or failure in the material sense are less important than spiritual living.   The idea of judgment seems absurd because how can one be judged when our knowledge is so ambiguous?    Rather than judgment day there’s karma – our actions and choices create our situations.   And that’s where I end up.  I can’t prove it, but I have a sense that there is a unity to all experience and that there is deep meaning.    Living with a spiritual perspective works for me, and that’s ultimately all one can hope for.

Of course, the answer is really in knowing what the question should be!

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Nothing Matters and What if it Did?

Only once have I bought a record album or CD solely on the basis of the title: John Cougar’s Nothing Matters and What if it Did?  It is a great album.    Ain’t Even Done with the Night is a classic, and To M.G.  and This Time are also excellent — a spur of the moment purchase that I never regretted.

But why would that album title cause me at age 20 to pick the album off the rack and buy it?   John Cougar was not that well known yet (though this album helped push him to the next level), I just liked the title.

One question I think about when I want to tie my mind up a bit is “why is there something and not nothing?”   The idea that a universe exists is far more outrageous than the notion of complete nothingness.    Something can’t come from nothing, at least according to the laws of physics (well, particles can zip in and out of existence borrowing energy from the universe, but quantum physics covers that).  Positing a God is a logical but incomplete conclusion.   Why is there a God and not no God is just as puzzling a question!

Speculation about that question leads me to believe that material reality as we experience it must be a secondary form of experience.   While my description and reflections on reality now are much more sophisticated than they were when I was twenty, I think my gut intuition remains the same – this world is not the true world.

Hence the appeal of the question: Nothing matters, and what if it did?  The 20 year old Scott liked the rebelliousness of that question.   How dare someone say that poverty, war, child abuse, rape, genocide and murder don’t matter!   The suggestion seems disrespectful of the experience of millions of humans.   The 20 year old Scott rather liked creating discomfort in that sort of way; thirty years later, though, I still find the question appealing.

…and what if it did?   What if it did matter, what happens?   Would that make reality any different?

Even at 20 I saw the impossibility of truly embracing the idea that ‘nothing matters.’    Of course things matter to me, and to everyone else.   My children matter to me, my students matter to me, even my blog matters to me – it’s a recording of my ideas as they develop over time.

But let’s be honest.   Nothing we do here will be remembered or make a difference far into the future, except as a minuscule part of creating the world that will be — any of us might never have been born and the world would have gone on just fine.   Others would have filled our life roles, be it as a hero, a parent, or worker.    In a “real” materialist sense, our lives are meaningless.   Nothing material matters.   The sun will eventually go nova, humanity will die out, the vanity and arrogance of our brief dance on this planet represent nothing but impotent egos trying to assert that they have value.    The value is subjective and transient.

Yet what if it did matter?   Consider: all we experience is sensation.   That is a product of our brain.   It interprets the world and that interpretation is what we experience as reality.   It’s based on a small bit of reality that our senses can perceive.   Even though most “solid material” is made up of empty space — atoms are almost all empty space, the nucleus 1/100,000 of the atom’s size, yet containing all its mass — we experience solids as, well, SOLID!  It’s what our brain creates for our experience.

And while we might be real bodies walking and moving around through a universe that has three dimensions, we could also be receptors, taking in data and turning it into experience that simply seems like it takes up space and time.    That’s an old meditation, be it from Plato’s cave or more recently The Matrix, but there is nothing about human experience that gives cause to believe that reality is as we experience it.   We only know experience.

If that were the case, what matters would not be the physical world we believe exists.   What matters might be the emotions, connections, and what we learn in our hearts through living.    A person who struggles through difficulties to develop true happiness and a capacity to link meaningfully with others may be far more successful discovering useful knowledge than the most brilliant scientist or inventor.   One who lives in a state of engagement with the world of emotion, intuition and social connection may be far more better at life’s challenge than one who amasses a material fortune.   We know the material stuff perishes and may not even exist as we experience it.   But that spark of consciousness and life, that sense of spirit — that seems real, and it seems untethered to matter.

But why — what would the point of such an existence be.    Why is there something and not nothing?

“Oh yeah, life goes on, long after the thrill of living is gone” – John Cougar Mellencamp, from Jack and Diane.

John Cougar Mellencamp’s next album, American Fool, put his career into the stratosphere with songs like Jack and Diane and Hurts so Good.    He also reclaimed the last name his record company thought too boring for a rock star.

But think about – life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.   To me, that’s a key idea.   At some point living is a thrill, a joy, there  is excitement, anticipation, plans and goals.   One dreams, explores ideas, and the horizons seem limitless.   Then the routine kicks in, and at some point the future seems short with limited possibilities — one might be stuck in a job, stuck in a marriage, dealing with commitments, and unable to achieve earlier dreams.

But that’s true only if life is about the material.   Life becomes limited and the future more narrow if one looks only at material ideals — those do get limited over time as one lives and makes choices.  But if the spiritual and emotional matter; if connections with others are more important than individual material achievement, then life can be thrilling up until the last moment; the thrill of living need never fade.

The more I reflect on it the more real those ephemeral aspects of life and my existence become, and the more illusory the material world I experience seems to be.   I find that thrilling!

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The Materialist Illusion

We live in a world of matter and energy (though as Einstein demonstrated, the two are really the same).  Matter and energy are at base particles, though the term particle is a bit misleading.   It isn’t like there are minuscule chunks of stuff out there, it’s more like there are ripples in various fields, and those ripples create what we experience as reality.   The current thinking is that the only reason our material world has weight is because of ripples in what is called the Higgs field.  The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is trying to find a Higgs boson (particle) that would prove the existence of this field.

So right at the start the material world isn’t what it seems to be; we’re clearly perceiving it because we’re made of the same stuff and experiencing it with brains that translate how we interact with the ripples in various fields into sensations.

All of this is to foreshadow my real topic: the importance of education.   In discussion on yesterday’s post it was suggested that students forgo college and work hard in order to make money.  I noted that on average college grads earn $1 million more during their life than non-grads, and usually at jobs that are more comfortable.   One person pointed out that students can amass debt during college.   I’ve long thought that unless you get into a really top name school where contacts and connections are abundant, it’s not worth paying a lot to go to a fancy private college.   In fact, at the top schools well qualified applicants will always get substantial scholarships if they have need (and often even if they don’t).  It’s the second and third tier privates where can cause you to amass over $100,000 of debt in four years.

That’s one reason I choose to teach at a public liberal arts school.   The goal is to provide a quality liberal arts education rivaling the expensive private schools at a much lower price.   Kiplinger’s put us in their top 100 colleges in terms of value — you get a good liberal arts education without high debt.   Even out of state tuition is manageable.

That gets harder as state funding gets cut (it now pays about 40% of the costs, so we’re more private than public).  And we lack the resources, pay rates, beautiful grounds and sofas in the hallways with state of the art classroom equipment that nearby privates like Colby, Bowdoin or Bates enjoy.    I don’t get resources and time to do much research, teaching is the focus.    Yet that is gratifying, I’d much rather teach than research.

However, my goal in teaching is only partially to get students to understand how political scientists analyze world affairs and comparative politics.   Only a small number of students will go on to graduate school, a few will work in fields involving foreign affairs, but many will end up with a degree designed to get their foot in the door and be able to advance in fields outside of political science or international relations.   Where once college was an elitist institution where you groomed students to follow in your disciplinary field, now it’s mass education designed to give students the capacity to better understand the world, develop critical skills, learn to read and write more effectively and be prepared for how fast jobs and opportunities shift.

The stated goal is to promote “life long learning.”   Practically that means to help students learn to break out of the cultural hypnosis that so often captures people.   One of those spells is the idea that somehow happiness comes from material prosperity.   That if you can get rich, you’ve succeeded.    Or as Dennis DeYoung put it with Styx in 1977: “Don’t be fooled by the radio, the TV or the magazine; they’ll show you photographs of how your life should be, but they’re just someone else’s fantasy.”

Pressure is put on students by parents, peers and themselves to look at life in starkly materialist terms: how much money will I make, what will I own?   One student back in Minnesota came to me when I was a TA and said her dad didn’t want her to go to Spain for a year because of what it would mean for her earning potential in her prime years (apparently he charted out what missing a year would mean).   I told her that was insane, that what she’d gain from going to Spain would be invaluable for her life, and now she can afford to do it.    She told her dad what I said (though she promoted me to professor in her story) and surprisingly he backed down, “well, if your professor says its worthwhile, then go.”

Now one could argue that one doesn’t need college to become a life long learner.  Indeed, no matter what you think of the politics of Malcolm X, the story of how he educated himself — learning words and history while in prison — is powerful.   If one truly wants to learn, one can.   My experience is that most people don’t.   It’s not that they don’t like learning, but they don’t know how much knowledge and understanding enriches a life.  Even Malcolm probably wouldn’t have taken the time if he hadn’t been in prison, cut away from his life of what had been petty crime to that point.

Part of teaching is to get students to see that.   One time after a unit on the Cambodian genocide a student was so shocked by what happened that he took a job the next summer to teach English in Cambodia.   More often students talk about how what they learned changed how they look at the world, causing them to see both their future and their goals in a different light.   That’s what college should be about —  four years where your main job is to learn about the world and its mysteries from science, literature, how societies function, philosophy, world religions, and diverse cultures and countries.   You can’t do all of that in four years, but if you get students on the right track they’ll want to keep learning as they go on — that’s the goal.

Ultimately if this world is made up of nothing but ripples in fields, life is transient and brief.  Moreover, we don’t know what it is – it takes as much a leap of faith to say that the material stuff is all that is and once dead we’re simply gone as it does to say that something spiritual carries on.   Our lack of knowledge makes both claims equally plausible.   The fact that there is something rather than nothing causes me to think it likely there is something beyond this brief material existence, but who knows?

And if there is something important about living, it can’t just be acquiring material stuff.   We need it, but at some level once we are able to survive that isn’t the sole meaning of existence, nor does it seem to bring growing pleasure.    Someone who gets used to the luxuries of a millionaire’s life style probably enjoys them no more than how a middle class worker enjoys his or her material pleasures.   Once you get most of the hotels playing monopoly the game gets boring.

People choose distractions – television, sports, celebrity gossip, the lifestyles of the rich and famous, religious fervor, ideological fervor, anything to help push aside the emptiness that an unexamined life yields.    Education and exploring the richness of the world’s art, music, literature, science, cultures, etc. opens up avenues that enhance ones’ personal journey and spiritual reflections.   We may not end up with the answers, but the journey becomes exciting and exhilarating on a deeper level.   And isn’t the journey what it’s all about?   After all, the final destination is the same for all of us.

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Live Every Moment

Live every moment
Love every day
Because before you know it
Your precious time slips away
Kevin Cronin, REO Speedwagen

Back in college I wrote a poem “Now Lasts Forever.”  I was intrigued by the idea that it is always now.    Time is an elusive concept.   Physicists tell us that time and space are really two parts of the same thing.    Photons — those particles of light illuminating the world — do not experience time, only speed.   For them now is literally all they experience.   That seems incomprehensible but we’re really in the same boat.   We experience now, even though the world changes around us.   My best definition of time is change – you know time has passed when things change.   Now lasts forever, change is constant.

I’ve argued before that it’s important to ‘live awake,’ to see beyond the kind of fog that society and culture can impose as we go through the day doing what we are supposed to do, caught up in various little battles and problems.   Angry at the traffic jam, snapping at the kids, fretting about work.   It’s easy to get caught up in that kind of parade of emotional noise, exhausted at the end of the day from the constant push and pull — or as a line in a different song puts it “overwhelmed by everything but wanting more so much!”

Live that way and days can pass in apparent meaninglessness.  Every battle or issue that arouses emotions and causes frustration gets forgotten, replaced by others that distract one from really living.   Then at some point it ends, and for most of us everything we’ve worried about and focused upon is forgotten faster than we  think possible.   Even those who make it to the history books do it in a caricatured manner.   People remember some deeds and details, but most of the daily concerns and activities are lost.   Now has changed, that past is gone completely.   We perceive left over traces in memory and artifacts, but little more.

No wonder some philosophers see the human condition as one of suffering and pain.   Wanting and yearning, desiring and struggling for something utterly unobtainable – a world that makes us happy.   When you depend on the world for happiness and contentment, the world will always disappoint.     Especially modern humans, stripped of the meaning community, faith and tradition provided in the past, face tremendous psychological difficulties coping with trying to make sense of this world and ones’ place within it.

The answer, it seems to me, is to take now seriously.   It is now.   Always.   Now lasts forever.  Change flows through the now.   It’s not that time is passing, now is simply changing form.    It’s not that we’re aging and gaining wisdom, we’re simply changing along with the world around us.

That lends perspective.   Why let ourselves be tied down by daily drudgery?   The reason things seem frustrating and boring is we create temporal cages.    We see time as well defined and important, and thus in any battle or fight the stakes are high.

What I try to do is appreciate the now whenever it occurs to me to do so.    When I put my six year old to bed he wants me to lay there and cuddle him.   The part of me wanting to build temporal cages thinks “I have to grade papers, I want to read a book, I don’t feel tired, he’ll keep me in here a half hour, he should fall asleep on his own…would my dad lay with me and cuddle…fat chance…”   If I do that my mind gets caught up in drifting, thinking about what I could be doing and the time passing.

But if I look in his eyes, hug him, look around the room and think of its beauty and how it will change, I appreciate being with my six year old son in his bedroom with the moon light flowing in, his soft skin against mine, or his little feet kicking my back, and it’s bliss.   I’m appreciating and living this moment, keeping my mind from wanting to leap out of the now.   After all, fretting about what one could be doing accomplishes nothing yet keeps one from appreciating what one is doing.

Walking downstairs through the rec room to my office I look at the wall colors.   What a beautiful house!   Where others might see a messy room, I see toys that someday will just be memories.   It’s here now, I’m in a point of time that has great joy if I let myself simply experience.    When I read student participation in discussion board for my on line course I realize I’m part of their education, they’re learning, taking time to write at something I constructed (this course and its structure) and we’re engaged in a real learning relationship.   It’s not “damn, I have to grade,” but WOW, I get to read these ideas and respond.   How cool is that?

Focusing on now is also helpful when one is irritated.  If I think, say, my son was treated unfairly in some situation I could fantasize everything from law suits to angry confrontations.   Those won’t happen, I’d just be wasting energy due to my own lack of satisfaction with the situation.   So instead I pause.  Look around.  The beauty of the place where I am at, the things around me, the joy inherent in this moment.    Last weekend skiing I had to go up the T-bar with my six year old.  One time towards the end of the day my legs and shoulders were in pain and the ride was excruciating.  I was dwelling on my poor aging aching body then suddenly thought…wow, Dana and I are going up the T-bar together, that is so great…look at the snow, the trees, the sunlight, this is such a beautiful place, so magical.   And it was – as I engaged in that celebration of the moment the pain didn’t disappear, but it didn’t register.

We joked and laughed going up the mountain.   That laugh.   So delightful.   Today after school Dana comes out and it’s the first really cold day this year, about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.   He takes off his jacket, “wow, it’s really hot out here,” he says.  (Note: I take full responsibility for that kind of behavior, he’s acting like me in that sort of instance.)    I try to get him to put his coat on but to no avail — though he does move quickly to the car.   Other parents might struggle and get mad “how can you take your coat off, you’ll catch your death of cold, get your coat on NOW!”   I just smile and watch the stubborn and independent little guy run to the car laughing.   The moment is beautiful.

The more I manage to appreciate each moment as it goes by, the better I feel, the more I find life truly beautiful and wondrous, the more magic seems to occur.    Monday was trash and recycling day.   We recycle monthly, so I had a whole bunch of Christmas boxes I got ready to go Sunday night.  I usually leave things up there Sunday nights but it was raining – and freezing rain is not a friend to things left outside.   So I knew I had to wake up Monday early.

I did – at 7:41.  The rest of the house was asleep.   The recycling people come early and I was afraid I’d missed them.  I rushed to the garage still wearing my lounging around the house pants and headed up to the road.   It’s about a quarter mile up to get to where I have to leave the stuff.   The recycling truck is there.  I get out, “glad I caught you,” I say as I hand the guy my broken down boxes.   He smiles, takes the stuff and I head back.

But as I do I have a huge smile on my face.  What a moment.  I woke up just in time!   Can that really be coincidence?   And I got the maximum sleep possible without missing it!   The air is crisp, the sky clear, and the world full of magic and beauty.   Living in the moment works.

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The World in 2112

Sean at Reflections of a Rational Republican threw down the gauntlet asking people to put their psychic and analytical predictive powers on the line by trying to figure out what technology will be like 100 years from now.   So here are my 12 technology predictions, followed by four essentially soci0-cultural predictions (though I mix those into the technology predictions as well!)

1.  The electric grid as we know it will be a thing of the past.  Most homes will be self-sustaining, generating their own electricity.   Even urban centers that now suck up energy like there’s no tomorrow will only use the electricity they can generate, augmenting with high efficiency batteries when necessary.

2.  Homes will be heated and cooled by systems built into the house.    At various points the wall to the outside will be a heat exchange system that will operate much like a refrigerator, cooling the house in summer, reversing that in winter to heat the house.   These systems will be smart to maximize efficiency.

3.  The array of satellites now circling the globe will be replaced by a smaller number of extremely efficient satellites that bundle their functions so as to the work now done by many diverse satellites.   There will be satellite maintanence crews on orbiting space stations that can work to fix any glitches, as well as maintain efficiency.

4.  The term “wifi” will be as obsolete as “the wireless” is to talk about radio.   Like radio, ‘wifi’ connectivity will be ubiquitous, free (paid for via advertising and subsidies), and taken for granted.    It will also be universal; a penthouse in New York and a village in Guinea Bissau will have the same access.

5.  After evidence about human caused global warming became undeniable even to the skeptics in the early 21st Century, a vast program of planting trees and creating efficient oxygen generation zones first on land and then in oceans will help to turn back the tide of global climate change and create the capacity for continued sustainable development.

6.   The most impressive technological advances will come in the cost and scope of water desalinization and even water creation.   This will be driven by intense water shortages in the mid-21st Century when global climate change becomes extreme and the new oxygen generation programs will not yet have had much of an impact.   The goal will become to have clean, fresh water for everyone by 2100, and will be achieved ahead of time.

7.   A nutrition revolution will occur in the mid 21st Century as it becomes clear that the chemical supplements used in food and food packaging had been causing massive problems, especially children.  This includes an alarming increase in ADHD like symptoms, autism, other mental problems, obesity and the weakening of immune systems.  Calling this the equivalent to how Rome drank leaded water and wine without realizing they were poisoning themselves, chemists, farmers and the food industry will become determined to turn around the “barbaric practices” of the 20th Century (which started in the 1980s).   Aided by a new global regulatory scheme, an array of ‘safe’ foods will take over.  These will range from ‘natural organics,’ grown on farms in ways similar to the early 1900s and “Repli-food,” which literally  will manufacture food out of a mix of natural materials much like the ‘replicators’ on Star Trek.   That food will be much cheaper than the ‘natural organics.’

8.   The same technology that opens the door to Repli-food will also create the capacity to construct complex materials and objects out of basic molecular raw materials.    The most important benefit of this will be the ability to manufacture synthetic minerals (compounds able to serve the same function) and other materials that will run low due to over mining (copper, zinc, etc.)

9.  Global monetary union leads to the obsolescence of cash.   Information on ones’ wealth will be kept on central banking computers and payment made through recognition software (similar to what we have as retinal or fingerprint recognition, but less invasive and more precise).

10.  Throughout the century traditional war will be replaced by what we’d call cyberwar, as a cat and mouse game will rage for decades between those wanting to disrupt the technological systems underlying civilization and those protecting them.   Actual hot war will limited to third world regions and the terror onslaught of 2030.    That wave of terrorism will not be driven by religious fundamentalism but anger about relative deprivation and the impact of global warming on Sub-Saharan Africa.   This will motivate major developments in the ability to scan for potential nuclear, chemical or biological devices.   By 2050 this technology, combined with an economic rebirth of Africa and growing prosperity, will end the great terror wave.

11.   Medical technology will advance to the point that invasive surgery will become obsolete.   A mix of genetic screening and proactive care will make most illnesses and major diseases a thing of the past.   Cancer, heart disease, flu, the common cold, and infections like strep throat will be the stuff of history books.   Back pain, head aches, migraines, and even sore muscles will be easily cured.  The elderly will talk about how painful and difficult existence had been back before medical science came of age.   This will be done almost completely without what we now call pharmaceuticals.   Using powerful drugs to address minor symptoms will be seen as one of the major errors of early medical science.     Life expectancy will rise to well over 100, though efforts to halt aging or implant brains into robotic bodies will fail completely.   Philosophers will say that the technological barrier to overcoming age and death is so immense that it seems humans are not meant to be able to cheat death.

12.   Modern physics will unify all forms of energy into one force, thereby solving the space-time paradox and uniting relativity with quantum mechanics.  This will be done via the holographic principle, meaning that all of what we see and experience is a projection of some sort.  This information will be key to the technologies mentioned above (especially replicating food and minerals, as well as medical science).   The question of what it means to be human and spirituality will rise in importance.   Religions will adapt to these developments, but weaken in the face of a ‘new spirituality’ that defies dogma.

Political Predictions

1.   The sovereign state as we know it will disappear.   Old state borders will still be known, but mostly as historical trivia.   Most of the decision making will be local/regional.   The Global Union (GU) will govern transnational issues such as money, trade, security (assuring local and regional conflicts don’t lead to war) and policies necessitating cooperation across regions.     The GU will have limited powers and full transparency will be demanded — all meetings, documents, and discussions are available in what we would call “on line.”

2.  The new discoveries in physics and the emergence of a holographic principle theory of reality will lead to a growth of non-religious spirituality which many religious people will view as an attempt to use science to create a world religion.  This will bring about a series of protests by various faiths and ultimately an agreement within the GU charter that freedom of and tolerance of diverse religious belief is a core human right.   By 2112 religious conflict will be at an historical low, though practitioners of the “traditional” religions will bemoan the weakness of their faiths.

3.  Neither capitalism nor socialism will survive the 21st Century.  In part this is because technological progress will make work as traditionally defined all but irrelevant.  So much work will be done by machine that humans will not be near as important for  producing stuff (though some will guide the automated factories, develop new software, support the global infrastructure, etc.).  At first this will lead to a large maldistribution of wealth as those who own the machinery amass large profits while human workers become severely underpaid since they will not be in demand.

Over time demands for change will grow, and as power is localized an agreement will be reached to guarantee everyone certain core basics (education, shelter, food, health care, equal protection, access to clean water, etc.)

With the localization of power, people then either work on infrastructure or within the robotic productivity realm, or on tasks within their community to earn Taurins (the global currency unit) for doing things that increase the quality of life.   Communities also reach agreement with industries to share ownership.   The wealthy remain wealthier than the rest (and those working to maintain the infrastructure and robotic industries earn the most), but competition will become less for wealth and things (since things will be abundant) and more for improving the quality of life and learning.

4.   In the US, families and communities will have a comeback with the localization of power and the shift of emphasis away from materialism and consumption.   The 21st Century will be rough, but we’ll make it to a much better 22nd Century!

Happy 2012!

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Twisting Time

For a moment everything was clear, and when that happens you see the world is barely there at all.  Don’t we all secretly know this?  It’s a perfectly balanced mechanism of shouts and echoes pretending to be wheels and cogs, a dreamclock chiming beneath a mystery-glass we call life.  Below it and around it?  Chaos, storms.  Men with hammers, men with knives, men with guns.  Women who twist what they cannot dominate and belittle what they cannot understand.  A universe of horror and loss surrounding a single lighted stage where mortals dance in defiance of the dark.
Stephen King, from 11/22/63, pp. 615-16

Finals week when I have stacks of papers and exams is usually not the time to start a nearly 850 page novel, the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read.     I found his style engaging, the story riveting, and the gentle weaving of drama, deep philosophical ideas and social commentary to be subtle and effective.   However, this is not a book review, and except for obvious bits you’ll get from any description, there are no spoilers.  Instead this is a stream of consciousness reaction to a powerful and intriguing novel.

First, the length.   Someone wanting a fun read may be put off by 843 pages and a book which will build your arm muscles just by holding it while you read.  It has to be that long; the reader has to feel like years have past, that the man from 2011 is fully living a life from 1958 to 1962.   You lose yourself in that era, his identity there is real.   Second, it’s definitely not a horror novel; it provokes thoughts and theories, ties up the loose ends enough for the story, but leaves enough open for one to contemplate — especially the larger issues of time, life, reality and love.

I’m left contemplating the nature of existence on this planet.   There is a truth that most people neither mention or spend much time thinking about.   Every life is full of twists and turns whereby chance decides whether one dies early, finds love, gets a lucky break, or has everything fall apart.    Moreover in the grand scheme of things most lives are forgotten not long after death.    The daily dramas and emotions we perceive are part of a tapestry that lingers forever as a moment — a fleeting, ever changing moment.

Therein is the part hard to grasp.   Now lasts forever, we’re always “now,” even though we categorize experience as past, present and future.   If you believe modern physics, space-time is an entity whereby past, present and future are mere illusions caused by how we experience the world in which we find ourselves.  At the very least each moment is nothing but a series of sensations that we somehow make sense of as we move through them.

Life is therefore ephemeral and fleeting.  It feels real enough as we experience it, though even our most intense experiences are gone as soon as they happen.   The world changes slowly, but completely.  Each individual life seems meaningless along the current of time, yet all we have are individual lives and moments.   We contribute what we can, and never really know the impacts it has, the “butterfly effect,” as King calls it, as each choice we make sends ripples that ultimately touch multiple lives, imperceptibly yet fundamentally changing reality.

I think about this as I watch some of the TV shows I’ve mentioned in this blog, including Pan Am, which takes place during the very era King describes, or Banacek, whose early 70s perspective shows the start of change, as chauvinism, ubiquitous smoking and conservative social norms start giving way to the impact of the counter culture movement.   I think about it as I watch my children get irritated at a hotel when the TV won’t pause.   To them, TV is DVR.   A show not being able to pause or be recorded, well, they haven’t heard of such a thing!

And why not?  My five year old has never wound a watch, but he can go into “Gameboy” and get on a display XBOX 360 and figure out a game that stumps me.   And we don’t even have an XBOX!   I see students connected to friends and parents on facebook, e-mail getting dismissed as old fashioned while texting while driving surpassing drinking while driving as a main concern for teens, and I realize how quickly one era has folded into another.   The streaking, disco and concept album period of the seventies is gone.

Life, existence and reality feel fleeting and unreal.  Reality isn’t hard matter blasting its way through time with Newtonian certainty, but complex ideas uniting and igniting change with quantum complexity.   Unlived pasts exist in some portion of the universal mind; at some level of reality all possible choices have been and are being explored.    The idea of past, present and future is a psychological orientation to allow us to navigate the world in which we find ourselves.

That’s both humbling and inspiring.  For while each individual life or moment of existence is not as important or central as we experience it to be, we are all an integral part of a reality weaving through and around us, with birth and death just moments in this vast experience.    Those moments my bind the experience each of us has in an individual existence, but probably don’t delineate our entire being.

After finishing the novel I was exercising to the Moody Blues, and the following stuck with me:

“Isn’t life strange
A turn of the page
A book without light
Unless with love we write;
To throw it away
To lose just a day
The quicksand of time
You know it makes me want to cry, cry, cry –

Wished I could be in your heart
To be one with your love
Wished I could be in your eyes
Looking back there you were
And here we are” –
 The Moody Blues

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One With Everything?

Picking up pizzas at a local market I watched as the woman in front of me, exceedingly fat though otherwise attractive, paid nearly $200 for a couple cartons of cigarettes.   Wow!   I was contemplating how glad I am I don’t smoke as I walked out with the pizzas, and saw the woman go into her car with someone I presumed was her mother.  The mom was also extremely fat, and the car had a handicapped parking symbol hanging on the mirror.   Starting my car I said to myself, “life could be a whole lot worse, I could be one of them!”

Then a thought came to me.  Maybe I am.   I spent the ride home having a conversation with myself about that philosophical possibility.    What if every person or every entity we encounter (or perhaps exists in history) is part of the same larger whole?   What if we are one with everything, even though we experience reality as separate beings?

This isn’t a new idea.   Eastern religions and neo-Platonist thought (especially Plotinus) put forth the existence of “The One” which was essentially that.    We experience difference and separation because we operate from different perspectives.    Moreover, it’s really not that hard to envision how that could be.

We know that space-time is an entity that seems to have come “into existence” at the big bang.   What’s outside space-time cannot be imaged.   Our minds are so shaped by the idea of space and time that to imagine something outside of it — existing in no space at no time — is impossible.   That doesn’t mean nothing can exist outside space-time, only that it is beyond even our wildest imagination to figure out what it would be like — I defy anyone to craft a vision of reality that includes neither space nor time (and since space-time is one thing, having just one means you have both).

So if some kind of entity (for lack of a better term) existed beyond space time, it could create a space-time universe.   Space-time allows one to experience reality as separate chunks.   Instead of being “everywhere all the time” (again, we can’t imagine that outside realm) you can experience reality in discrete places at discrete times.   Every location in space-time is different, often distant and not visible to other such locations.   If an entity outside space-time created space-time in order to experience such difference, then it’s perfectly logical to assume that it could operate from multiple perspectives to experience reality in diverse ways.

What the “self” (a discrete space-time entity like us) experiences seems to be all we know because we are focused on this perspective.   Some part of our brain or mind has to concentrate itself into this moment of space-time with laser like precision in order to be immersed in this reality, the world of space-time.   If any part of what we are knows about the greater whole (should this fanciful theory be anywhere close to accurate) it would be deep in our unconscious, expressing itself with symbols or intuitions.   To use a crude analogy, it would be like how each cell in our bodies (or every thought and memory in our heads) is separate and distinct, but still part of each one of us individual space-time creatures.

This isn’t that hard to imagine.   But what does it mean?   For instance, is Anders Behring Breivik, the right wing fundamentalist Christian who acted in a very non-Christian manner yesterday to explode a massive bomb in Oslo, Norway, really a part of me?    Well, I can imagine that.   That part of me who in a fit of anger would want to lash out (Send a missile into that car ahead of me that just cut me off!   Let that irritating politician from the other side be drawn and quartered!   Take a stadium of Nazi war criminals and make them suffer!), would simply be acting out on such an impulse.   The layer between a fantasy of violence and the act of violence is immense and meaningful, but one can easily imagine circumstances where it can disappear — we read about it every day.   In the right conditions, any of us might be pushed to the limit.   Its not that these folk are fundamentally different from us, but that they turn impulses we easily restrain or even repress into reality.

In fact, if we look deep inside and recognize our weakest and strongest moments, our wildest fantasies, curiosities or disgusts, we would have to admit that something in our minds connects to the very best and the very worst of all humanity has experienced.    Almost all of us can avoid murder, rape, and grotesque perversions of humanity at its worst;  most of us are unable to attain the goodness, calm nature and joyful serenity and help/love of both self and others that defines humanity at its best.   But if we search inside, isn’t there a stray thought, impulse or moment of extreme weakness where we can imagine at least the possibility of doing evil?  It’s in us, somewhere — good and evil.

That doesn’t mean the “one with everything” theory is correct, but we can imagine it could be.  In fact, I submit it is more congruent with what we know about modern physics than a purely materialist vision of reality.    But if we take seriously the possibility, what would that mean?   What does it mean that I am really part of the same entity as those cigarette smoking extremely large women in that car (and why do fat people tend to drive slow?)

The ethical implication would be that whatever I do to others, I do to part of myself.   It might also mean that my larger self (Ueber-Self?   All that is?  Pan-God?) grows and improves as humanity grows and improves.  Perhaps the purpose of this existence (these existences) is to, divided out into space and time, work on learning and improving what we are.  If that’s the case, life isn’t just about self-improvement, but also about working to create a better world.   Each individual self can only do a little, but can make a difference.   Ethics, then would be about making choices that help others learn (be it learning to be more self-reliant and responsible, or overcoming a violent angry nature) as well as ourselves.

Of course, we could just be here to have fun — a kind of cosmic virtual reality game like I’ve started to imagine in my quantum life posts.   In that case, a key is not to get sucked into living a life that one doesn’t love and appreciate and to figure out how to make the most of a situation.

I suspect it’s a mix of both.  Our goal to learn and improve probably has meaning beyond that which we can imagine, but can be seen at least symbolically by what seems “good” and “evil” in this life.   There seems to be considerable agreement on the basics of those concepts.  The goal to enjoy it probably speaks to how we have to attain a kind of self-mastery in order to take responsibility for our own choices and lives before we can truly play a positive role in making the world a better place.   Moreover, there do seem to be different types of people — doers, thinkers, followers, leaders, sufferers, perpetrators…perhaps people are in roles reflecting particular parts of the larger self, with different goals and possibilities.

Or maybe not.   Driving home, smelling pizza on a warm summer day with the windows down, it does feel like I’m one with everything.  A sense of connection overwhelms the since of difference.   But that all could be fantasy.   Lacking certain knowledge of what this world is about — what life really means —  seems to be an inherent part of life as a mortal human.   The good news is that this leaves us free to speculate and play with ideas, no matter how unlikely or strange!

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