What will it be like? A slightly colder place, albeit only infinitesimally. There will be others who come along; but no one with exactly my sort of humor to entertain them and offer them insight. No one with a certain love and generosity that helped sustain some. No one with the exact same grasping selfishness that few seemed to recognize but that in any case helped to drive me. There would be a small loss of liveliness, as though the laughter and excitement in the cafés that delighted me were dimmed a tiny notch and the chairs were empty a few minutes earlier. A few people would be sad.
Maybe too the world will be slightly calmer, less frantic, its schedules less packed with stuff, with things I wanted to do or learn, papers I intended to read over but mostly never got to.
But to speak truly, I think the world will be very largely the same. Wouldn’t it be arrogant and “grandiose,” as Barbara1 might say, to expect otherwise?
Will fewer books be read, fewer movies seen or made? It’s not news that I’m like a grain of sand who, alone, doesn’t add up to much; some say precisely that. The revolutionary poet Diane di Prima has a different perspective: “We are endless as the sea.” This brings to mind ancient Zeno’s Paradox, proving that as long as the Tortoise, slow and deliberate, started ahead, the speedy Achilles could get closer and closer but could never quite catch up.
How do we overcome this proof, how do we get from a single grain to “endless as the sea”?
To get there you have to believe. True, the authorities could put me and 20 of my friends in jail and attack our families — so how can I believe that there is even a remote possibility a million of us “grains” could fill, say, Tahrir Square? To believe my little grain — connected with all the nearby grains, and all the grains stretched end-to-end, and all the grains from far and wide, both from those alive now and those who contributed to making or being something during the time they had been alive — to believe that all our accumulated grains taken together can overwhelm any sandbox, any container, beach or army, or that we flawed, vulnerable human beings could fill to bursting any public plaza or arena — to believe this requires faith.
That doesn’t mean religion necessarily; to achieve the kind of faith I’m talking about one needs openness — openness to the perception that enough infinitesimals add up, sooner or later, to something measurable. With this kind of faith — that disparate dots can connect — the dust in our eyes can dissolve and we might perceive more clearly where we sit here.
Whether toppling a government, losing weight or building, say, a coral reef, for a long time you see nothing, no change from start, zero. But to believe it can happen, you need faith that the road goes that way.
Lisa, who typically helps me edit these pages and with whom I often enough disagree, says “We’re pattern-seekers, trying to make sense of things.” Why would we care about measuring grains of sand? It’s because we’re looking for “meaning,” trying to discover “purpose.” “Beneath measurement,” says Lisa, “is, we hope, meaning.” We humans are thinking that a million grains of sand might add up to something more than just a million grains of sand. That in going from the parts to the sum of the parts, something beyond the sum of the parts is created, something that we can prove, incorrectly, is impossible to be there.
How do we get from sand to sea, from a grain to an ocean?
Think of that coral reef. Couldn’t we just as well say, each of these tiny animals was like a grain of sand? After a hundred lifetimes, then a thousand, one day there comes a time when you think you can, maybe, see something. But in the millions they become substantial from even our human-being perspective, and in millions and millions they build a reef. Does this happen slowly? Does it require Time? Rather a lot of it, when you compare it with a human’s lifetime?2 Of course. But long is not forever.
In forever, Achilles catches the Tortoise; the reef will happen; with a billion years to spare, life might be invented.
Or think of coal or oil. Weren’t these originally living organisms, plants that were “cured” by compression and heat?3 Plant by plant, living and dying, our planet’s vast supply of these so-called fossil fuels was accumulated. Everything needed for this transformation, in the course of hundreds of millions of human lifetimes, was provided.
What’s my takeaway from Zeno and his ilk? We humans can prove what’s “true,” but in practice this may not cut a lot of ice. Don’t set your clocks by the sun, or bet the ranch on a definitive calculation. Instead, keep your eyes peeled and enjoy all that we are offered. And most of all, don’t take anybody’s word for what you can or cannot do.4
So is it necessary to understand what’s going on here? Or rather only “to do, to act, to perform?”5 Well, I think it’s necessary — or very desirable — to understand that mechanism, that ‘connection,’ in order to really know one’s “place,” one’s “role” here.
But on the other hand, is there in fact any mystery about it? Some say: There is no purpose to our being here — not if that means a purpose that we humans truly understand. But how can there be no purpose if the “design” of our world here is way beyond the dreams of us dreamers? Ah, say the others, but you can just as well say there is no design — nor is there, so they say, any designer to be thanked! To be sure, there are many who disagree in a thousand ways, and to most, thanking a designer or creator is not only necessary, just and based on the most fundamental Truth, but also has benefits like deepening our connection with this world and with each other. But to me what we’ve received is a colossal, overwhelmingly magnificent gift that, in my mind, makes no effort to insist on a thanking … But for so magnificient a gift, it is hard — as you see — to keep silent.
It would be presumptuous to say there is a “key.” But might it be possible to say, in the smallest, meekest voice, that the universe is not a human-centered place, any more than the sun or Stephen Hawking revolves around the earth? For it is only what it must and needs to be, which is itself — in all its beauty, indifference and unintelligibility: Itself!
Yes, we are smart-ish beings on the whole, often able, given enough time, to unravel untruths like the Ptolemaic model of the universe which shackle us (so I believe). We are most of all smart-ish when it comes to technology. A million years ago — a speck in the life of the universe — there were no houses. No electricity or roads or cars, no planes or telephones, no computers certainly or their offspring. That’s human stuff. We’ve also got a thousand poisons, both those designed to kill and by-products of processes, bad things to eat, nuclear weapons. But we don’t have the ability to understand, as our best writer Shakespeare put it, a “sense beyond the reach of sense.” The order of all things — if any! — has not been set by anyone or anything of our kind. We too, it could be said, are a sort of by-product — of some unknown process or processes.
Nevertheless, regardless of our various limitations, there are those who, out of noble cause and otherwise, assert that in fact they have achieved such a sense beyond sense. They claim an epiphany of some power and length that reconciles our seeming unimportance in the vastness with the desire for an underlying foundation. Perhaps what some of them are asserting is an underlying love and goodness that cancels the drift through intergalactic emptiness. At least order.
Wasn’t Einstein himself one of these, impatient with the limitations and counterintuitivity of our models, our so-called waves and particles, demanding of the nature he so profoundly knew and loved that it make sense to him, to us, to prove that, despite all the evidence, “God does not play dice.” Thus he argued against Heisenberg’s Nobel Prize-winning Uncertainty Principle in the late 1920s — in vain.
Would it be fair to say that, in spite of the claims of charlatans, mountebanks, megalomaniac dictators, certain geniuses and some ordinary people, sussing out a more general “purpose” still seems to lay some inches beyond our grasp? Doesn’t that mystery still hang back on the Dark Matter/Unfinished Business side?
This is far from saying the atheists win. No one wins. Only their simplest assertions can be shown to hold water. Ultimately all sides play to win. The constructions of our brains permit assertions to exist that cannot be proven or disproven6 — but which side does that help? Some who call themselves atheists claim that believers’ various entities — like “essences” and “authentic selves,” and the imaginative Universe plans that underlie them — are mere constructions of our nimble brains. Even “souls,” which many believers feel passionately can be eternal, can be devastated, can be “redeemed” — souls too can be grist for the non-believer mill. Anti-believers may say that these conceptions, as well as seemingly intuitive experiences, have been achieved with long practice — and worry over the dangers that such beliefs have created and are creating in the world even now. Believers acknowledge there are risks but caution others not to “throw out the baby with the bathwater.” Atheist types, on the other hand, may dismiss such notions with their commonsense assumptions, but believers can do an end run around or tunnel under their7 supposed bedrock. Back and forth, on and on runs the conflict, like the car thieves and the mechanisms to stop them, or the industrialists and the workers fighting each other, old men rolling in the dirt at the end of Bernardo Bertolucci’s movie 1900 — on and on and on.
Meanwhile, across the deserts that to our parched throats seem measureless — we shake the last life-sustaining drops out of our canteen — our beautiful prairies, our massive ice sheets crumbling and disintegrating even as we gape — here on our bedraggled but plucky little planet, teetering on the edge of inadequacy, each plant, animal, human quickly passeth away. Our artists, our politicians, our homeless and unknown, our dogs and horses, endless paramecia, the carrots we planted in the side garden, all pass. John Fahey, who I once saw with Betty Hitchcock8 in U.C. Berkeley’s Bear’s Lair playing “Sligo River Blues” — isn’t he too old to be alive? Guitarists can’t live forever either. Most of the Rolling Stones are left still. Two of the Beatles. Bob Dylan’s here. Most of these are just slightly older than I am…
Speaking of the Stones: How about that Keith Richards? Considering all his ‘adventures,’ if God did not play dice, if things went the way they were ‘supposed’ to go, “Keef” would be long buried and people would discuss his fate-tempting excesses from decades back with a knowing, superior, perhaps mildly contemptuous air. (Many, to be sure, adopt that posture in any case.) What are we to make of the fact that he’s still above ground, touring the world and making new music?
1. My girlfriend.
2. “A brick is not yet a house.” (Wilhelm Reich, Sex-Pol Essays, 1929-1934)
3. “Formed from vegetation, which has been consolidated between other rock strata and altered by the combined effects of pressure and heat over millions of years to form coal seams.” (World Coal Association, www.worldcoal.org/coal; my italics)
4. John Lennon. But according to the Mounted Messenger in Threepenny Opera’s Epilogue, “In real life… the reply to a kick-in-the-pants is just another kick-in-the-pants.” (Bertolt Brecht & Kurt Weill, translated by Marc Blitzstein)
5. Hamlet, V.i: GRAVEDIGGER: “…if I drown myself wittingly, it argues an act. And an act hath three branches — it is to act, to do, to perform. Argal, she drowned herself wittingly.”
6. See Kurt Gödel’s celebrated 1931 Proof.
7. It seems to me that it’s not clear to whom “their” refers. Is its antecedent the atheists, the believers’ adversaries, whose bedrock these believers strive to undermine? Or have the believers unintentionally and dangerously tunneled under their own bedrock and risked undermining themselves? Well, we have no knowledge of who will win struggles like these. That kind of certainty is unavailable.
8. Somewhat older would-be girlfriend.
© Jerry Kurtz 2016