THE PURSUIT OF WORLDLINESS
A blog by Barry Edelson



CRUEL JOKE 10:

The Universe Can Be Understood



QUERIOUS
Have you seen the comet?

ANTAGONĒ
Yes, as a matter of fact I shivered outside last night for more than an hour to get a good look at it.

QUERIOUS
Why are we all so fascinated with it, do you suppose?

ANTAGONĒ
Perhaps because it's a local cosmic event which we can relate to. The idea of a simple, icy object whose orbit takes it looping beyond the frightening, distant bounds of our solar system is just enough of a mystery to keep the attention of the average sky watcher. Not to mention the fact that it's a rare astronomical event that is actually visible.

QUERIOUS
You seem to be implying that the universe beyond the planets isn't very interesting to people.

ANTAGONĒ
I think people are definitely interested, but it's just too remote. The size of some ancient explosion that's just been detected on the other side of the universe, or the strange dance of twin stars, or the peculiar pulsations of black holes: they're all just too far beyond the range of our five senses for us to be able to accept them as part of the world we live in. What is astrology, if not an attempt to put a human face, albeit a simplistic and cartoonish one, on the cold, faceless stars? When the newspapers carry a story about how many billions of light years it's taken for the light from some incomprehensibly remote galaxy to reach us, most people, I suspect, turn the page. Who can truly grasp such a concept? The horoscopes seem a lot more relevant.

QUERIOUS
But people, perhaps millions of them, do go out on a frigid winter night to watch a blurry smudge of a comet in the night sky. How do you account for that?

ANTAGONĒ
I'm not trying to belittle man's natural curiosity about the universe, but the real story of the universe isn't about this puny traveler we've been tracking, but about where we really and truly come from. I don't think most of us are prepared to accept the idea that the meaning of life can genuinely be discerned by expostulating about the Big Bang. The fact of the matter is that all of the scientific theories about the origins of the universe will probably always remain just that: theories. We are probably incapable of knowing, with any degree of certainty, how we actually got here. However absorbing the topic may be to some — and I confess to finding it a source of bottomless fascination — there is simply no way to contemplate the universe through our limited window of perception in a manner that can be truly meaningful.

QUERIOUS
It seems to me that astrophysicists have developed some rather eloquent and promising theories on the beginnings of space and time. I'll grant you that we're undoubtedly a long way from acquiring anything approaching real knowledge of the subject, but for the first time in human history, the answers are at least within the reaches of our imaginations.

ANTAGONĒ
In the first place, we haven't the slightest idea if our scientific ideas about the origins of the universe are any closer to reality than the creation myth of primitive tribesmen who believed that a great, cosmic turtle laid an egg and thereby hatched the Earth. They were more certain of their truth than we are of ours. And in the second place, I don't think you can honestly say that people like you and me actually understand the cosmological theories that are simplistically enunciated in the popular press. I have read every book for laymen that I could get my hands on about relativity and quantum mechanics, and I still am no closer than ever to grasping them. I long ago came to the conclusion that for the vast majority of us who do not think in the language of mathematics, these concepts simply cannot be appreciated.

QUERIOUS
But Einstein created all those wonderful thought experiments which elucidate his ideas quite clearly.

ANTAGONĒ
Yes, and they're fascinating while I'm hearing them explained, but they just slip right out of my head again. They're too abstract, too far removed from our everyday, intuitive sense of the world. It's like John Gardner's observation that atonal music cannot be appreciated because the human mind literally cannot hear it. We can suppose a world beyond the concreteness of our vision and hearing, but we cannot experience it.

QUERIOUS
So all of these years of your thinking about the universe have amounted to nothing?

ANTAGONĒ
No, not entirely. Thinking about the boundless heavens makes one feel very, very small, which is a very effective means of maintaining one's humility. The very notion of infinity helps me retain some semblance of perspective about my place in the world. But trying to define infinity has turned out to be something of an intellectual nemesis of mine. Throughout my life, even as a small child, I have grappled with the idea of infinite time and space, but with little to show for it but frustration at the limitations of my own mind.

QUERIOUS
What is it that you actually think about?

ANTAGONĒ
Well, I have done some thought experiments of my own, if you can call them that. They're really little more than fantasies.

QUERIOUS
Describe one to me.

ANTAGONĒ
The one that comes to mind most frequently consists quite simply of traveling through and beyond the universe. I imagine myself as a kind of disembodied spirit, just a pair of invisible eyes moving through space. First, I leave the confines of the solar system, past the orbit of the most distant planets and asteroids. Soon I find myself leaving the Milky Way, as well. I travel so far away from our home galaxy that it appears to shrink to the size of the sun, then gets even smaller until it appears to be a single, distant star, just the way distant galaxies look to us from Earth. Then it disappears altogether as other, incredibly larger galaxies come into view. Eventually, I reach the edge of the known universe, traveling beyond the last visible galaxies just as I had earlier drifted past the invisible rim of our solar system, and float away effortlessly into a vast, empty blackness. I look back and take in the entire universe in one glance: a giant, bright, flickering ball amidst the endless emptiness of space. As I move further and further into the void, the universe recedes until it, too, is reduced to the size of just one star. Before long, the universe itself is just a barely perceptible speck, then it is completely out of sight, and there is nothing but emptiness in every direction forever and ever. Perhaps if I travel further, I will ultimately encounter another universe of stars and galaxies somewhere, and then another and another, all separated by the velvety, suffocating nothingness. And therein lies the central question of existence that I have unsuccessfully spent my life trying to put into words: where exactly are we? If the universe resides within an infinite space, where is that space? If there are other universes, the mystery of their existence is the same as that of ours. Did they each originate in a Big Bang of their own, created from the explosion of some infinitesimal droplet of energy? If so, where did that bit of energy come from in the first place? Or did matter arise through some other incomprehensible primordial process that we have yet to glimpse in the recesses of our imaginations? At this point in my musings, when words begin to fail me, I usually think of the Peggy Lee song, "Is that all there is?" Whatever the origins of the world, the conclusion is inescapable that the universe, in its entirety, is quite literally nowhere, and that we are lost and alone in the cosmos, adrift within a floating world that itself is somehow, inexplicably, lost in some greater world, and so on and on, so that no human imagining can possibly ever fathom, let alone describe in mere words, the unmistakable, but certainly mistaken, sensation that we are somewhere when there is no such thing as somewhere. Even faith in God cannot tell me where I am in the physical world.

QUERIOUS
You do realize, of course, that most physicists don't believe that time and space work in the way that you describe, because the Big Bang actually created time and space just as it created matter. It may be that the universe doesn't have a boundary like the solar system's boundary, and space and time may not in fact be infinite because they may not exist at all outside the known universe.

ANTAGONĒ
That is precisely the kind of insurmountable, mind-bending hypothesis that makes the whole enterprise so maddening. Can you really imagine how a concept like curved space would actually work?

QUERIOUS
Honestly, no.

ANTAGONĒ
Of course not. We experience the world in three dimensions, and can envision it only that way. I may be entirely wrong in my presumption that it is theoretically possible to leave the universe, but don't you find my example more realistic and compelling than the physicists' conception of a self-contained universe beyond which there is nothing, not even a vacuum of empty space?

QUERIOUS
Honestly, yes.

ANTAGONĒ
I remember a science fiction story about an immense space ship with a large population that lost its way generations earlier. No one on board remembers any longer where they came from or where they are going; they're just adrift somewhere in space. To make matters worse, most of the people live with no windows on the outside, so their conception of the universe consists entirely of the inside of the ship. A small group of people, long isolated from the others, has access to a window, and they know that they're on some kind of moving body. When one of the non-seeing people is captured and shown the window, he cannot grasp what he's looking at. His captors try to educate him by forcing his mind out of its cage. They ask him, for example, what's below the lowest level. Nothing, he says, that's what makes it the lowest level. The story is obviously a metaphor for the way we see the universe from the very limited vantage point of our planet. There are some things that we just can't see because we haven't the means of seeing them. Even if the scientists are right about the nature of space-time, how does that illuminate the question? Is the very existence of our universe any less an utter mystery because space and time behave in this unruly, theoretical way rather than in the false but sensible way our eyes and ears would dictate? What sort of truth is it for the people aboard that ship to know what's outside? What comfort is there in being right?

QUERIOUS
You will be upset with me for saying it, but perhaps this is one of the reasons why people believe in God. The universe may be truly incomprehensible, but we are living in it, nonetheless, and the absence of meaning and understanding is too frightening for most of us to bear. We need the solace of knowing there is an answer, and we can't trust our own powers of reason to find it. And even if you're right, and humans only need that solace because of the way we happen to be made — because we happen to be able to notice the stars and be astonished and alarmed at the sight of them — we still need God whether or not God is objectively real. You profess to believe that faith persists in spite of everything we experience first hand, but you have just demonstrated quite convincingly that belief may derive from our very keen and subtle awareness of how large and frightening and utterly incomprehensible the universe appears.

ANTAGONĒ
I will admit that science cannot begin to answer the questions I have asked. I realize that Einstein believed in God, or at least he claimed to in some fashion. There must be a creating impulse that gave birth to matter and space and time, but you will never convince me that it is anything but mute and indifferent to the fate of you and me. You will never get me to believe that the anthropocentric images of God that man has fabricated have anything to do with the unreachable forces of the universe that are truly responsible for the origins of the world we know.

QUERIOUS
Then we can each make of God what we will. One creation myth serves as well as another.

ANTAGONĒ
Not too many clergymen of any religion would take kindly to that remark.

QUERIOUS
Since when have you been concerned with what the churches think?

ANTAGONĒ
You know I'm not, but I am naturally concerned when people mistake their personal or collective illusions for unimpeachable articles of faith. It is a dangerous way for human beings to live with one another, because it breeds intolerance.

QUERIOUS
What I am trying to make you understand is that faith is unavoidable, and that its errors and cruelties are functions of human imperfection, just as compassion and goodness are manifestations of our better natures. The structures of religion, which we may indeed construct from our own fallible minds, are not to be confused with the remote and incorporeal essence of the real God, whatever that may be.

ANTAGONĒ
That reminds me of another confounding question about the universe: how could a non-physical prime mover manage to create a physical world? How could matter have emerged from nothing?

QUERIOUS
Do we know what matter really is? Perhaps there is less of a divide between being and nothingness than we imagine. Creations myths are wiser than you think, because they recognize this question as the essence of the problem of existence, that once upon a time there was nothing and now there is something. How does that happen indeed? In the monotheistic religions, the world springs from the mind of God, a mystery that satisfies our craving for understanding better than any yet revealed to us. And even if you believe in the Big Bang, you said yourself that the theory can't begin to explain what preceded it. It's the kind of question the people on your space ship might ask: What was there before there was time?

ANTAGONĒ
We've already agreed that science falls short, though that doesn't dispose me any more kindly toward the Book of Genesis. James Joyce, that great disrespecter of clergy, wrote what is, for me, the definitive word on the intractability of this problem in "Ulysses". There's a section of the book where he describes the late-night meanderings of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, at the end of which is a wry, question-and-answer parody of the catechism. As the two men look at the night sky, there is this question: "With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?" Joyce answers, in part, "Meditations…of the parallax or parallactic drift of socalled fixed stars, in reality evermoving from immeasurably remote eons to infinitely remote futures in comparison with which the years, threescore and ten, of allotted human life formed a parenthesis of infinitesimal brevity."

QUERIOUS
That sounds to me less like inquiry than surrender.

ANTAGONĒ
Quite. Joyce was wise enough to realize that we are too small and the universe too big for any genuine understanding to arise from our encounter with one another. The cosmos and our own natures conspire to keep us, literally and figuratively, in the dark.

QUERIOUS
That's what Bloom thinks, in any case.

ANTAGONĒ
Yes, well, the displaced man is in a better position to recognize that our sense of place is a profoundly convincing illusion, but an illusion nevertheless.

QUERIOUS
I have a feeling that, like Bloom, you won't stop seeking the answer to this unanswerable question.

ANTAGONĒ
I don't believe that either of us has any choice in the matter.

QUERIOUS
Let me know if you make any progress.

ANTAGONĒ
You can count on it.


posted October 2007




For a beautifully rendered representation of the thought experiment described in this dialogue, view "The Known Universe", a film by the American Museum of Natural History that vividly demonstrates how infinitesimally tiny and remote our home planet really is.


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