by Barry Edelson
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The Unknowable World



"With what meditations did Bloom accompany his demonstration to his companion of various constellations?"

"…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."
— James Joyce, "Ulysses"

We have no way of knowing if life on Earth is a microcosm or an aberration. Is our self-contained world a reflection of the larger universe from which we can draw parallels and thereby extrapolate the origins and perhaps the meaning of being here? Or are the air we breathe and water we drink part of a bizarre oasis that bears no resemblance to the inhospitable world beyond the clouds, and from which we can deduce nothing useful about the hows and whys of the cosmos we observe?

For the task of understanding the universe, our paradox and our tragedy is that life is both unendurably slow and inconceivably brief. From a quantum perspective, the human timescale is extremely, even comically, slow. In the few moments it takes a grown man to rise from bed, check the thermostat, and get back under the covers, a subatomic particle can pass through the entire mass of the planet, unmolested by any matter in its path as a stone might pass through the void between the stars, and travel the same distance as the diameter of the Earth many times over again on its journey to unimaginably distant reaches of the cosmos. To catch even a glimpse of such specks, which travel at such a velocity that the blink of an eye is of no use even as a metaphor of deliberation, we must build elaborate devices of detection that would defy the imagination of scientists who labored in generations past.

On an astronomical scale, however, the difference in perception is reversed. The life of an individual is so astonishingly brief as to be for all intents and purposes nonexistent. The span of all human history, including the eons since the first hominids roamed the forests and plains millions of years ago, is barely measurable against the life cycle of the solar system, let alone that of the oldest galaxies. So little can one person see and experience between the first and last breaths of life that waiting for an orbiting object like a comet or asteroid in our tiny planetary system to hove into view requires a relay team of astronomers working across generations. And just as physicists build their gargantuan colliders to identify the pieces from which existence is made, so astronomers construct their impossibly perfect mirrors and radio arrays in an attempt to form a picture of the night skies that can stand in for the vision of a particular pair of eyes.

In reducing the universe to elements that we can perceive, literally or conceptually, are we altering these elements in ways that render them unable to give up the secrets we are hoping to penetrate? Perched between the microscopic and the macrocosmic, and without the ability to see either directly, are we simply without the capacity to answer the most fundamental questions we can ask: Why is there something instead of nothing? What does it mean to exist? Are we alone?

In "Why Does the World Exist?", the author Jim Holt examines at length and in depth many of the intellectual threads that have attempted over the centuries to address the basic question posed by the book's title. He earnestly tries to see his conundrum from the perspective of many different kinds of thinkers: physicists, theologians, mathematicians, philosophers, cosmologists, even lowly writers. For all his sincere efforts, he arrives at the reluctant conclusion that we have no idea how or why the universe exists. Instead of coalescing into a thoughtfully woven, if incomplete, fabric of understanding, the many strands of thought he follows instead produce a frayed patchwork of dispute and confusion. In the end, he is reduced to quoting the most clear-eyed of American thinkers, Ambrose Bierce, who satirized the entire enterprise of contemplating the world (nominally known as philosophy) as "a route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing".

Adrift as we are on an insignificant sphere, circling an undistinguished star, in a remote corner of an unremarkable galaxy — the quintessence of nowhere — perhaps we are able to do no more than pose these questions. Perhaps that is enough. It should be sufficient to realize that the contemplations of other living creatures elsewhere in the unforgiving remoteness of the universe, anchored tenuously on their own forsaken patches of terra firma, yield no more insight on the space-time continuum than our own flailing about in the darkness. Sufficient or not, it is all we have. All the more pitiful that we have not made better use of our meager and irreplaceable allotment of light, air, earth and water.



The mind is not attuned to chaos and cacophony. As the novelist John Gardner said of atonal music, much of it "is in fact gibberish, a music which ignores or violates the structure of the mind: we literally cannot hear it." And so we cannot truly understand the world around us, because the brain did not evolve to resolve even the most rudimentary problems of existence. And even if it had, differences in perspective would subject all suppositions to disagreement and controversy.

The Music Lesson
But is it real?

All is in dispute, because we cannot see alike. If your eyesight is poor and you wear eyeglasses or contact lenses, you know from your own experience that the world looks different at different times even to your own eyes. The sensation is disorienting. Infancy, childhood, adolescence and the multiple stages of adulthood continuously fracture and fragment the reality that we suppose we inhabit and understand. There is no single picture that we can label as true, because no such picture exists.

This was demonstrated in very material terms in "Tim's Vermeer", a documentary about Tim Jenison's recreation of a Vermeer painting. Jenison is an inventor and self-made high-tech entrepreneur in the field of digital imaging. His financial success enabled him to indulge his fantasy of figuring out how Vermeer painted his extraordinary canvases, and then prove his theory by imitating the process and making a precise copy of one. His study of the paintings led him to the conclusion that Vermeer could not have literally painted what he saw with his own eyes because there are technical aspects of the paintings — such as diffusion of light and gradation of color — that no human eye can actually see, let alone reproduce. He starts out by employing a camera obscura (literally "dark room") known to painters of Vermeer's time who were seeking to produce more natural-looking perspectives. By projecting an image through a lens on the back of the room, painters were presumably able to trace the image and better create the illusion of perspective. But Jenison found that it was impossible to reproduce color accurately this way. He discovered, though, that a small mirror mounted close to the canvas enabled him to copy the image with astonishing precision, including minute variations of color tone and other detail. Without any prior formal training as an artist, he went on to construct the tableau of Vermeer's "The Music Lesson" in his studio and to paint an eerily faithful version of the original.

In so doing, he advanced the theory that this is the way Vermeer painted. A compelling piece of evidence came while trying to reproduce Vermeer's depiction of the keyboard instrument, known as a virginal, in the center of the painting. Jenison found that the curvature of the mirror made it difficult to paint the wooden frame of the instrument in a straight line, and that without the use of a straight-edge the shape of the instrument would appear to have a slight arc. When he examined the original closely, he was surprised to find that the virginal painted by Vermeer in fact has just such an arc. Since it does not "appear" naturally, and there is no conceivable reason why the painter would create an imaginary, barely perceptible curve on an object that didn't have one, his conclusion was that Vermeer was also using a mirror.

Some art historians and critics remain unconvinced about Jenison's supposed discoveries. What does this say about our ability to perceive the world? Moreover, what does it suggest about the myriad ways in which individuals view the same object or experience? Can we even say that it is the same? If no two people can even look at a painting and agree about what they are seeing, what does that portend for experiences that are far more complex and of great consequence to our lives?



"…in some mysterious way, all these nonevil people manage to produce a result that is evil indeed. And evil is always greater than the sum of its parts, greater than all who contribute to it and carry it out… But this evil of ours is a cunning evil. For it is an evil that happens, as it were, of its own accord, an evil for which the responsibility is no one's. Evil without evildoers."
— Ari Shavit, "My Promised Land"

If one is not a black man in America, one cannot know what it is like for a black man in America to have a confrontation with the police.

Once about 20 years ago, we were awakened from sleep at three o'clock in the morning by a pounding on our front door. Flashing lights bounced off the bedroom walls like a loud noise, making it evident that it was the police. I put on a robe, ran down the stairs and opened the door. A uniformed officer asked, without any greeting or identification and in a voice much louder than necessary, for a particular address. We lived then in a narrow lane of townhouses, so the glaring lights rotating on the top of the cruiser that was parked outside our door, and the voices coming over the police radio at high volume, almost certainly disturbed the sleep of our neighbors on both sides of the street. The lights were blinding and I could not clearly make out the officer's face. I told him that this was not the address he was looking for. He immediately turned away from the door and shouted his discovery that they were in the wrong place to another officer who was standing some distance away. He did not bother to say he was sorry for waking me. They just drove away, lights still beating a cold blue warning off the front walls of the houses. Courtesy was evidently not part of police training, or at least not part of police practice by these officers in this instance.

Though there was no particular cause for me to fear the police — no criminal history, no arrests, no reason for being investigated or questioned — my heart was beating fast as I opened the door. It took some time to calm down again and return to sleep, if we slept again at all that night.

If I had been living in a poorer neighborhood, and in a black skin, it is likely that I would have had cause to fear the police even if I knew that I had done nothing to attract their attention. Every encounter with the police for people of color, particularly young men, is an existential threat. Countless individuals have testified to that fact in recent weeks, since grand juries declined to indict the killers of Michael Brown in Missouri and Eric Garner in New York. Even if the routine shooting and killing of young men of color by police was not an established fact, this is what many black Americans feel every day of their lives. There may be a basis on which to contradict specific facts and the imputation of motives in particular cases of police violence, but there are no grounds whatsoever to discount the widely held perception of millions of individuals.

For a few months in 1959, the journalist John Howard Griffin traveled the segregated South with his skin artificially darkened to allow him to pass as a black man. His popular book about this episode, "Black Like Me", depicted what it felt like, briefly and superficially, to be treated like a black man. He might have been able to approximate what it is like to be black: to be denied entry to a whites-only establishment, to try to hail a taxi, to be shadowed by a house detective while shopping in a department store, to be pulled over by the police while driving a car. But he could also tell you what it was like to return to his other, white life as soon as this episode was over. He could therefore not explain what it is like to live permanently with both the prospect and aftermath of these daily encounters, to internalize them as lessons for survival and totems of identity. His perceptions were his own, a mere reflection of those of a real black man.

Like Griffin, the fictitious journalist in Laura Z. Hobson's 1946 novel "Gentlemen's Agreement" pretends to be a Jew to write an expose about anti-Semitism. Like Griffin, Philip Green cannot learn what it is actually like to be a Jew, only what it feels like to be treated like one for a period of time. Once his story is published, he returns to his previous life, the fear of persecution vanishing with the afternoon light. At a time when the voices of minorities were unheard and unwanted, the testimony of well-intended white Anglo-Saxons was all that was available. In retrospect, this journalistic role playing seems grossly inadequate to the enormity of the injustices inflicted upon actual citizens. No contemporary American Jew can have any idea what it was like to be the Jew that Philip Green pretended to be. Moreover, he can have no idea what it was like to have been a 19th-century Jewish immigrant to America from Poland, Germany, Russia or any other country, or to have been a Jewish shopkeeper on the Lower East Side of New York, or to have been a Holocaust survivor or a close relative of one. He can have no more idea than a black man living today in Philadelphia or Detroit or Los Angeles, however difficult such a life may be, what it was like to have to live in the Jim Crow South, to be at the total mercy of the police and with little or no recourse to justice.

The only perspective any of us can have is our own. "Walking in another man's shoes" is a metaphor, not a prescription for living. Empathy has its limits.



No one knows what gravity is. A scientist can explain its effects and how it works, but, if he or she is honest, not what it is. Astrophysicists have been mulling over this question for a century or more. Since Einstein, the holy grail of physics has been a theory that incorporates gravity into the three other forces (electromagnetism, strong nuclear force and weak nuclear force) that are believed to hold the world's matter together.

Even I can explain how gravity works, at least in very simple terms. Think of the game children play (preferably outdoors) in which two of them join hands and swirl around faster and faster, their linked hands the only thing countering the centrifugal force generated by their accelerating circular motion. Gravity is like the grasped hands, without which all objects in the universe would scatter randomly in every direction. Without gravity, the Big Bang, if true, would have been followed inexorably by the Big Spray, in which the uncountable particles of matter generated by the explosion would have just kept traveling every which way forever. No dust clouds, no galaxies, no stars, no planets, no life. Just a lot of disconnected bits of matter randomly bouncing off one another.

Something, perhaps inherent in the singularity or whatever it was from which the universe emerged, imbued matter with qualities that hold it together. The other three forces operating at the quantum level are reasonably well understood (at least by physicists with advanced understanding of mathematics). But gravity remains stubbornly elusive. It is postulated to be a function of the curvature of space, so that objects are not so much attracted to one another as mutually captured by indentations in the space-time continuum. The Earth's inhabitants are not actually compelled to stay on the surface; it just feels that way because of the planet's vastly superior mass. In actuality, each of us has our own gravitational field, a little space-time sinkhole of our own, that is gently tugging at the Earth even as it is pulling at our feet.

At least, this is what the scientific explanations sound like to a lay person. Gravity appears to have no substance and leaves no trace of itself. But what is it? We don't know.

It is supposed by current theories that less than five percent of the universe is made of the kind of atomic matter of which we are made. One would think that such a discovery would lead to scientific humility. If the vast majority of the world is not merely indecipherable but undetectable, on what basis do our theories purport to describe anything other than the five percent that is perceptible to us? It is entirely possible that gravity is part of some other physical context of which we know nothing. It is also possible that the laws of mathematics, which some humans employ with great skill to define the laws of nature, do not apply universally. This is a subject of great concern to contemporary philosophers, who, like their counterparts beginning in antiquity, spend a great deal of their energies arguing about the terms of the argument itself. Whether or not mathematics exists independent of human thought is one of those conundrums that sustains entire academic careers, but sheds little useful light on the really interesting question of whether even the seemingly incontrovertible truth of mathematics is just another form of human perception about which no objective reality can be established with certainty.



The Earth is dying. Even if we were not doing our level best to accelerate the process, or indeed if homo sapiens had never arisen, this would still be true. Those who insist that the forces of nature are immeasurably greater than the trivial intercessions of mankind have much on their side. Without the protective dome of the Earth's magnetic field, the radiation that would rain down upon us from space would be orders of magnitude more hazardous to our cells than the few smoldering nuclear disasters we have so far managed to ignite. Before the emergence of most animal life as we know it, the climate endured hellish levels of carbon dioxide that dwarf our best efforts to despoil the atmosphere on which we and most living things depend entirely. If that were not enough to restrain our hubris, we might do well to recall that we tread upon a very thin and fragile layer of rock beneath which a molten sea frequently and violently erupts, sending waves to kill everything in its path without discrimination. The natural world will always be able to release more fury than the creatures that inhabit it.

Nonetheless, the delicate conditions that enable life to cling to the surface of the planet would likely last a good deal longer if not for human indifference and depravity. We leave a trail of waste and destruction everywhere: vast floating seas of plastic detritus; mountains of deadly discarded minerals; riverbeds of poisonous sludge; enormous noxious pits of animal waste, coal ash and common trash; once-fertile ground infused with plumes of toxic chemicals; air laden by the burned particulate waste from smokestacks and tens of millions of ordinary engines; rusting remains of shuttered steel mills and factories, oil drilling platforms and all manner of obsolete contraptions; and radioactive debris with half-lives many times longer than the whole history of the species that left it behind.

Finally, at the end of the life cycle of our sun, probably long after the last of our kind has exited the scene, our one and only home will be incinerated by the very solar furnace that gave us life in the first place.

And so we are faced with the twin stupidities which prevent proactive action on a range of urgent problems: on the one hand, nature is so forgiving and the planet so hospitable that nothing need be done; or on the other, that the severity of the situation is so far beyond our control that nothing can be done. It is nonsensical to make a moral argument for the preservation of the ecosystem; it cannot be attempted by anyone who is not hopelessly obtuse and/or devoid of the gene for irony. But a moral argument for the preservation of one another is an entirely plausible and imperative contemplation. We need not care about the fate of the Earth three billion years hence in order to care for the living conditions of our fellow creatures in the gravity-bound long term, any more than we should put off to an imaginary afterlife our responsibility for behaving decently in the present day. Despoiling the air, water and land is not an offense against the environment, which has no sensibilities of its own to be offended. It is an offense against ourselves and each other, an imponderable act of slow and steady self-annihilation.

Think cosmologically, act terrestrially.



We seek safety where there is disorder, harmony where there is discord. The quest is constant, because the forces of dissolution are forever at work. This is a universal verity that seems to apply to our modest existence as it does to the universe at large. But what is peculiar to our viewpoint is that, as we struggle for equilibrium, our minds rebel against the idea that there are no standards to follow, no absolute truths on which to model ourselves. We demand certainty as a defense against the maelstrom. But this rebellion is in itself an obstacle to understanding the random nature of nearly everything that transpires. It is more than likely that the specific qualities that make our quietly gyrating planet not only inhabitable but enjoyable to us — its blue-green beauty, temperate land masses and overabundant life forms — also lend credence to the powerful illusion that we are unique, even singled out for a particular destiny. In this interpretation of events, everything seems to point to our success and happiness, in spite of the overwhelming failure of the great majority of those who have ever lived and died to achieve it.

Perhaps we are unique in the universe; we have no way of knowing. Given the limits of even the speed of light, the fastest known moving object, the time required to test the hypothesis to any degree of certainty will almost certainly far exceed the lifespan of our species. Whatever we may ultimately learn about the planets that orbit our near neighbors in our galaxy, and whether we are ever able to determine whether life is rare or common, such conclusions will be impossible to quantify to any great extent without knowledge of the planets in galaxies so remote that all their stars will go extinct before any human eyes will ever have the chance to gaze upon them.

We detest and fear the dark but we are doomed to live in it. It is astonishing in itself that we have sufficiently evolved to be able to pose these big questions. But we have not evolved nearly to a point where we can know whether these are even the right questions to ask. We also have not reached a point in our development where we know how to secure our own lives — not the security of my one life and yours, but the security of life itself. We do not understand whether our manipulation of the Earth's resources is progress or exploitation, a reason for hope or despair. We do not understand how to organize either our industries or societies so that we do not waste most of what we produce, whether in raw materials or human beings. If it were obvious how to proceed, then we would not be in constant dispute about it. If some of us celebrate as uplifting and essential what others denounce as greedy and violent, then we are lacking sufficient wisdom, as a whole, to know what to do next for the benefit of one another and our world.

Plato said that knowing good and doing good are one and the same. If this is true, then we do not know what good is, because we do not do it. Not consistently enough, not carefully enough, not conscientiously enough. We cannot even define it without wholesale disagreement. The most thoughtful philosophers cannot even agree on the terms of debate. We may believe a great many things about ourselves, but unless we acknowledge the insurmountable limitations of our understanding, then we will never possess the humility required to see our situation as clearly as we need to.


December 22, 2014


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