Infinite Space-Time Meets the Monster under My Bed
Author’s note: For most of my adult life I have been living with one or another big idea that seems to pertain to everything I experience: the all-but-infinite chain of causality behind even the most casual event, for instance, a revelation whose sudden arrival I described in another essay (not yet published here). For the past few years it’s been an obsession with the notion of the fierce intentionality we are told drives us to disperse our genes and do little else that is evolutionarily meaningful, as if we were nothing more than agents of some extraterrestrial scientific experiment. The following is my attempt to get a perspective on this subject that would allow me to get up in the morning with something more than a sense of futility in my chest.
INFINITE SPACE-TIME MEETS THE MONSTER UNDER MY BED
By Thomas J. Hubschman
(c) Thomas J. Hubschman
Le silence etérnel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie ( “The eternal silence of those infinite spaces scares me.”) —Pascal (Pensées)
It’s not so much the space, the physical space, those “infinite spaces,” that keep me awake at night or, more typically, blight the otherwise cheerful start of my days. My mind does not shrink back in horror at the vastness of the universe, at all that unfilled or at least not visibly filled nothingness. I don’t worry either about my insignificance, tiny thing that I am, clinging to a terrestrial oasis at the outer edge, the very boondocks, of a very ordinary galaxy, just one of billions of such clusters—a universe far more spacious than anything Pascal ever imagined.
What brings me down (as it also did Pascal), depresses rather than scares me, though maybe fear is at the heart of it, are the vast temporal spaces out of which I and my kind have come, the all-but-infinite duration in which we occupy such a small, recent, and no doubt temporary position.
Even then, it’s not the immense evolutionary timeline that distresses. I can accept, even rejoice, in the unimaginable, if not infinitely long stretches of time it took to go from starburst to one-celled animal to Euripides, Isaac Newton and George Gershwin. It’s not quite the same story as in the book of Genesis, but there’s a similar Darwinian narrative of an “ascent of man,” even if it took two billion years in the one case and just a week in the other. What troubles my peace of mind is the apparent fickleness of the process, the random intentionality the biologists and geneticists talk about with such feckless enthusiasm. They describe a process driven, self-driven rather than by anything that can be reasonably called purpose, by the same forces—”laws” we used to call them—that govern the behavior of stars and atomic particles equally with earthworms and irises. They speak of the imperative of all living things to disperse their individual genes as widely as possible to get a leg-up on the competition. S/he who spreads her/himself around the most prolifically, wins.
But what do they win? A bit of breathing room in the evolutionary scramble? An ephemeral claim to be the best and brightest? Until the process is rudely interrupted by an asteroid or an especially malignant virus or a burst of cosmic radiation, and yesterday’s king of the hill is today’s evolutionary has-been. And we’re not even talking about the roads less taken—those exotic fossils we find in the strata of road cuts through the local landscape, “exotic” because so out of the mainstream as we know it, though they might each have had a run that far surpasses our own puny three or four million years.
If we accept the purposelessness of this tale, combined somehow with a mindless intentionality (it’s almost impossible not to speak anthropomorphically) we are left not just with a sense of futility and meaninglessness but of being the object of a great ruse in which we mistakenly believe we are about one thing while the “goal” of the blind, undirected evolutionary process is about quite a different one.
What, after all, does it matter if I write these words or others, if aid workers attempt to alleviate a famine, if democracy succeeds or fails, if my children call me on Father’s Day, when my real purpose in being here is just to play a small part in the struggle to make my particular genes and my species’ predominate? Do I have any basis to assume that an individual concern or delight matters any more in my case than it does for my cat or the bacteria that reside in our respective guts? A cat or dog, or the animals we kill and eat, may be just as attached to a particular place or other living thing as I am and in a way that is, allowing for our different anatomies, no different from my own experience. Yet, we discount the significance of their sentiments and perceptions—deny their existence, in fact—reserving for ourselves an exceptionalism in the evolutionary process that has no more basis than does that of Genesis. If birds or mice could write and speak they would reserve the same status to themselves, and, I don’t doubt for a moment, in their own way do so.
In this scenario my thoughts and feelings, my individual experience as well as that of my kind, are accidental as well as delusionary if I believe those thoughts and feelings are the purpose of my being. My concern for the state of the contemporary novel or my fondness for the view from a particular park bench is no more significant than if I had no such concern or any such fondness—unless these interests advance the cause of my genes and those of my species. Does it matter what a steer has on its mind on any given day? A steer is walking hamburger. It may assume that its love for its calf or the sense of belonging it gets from the society of its kind is the self-evident purpose of its being. But I know anything it feels or thinks is irrelevant. A steer might just as well be a brainless mass of steak and hide kept alive for the sole purpose of increasing its volume to the maximum possible until I choose to ingest it, my dinner being its only raison d’être.
Is our way of seeing animals any different from the way evolution sees us, our personal or even communal experience meaningless except in so far as it enhances or inhibits our chances for survival and predominance? Is what is “meaningful” determined by a blind mindless evolution?
Except that evolution is not mindless. We, and to some extent all living things, are mind, the only mind we know. And mind is as much the product of evolution—in our case matter thinking—no less but no more so than is a meterorite or a bit of swamp gas. Meaning has no meaning outside of us or other creatures with something like a brain. Neither do the concepts space and time. We create with mind—just a word to indicate the functions of the very material organ inside our craniums—not just the significance of our world and the universe at large, we create its essential reality, it’s very existence not to say it’s “purpose,” in any sense that word makes any sense. Our brains do not receive data about the world as it is (there being no such thing), but create a model we experience—humans one way, starfish in another—as first feel, smell, light, sound, then as idea and concept: space, time, ice cream. We can extend the range of the model with our x-ray telescopes and other devices to make visible or at least apprehensible what our sensory apparatus can not make evident unassisted, but we still cannot see x-rays or hear a pulsar.
The more we except ourselves from our embeddedness in everything else and in our strictly secondhand experience of it, the more those espaces frighten. When we were less self-conscious, more rooted in the world around us and subject to it, we knew better—”better” in the quality of our knowledge and better for our peace of mind. But we have made of ourselves a distinction without a difference.
When I hear a geneticist talk about the way genes control every aspect of living matter—who survives and who doesn’t, who wins and who loses—the girl, the best branch on the tree, the dominion of the planet—I find it hard to accept his pro forma protest that genes are not acting with anything like conscious purpose. Not when he injects purpose and intention into every sentence he uses. He may as well be a clergyman who sees the work of a creator God all around him, describes that work with wonder, and then insists on denying the existence of that God.
He, the geneticist, doesn’t seem to fear the pointlessness of an existence that is not only here today and gone tomorrow, an existence whose petty concerns for the meaning of his or any life only matter to the extent they further or frustrate the imperative of his genes to disperse and dominate. What a brutish, old-fashioned God this is. It makes the Yahweh of the Old Testament look like an old softy.
And yet a vision of purpose seems to sustain that scientist as much as any fickle, vengeful deity of the Bible, even if this more recent god is as much a product of the human imagination as was any of his all-powerful antecedents.
But if everything is the product of mind (or should I write Mind?), all the lonely spaces that distress Pascal and me are no less or more real than the ink on this page or the monster that used to hide under my bed when I was a child, waiting for me to fall asleep so it could bite off my toes. If we make it all up in any case—coming closer sometimes more than others to an accurate model of something—then we have no alternative: We live by faith, inherent, nearly absolute trust in the mental constructs which are all we know or can know of anything.
The good news is the model works most of the time. And when it doesn’t our intellect usually can make the necessary adjustments, just as birds flying long distances allow for course corrections en route. In the end, those espaces infinis might as well just be the distance from my backyard to the next or from one breath to another. Or they could indeed be infinite—as endless and eternal as matter and mind, wherever one produces the other.
Whew! Well, you certainly go to the heart of the matter with uncompromising clarity. No fudging. If the world given to us by science today is all we have, then what we have is what you describe. No wonder so many people run from such a meaningless life in terror. No wonder they would rather die by pulling the rope on the explosive vest they have donned for the occasion – they are choosing to die with meaning rather than to live without it.
There is nothing you have said about the implications of the world view of science today with which I disagree.
But I do choose not to agree with the implications you so accurately describe of the scientific world view. I don’t trust it. Science has no infinite perspective. Science, like everything else we “know,” is created from the limited abilities of the human mind. Given the initial assumptions of the scientific method, it seems to me it cannot but create an impersonal world based on mindless cause-and-effect chains. I have a fairly good mind for science. It has given me a world full of wonder, full of challenges, full of possibilities. I love science, and I am its defender. But it is not my guiding light. Its methodology was never devised to find the purpose of the universe.
I have not reached this conclusion lightly, without angst, or without doubt. Nor do I unequivocally trust my motives. Perhaps I simply do not have the courage to face such a vast emptiness, that monster under my own bed.
So how do I fill that emptiness? I do not fill it with God. Or even with god. I fill it with my one act of faith that has survived: that existence is good. I am nourished by a sense of mystery that science has not only not come near to destroying but has expanded. And at the core of that mystery is my sense that life is worth living for itself, not just worth passing on to our progeny. I choose to trust that sense. I can’t pretend it’s “logical,” or based on even distantly scientific evidence.
But I do experience it. And for all its lack of clarity, for all its potential for self-delusion, I choose to trust it.
PS: This is only tangentially related but I have just come across two quotes of Augustine of Hippo you might appreciate as I do: “The good Christian should beware of mathematicians. The danger already exists that mathematicians have made a covenant with the devil to darken the spirit and confine man in the bonds of Hell.”
On the other hand, he also said “Everything that is, in so far as it is, is good.” That from the man who has given us original sin – that curse with which even the most innocent are conceived. At least for Sartre, our guilt arises from something we actually do.
Thank you for listening. I’ve enjoyed writing this — (however meaningless it might be!)
Thank you very much, Terry, for sharing your thoughts. It makes any effort I make in putting my own together and then risking their publication seem worthwhile.
When I end up saying it’s all about faith, belief in the world we model with our minds, that seems to me about the most I can know. Not that there isn’t much to be gained from the energy we put into the products of that faith, as anyone knows who has a strong belief in something that informs their lives. And I like the irony of coming full circle…back to faith, the starting point in the dogmatic religious sense, which was actually the point of departure, or even flight.
I think I started on this train of thought a long time ago when I read John Stuart Mills’s description of his period of depression, when he looked at a sunset and realized it was just a matter of what today we would call air pollution. He never got out of that depression rationally. He just came to accept (if I remember rightly) his own esthetic response.
In other words, there is no alternative reality, no more “real” one, scientific or otherwise (science being just another model we construct), than the one we make in our heads. And yet, to go on living we must accept that construct as literally real (but be also willing to remember it is always tentative and imagined). Again, I love the irony: I have found this faith, I mean acknowledging it, is harder for people (because more disturbing) than for them to believe in the supernatural.
I think the same might be true for “eternity,” by which I mean timelessness–that it is “real.” But that’s another topic.
I have the suspicion that you are as capable as I am of discussing this kind of question ad infinitum. The difficulty is that we humans (and as you suggest, perhaps others) are able to formulate questions like does life have a meaning? what are we doing here? what happens next? etc, but it is completely beyond our capacity to confirm or disconfirm any possible answers.
Now that you’ve got me started on this — again — I think I will make it the subject of my next post.
I suspect we get worked up about questions like this because we grew too big for our intellectual britches–got smarter than we need to be as a species. Crows suffer from the same syndrome. That’s why they steal things and roll down hills to make themselves dizzy. I could tell you a crow story which put my own intelligence to shame.
I’d love to hear your crow story. I know enough about bird behavior to no longer consider “bird brain” a derogatory slur. To think that we used to think that we Homo sapiens were the sole proprietors of tool-use. And it certainly makes me question the assumption that the bigger the brain the more intelligent the species.
Lynn Margulis, the biologist (also Carl Sagan’s wife) says that life and intelligence are co-extensive. I agree.
Are you familiar with the crows in Australia who learned to drop their nuts on the street where there were stop lights? They wait for nuts to be cracked by the cars running over them, and when the light turns red join the pedestrians to walk across the street and pick up their breakfast. I’ve seen it on film. It’s absolutely marvellous.