Friday, September 16, 2011

The Fabric of the Cosmos

My delving into M-Theory has continued over the last few nights, as I've waded into Brian Greene's The Fabric of the Cosmos.

Greene is a theoretical physicist and professor of physics at Columbia University, and his writing for a popular audience is both substantive and accessible.  Unlike Kaku's Parallel Worlds, which routinely used terminology related to faith, Greene is more vigorously secular.  Issues of meaning and purpose are subordinate to determining mechanics and structure.  The book makes very little effort to explore the whole Meaning of Life question.  It's purpose is to go deep into the underlying processes of reality.  Period.

Well, perhaps that's not quite right.  As Greene lays out his own journey of understanding, the first outside reference point relative to meaning and purpose is the existentialist movement.  His opening chapter is full of talk of his adolescent reading of Sartre and Camus...which, of course, endears him to me immensely.

What's interesting in Greene's brief discussion of philosophy is that he neatly steps around the struggle for meaning.  Meaning, Greene assumes, can be found in the "...assessment of the universe at all possible levels."  (p. 21)   That is his Sisyphian "struggle to the heights."  Instead of the application of the will in shoving that rock up a hill, his existentialist purpose comes in shoving knowledge further and further into the mysteries of the universe.

In the midst of affirming the value of heaving string theory up that mountain, Greene surfaces...as, if I'm remembering correctly, did Kaku...a famous quotation from physicist Richard Feynman.  That little snippet of wisdom claims that a knowledge of cosmology deepens appreciation of everything.  In contemplating a rose, for instance, one takes in color and scent and texture, but then that goes deeper.  You see..."the wonder and magnificence of the underlying molecular, atomic, and subatomic processes." (ibid).

Here, I found myself suddenly bemused.   I find the underlying molecular, atomic, and subatomic processes of creation equally wonderful and magnificent.  But when you go to that place of marvelous complexity, are you still contemplating a rose?  Or has the rose qua rose ceased to be relevant, just as space and time themselves cease to be relevant at Planck distances?

During a time of midweek meditation at my congregation a few months ago with a few of the old saints of my church, I was similarly contemplating a stained glass window in the sanctuary.  It's a bright and impressionist rendering of Jesus.

Deep in meditation, I found myself lost in the the light of the reds and greens, in the rippled textures of the glass, in the way light hung and refracted.  Seen from that level, the reality to which the window pointed ceased to be discernable.  The image vanished.  The meaning and intent of the artist disappeared in a thicket of other inputs.

It was a delightful, calm moment.  Yet at that level of contemplation, something was absent.  The awareness that a sentient being applied to create that particular arrangement of matter, the intentionality that went into creating that image, the narrative underlying that image...all of that was not evident.

There was still beauty.  But the storytelling and the imprint of sentience were gone.

When Greene implies that meaning can be found by knowing the universe "on all possible levels," I wonder if that is true.  One can find beauty on almost all of the levels.  But meaning?

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