Monday, May 19, 2014

Sacred Baggage

Having finally finished my meander through MIT cosmologist Max Tegmark's Our Mathematical Universe, I found myself enjoying it--mostly.  It was remarkably personal for a science-popularizing tome, as he talked openly about ex-wives and girlfriends, and his kid's enjoyment of Legos.  In that sense, I suppose, it was not a "serious" book.  Just a very human one.

And that worked for me.  Here's a science author who's just garrulous and a bit chatty, and who'll leaven his explications of mindspinning cosmology with an aside about the music he happens to be listening to as he's writing.

That it was Arvo Part's De Profundis didn't hurt.  Given that Part is also a favorite of mine, perhaps there's about Estonian sacred mystic music that evokes multiversal contemplation.

In Tegmark's book, I found it fascinating that he's almost--almost--stepping across the line into theology on several occasions.  Where he discusses the encounter of sentient beings with the deeper orders underlying the universe, and of a mathematical reality that both underlies reality and is ever beyond it, he's on the very cusp of being neoplatonic.  Am I reading Plotinus, or am I reading a 21st Century cosmologist?  It's hard to tell at times, and given how powerfully Christianity has historically resonated with both Plato and the neoplatonists, Tegmark's dabbling starts to get teasingly close to my own faith and multiverse writing.

There, though, Tegmark only almost--almost--touches the surface of faith.  Then he pulls away.  There are ways we understand the nature of being, he says, that are "baggage."  These are languages and forms that represent echoes of the reality we are encountering, but are laden with other understandings with no scientific basis.

He doesn't ever quite say: don't call this thing I'm describing "God."  He doesn't spend time chiding folks not to conflate their faith-language with the wild new possibilities of multiverse cosmologies.  Unlike deGrasse Tyson, Hawking, and other more vigorously atheistic physicists, that's not a fish Tegmark wants to fry.  It'd be too combative, too aggressive for his genial style.  That's not the journey he wants to take with his readers.

And yet, it's hard not to wonder if it might be more helpful to bring those forms of language along.  If you want people to embrace a new understanding of reality, and not to view it as a threat, it helps not to tear them from the language that they view as sacred.

Why not say, honestly, that the thing you've always declared as sacred and holy and wonderful may actually exist, in ways that are full of dizzying glory deeper than your wildest imagining.

Amazing, the things that a good bag can carry.