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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

On Being

I recently finished two novels written by one of my favorite authors, Cormac McCarthy. The Passenger and its follow-on, Stella Maris are not for those who enjoy linear narratives, nor those who seek finite resolution; you won’t find either in these two works. I love McCarthy for his language, always surprising, playful, unerring and expansive. But I must admit these two books required some heavy lifting on my part and not a few excursions both online and to my bookshelf to decipher some of the references to particle physics and advanced mathematics.

The two principal characters in the novels are a brother and sister, both troubled, both of genius caliber, and both in their own way preoccupied with each other and with the issue of being. Their painful exploration of what it means to be—much less what it means to be a human possessed of a rational and relentlessly questioning mind, is the subject of both tales and my renewed interest in existentialism. Unlike my earlier study on the subject this journey is less overtly philosophic and more scientific but it is clear that from a certain vantage point those distinctions do not mean much.

Let me explain, and ask your forgiveness for greatly over-simplifying a subject which I am barely able to get my own mind wrapped around. I know is not everyone’s cup of tea so rather than provide a lengthy exposition on such topics as quantum entanglement, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, or the double slit experiment, let me try another tack. There are a few things that most of us take for granted about the nature of the universe. Generally, we believe that time runs in only one direction—forward, and that matter cannot simultaneously occupy two different places. But what if I told you that neither of these statements is entirely true, and that demonstrable, not theoretical, proof supports what I just said. Does that stand your world view on its head?

And while we are on the subject of proofs, let me ask another deceptively simple question. What is nothing? Does nothing exist, and if so, how do we know? This goes beyond semantics, but I’ll save you from a lot of head scratching. We cannot prove the existence of nothing, it is strictly definitional. Even a void or vacuum is something, but confusing that statement further, physicists recently learned that energy can be manifested from nothing. Now most of us are familiar with Einstein's famous equation equating energy and matter, so what they proved in very basic terms is that Star Trek's Teleporter wasn't so far fetched.

Physics and its cousin mathematics do not consist of fixed immutable laws. They are constantly being challenged and as new experiments are devised, new methodologies employed to test various theories, things can and do change. Einstein himself characterized quantum entanglement—the ability of two separated objects to share a common state of being as “spooky action at a distance”. But now that this precise condition has been observed and can be reproduced at will, physicists accept it as a fundamental law of nature.

Now, let me reward your patience by getting to the point of this post. Many people draw a bright line between scientific proof and faith, but is it conceivable that they have more in common than we may be prepared to accept? Despite all of the advances made in our understanding of the universe most physicists and mathematicians agree that the absolute knowledge required to reconcile how something and nothing work together to create existence will always be beyond our reach. In other words, we must take it on faith.

More simply put, we lack the evidence to establish fundamental truths about the nature of being just as we lack the evidence to establish the existence of a higher power, God, if you wish to give it a name. I don’t want to be accused of suggesting that Science is Religion. I’ll leave that to thinkers such as C.S. Lewis who held that they are just different aspects of our world view. We are not required to believe in either but there are consequences for rejecting reality as well there may be for rejecting faith. What we cannot do is reject one in favor of the other on the basis that it alone provides irrefutable proof. Neither should we accord pre-eminence to one over the other. Taken together they come as close as we may ever know how we came to be.

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