A blog by Paul Wallace

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    And I was some of the mud that got to sit up and look around. Lucky me, lucky mud.

    -- Kurt Vonnegut, Cat's Cradle

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    How to forget your insignificance

    earth

    There’s a terrible lot of out there out there — SBU, p 137

    I WRITE A regular column for Nurturing Faith. It’s an ask-the-scientist-a-question thing. In the current issue a reader asks: “Taking into account scientific calculations for the size and expansion and age of the cosmos, what is your view of the spiritual significance of humans in the universe?”

    I read this: If we’re so small, how can we be significant?

    Looking back over my answer I realize it’s an outline for a chapter that would’ve fit perfectly in Stars Beneath Us, a summary of the Chapter That Wasn’t. Here’s the idea, starting with Job, a major figure in the book:

    Job, “the greatest man among the people of the east,” spends his whole life being significant. Then, all of a sudden, he’s not. For years he’s the Big Kahuna, the Stuff, the Wizard of Uz, respected by everyone, heralded by princes, beloved by widows and orphans, rich as hell and just as generous. Then POOF he’s outside the city walls, squatting on the ash heap, forgotten and despised. The only people who pay attention to Job — besides his hostile and insecure “friends” who think he’s getting what he deserves — are the poorest of the poor and the meanest of the mean, who make sport of him by spitting on him and calling him names.

    Our hero has lost his family, his wealth, and his health, but one of the things he misses most is his significance. “I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy. They waited for me as for the rain, they opened their mouths as for the spring rain,” Job says about his former generosity to the powerless. “But now they mock me in song; they abhor me; they do not hesitate to spit at the sight of me.”

    Job is a former judge and knows injustice when he sees it. A devout man, he calls on God to set things straight. After a lot of silence, God responds by taking Job on a hair-raising cosmic tour which seems designed to make his problems even worse: it underlines Job’s insignificance and marginalizes human civilization itself. The social universe Job once ruled is revealed to be but one of countless communities beloved by God: the deer, the wild ox, the ostrich, the vulture, the mountain goat, the wild ass, and other animals form societies not so different from Job’s. These animals seem mild and tame to us — they can be found in any zoo — but in Job’s day they occupied the remotest cosmic margins; they may as well have lived on the moon. The tour is undomesticated and shirks neither folly nor death.

    The effect on Job is simple: he is downsized to an afterthought. Not only is he stuck at the bottom of human society; that society is now revealed to be one of many. It is lost in a near-infinity of worlds, and so is he.

    But, amazingly, Job doesn’t care; in fact, the tour leaves him content. After it’s over he picks himself up off the ash heap, brushes himself off, and moves ahead with his life.

    Why does this ego-reducing ride through the cosmos so satisfy him?

    Maybe the answer is found in the phrase: beloved by God.

    Job found himself and human society, like every other creature and community, the objects of a cosmic and divine love he had never known until that moment. What if you knew, at the still axis of your soul, that you are at home in the cosmos, that you are known and loved by a comprehensive, crazy-ass, I-would-go-to-my-grave-for-you love? If you knew this truly, would you spend even a single minute worrying about your significance?

    No, you wouldn’t, any more than a five-year-old, loved by her family and making mudpies in her front yard, worries about her significance. The question of significance doesn’t even come up — can’t come up — because it resides in a dimension unreachable from her world of love.

    I know: you’re not a five-year-old and it’s been a dark year in a hard world. It’s difficult to trust anything. I’m not saying it’s easy to believe in love. It’s ridiculous.

    But what if our craving for significance — okay I’ll say it, MY craving for significance, which is persistent — is a mark of alienation? Here at age 48 I’m beginning to feel like I’m straining for something I already have but can’t see or embrace because I’m fixed on ideas that have nothing to do with love. Like Job, perhaps I need to jump the rails I’m stuck on, the ones that run between the towns called Significance and Insignificance, and enter the wilderness.

    Out there, who knows? Along with the big wide world, maybe I’ll find love too. Or, more to the point, maybe love will find me. And if that happens I might forget, once and for all time, my own insignificance.

    Yes, quantum physics is weird, but let’s not lose our senses

    cat_in_the_box

    Schrödinger’s cat is a thought experiment designed to point out the silliness of over-interpreting quantum mechanics. It was devised in 1935. Alas: the silliness remains

    This Atlantic article was published back in April but it has come to my attention only recently. Two friends have independently sent it to me in the last month and asked for my thoughts.

    It’s an interview with Donald Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science at the University of California. It’s about consciousness and how to approach it as a scientific problem.

    Parts of the article make sense. For example, Hoffman argues that quantum mechanics cannot be overlooked in any scientific explanation of consciousness. Quantum mechanics is the physics of tiny things — molecules and atoms and nuclei and quarks — and it is completely different from the circuits-and-pulleys stuff that most neuroscience majors learn in introductory physics. It is counterintuitive and very hard to get used to. And it doesn’t seem like much of a stretch to say that the large-scale activity of a system as complex as the human brain may depend on things that happen on the quantum scale.

    But man is this article annoying. It’s a textbook example of a genre of scientific-ish writing that should have a name but I can’t think of a suitable one at the moment.

    This genre is distinguished by three marks. First is its premise, which is expressed nicely in the article’s title: “The Case Against Reality.” Under this title are statements like, “The world presented to us by our perceptions is nothing like reality,” and, in Hoffman’s words, “snakes and trains have no objective features.” The point seems to be that, since the world we perceive, including snakes and trains, is composed of tiny quantum particles, and since tiny quantum particles obey laws that are alien to our senses, then the world as we know it is an illusion. It is the quantum version of a uniquely modern gotcha: “What you know is completely wrong.”

    This genre’s second feature is a super genius explaining why what you know is completely wrong. But invariably the explanation only thickens the fog. Both of my friends who shared the article with me are college-educated and quite intelligent, but even they couldn’t make sense of it.

    The third, and really vexing, mark of the genre (my how it needs a name) is that what it says is true-ish, usually in a narrow, reductive sense. For example, a table seems like a simple thing until you start asking questions about it. And those questions don’t end — they lead you down a molecular-optical-quantum-subnuclear hole that assuredly has no bottom. The more questions you answer, the more new questions appear. And the new questions and their answers get stranger and less intuitive and more abstract as you go. Trying to get a handle on reality in this way is not possible because it’s always slipping between your fingers (btw the Buddhists have known this for thousands of years).

    Hoffman uses as an example a square blue file icon on your computer desktop. He says that the specifics of what we sense — small, square, blue — have no connection to the underlying reality, which is a zillion transistors set in a specific pattern on some chip deep in the computer’s guts. The square blue icon stands in for a reality we don’t have time to worry about. It helps us get through the day — survive, in a Darwinian sense — and that’s all it does. In the same way, Hoffman says, our perception of snakes and trains (and tables) has no clear connection to the underlying nature of these things. Our perceptions are merely symbolic. So he seems to say.

    But at what level do things stop getting symbolic and start getting “real”? At what point down the hole do you say, “This is it. This is reality”? What does “real” even look like? How would we recognize it? What is an atom or a proton or a quark? Do we know these things better than we know tables? Why would we pick the molecular or atomic or nuclear or subnuclear level over any other? And why not go the other way? Physics on superbig scales is also different from our everyday physics (see general relativity, dark energy).

    What really grates is the easy moral: There is no reality. “The idea that what we’re measuring are publicly accessible objects, the idea that objectivity results from the fact that you and I can measure the same object in the exact same situation and get the same results — it’s very clear from quantum mechanics that that idea has to go,” Hoffman says. But no sober physicist would talk this way about anything but individual electrons or nuclei or atoms. Or maybe tiny groups of them. They would never say that a snake or a train or a table is not a publicly accessible object. The physicist would tell us that the rules change at larger scales. They become less prone to statistics and quantum uncertainty. They get more, well, “publicly accessible.”

    Make no mistake: quantum mechanics is wonderful and exciting and mind-bending stuff. It offers lessons worth learning. It is hard to teach or even talk about without losing one’s composure. But: snakes and trains have no objective features? Let’s not lose our senses as well.

    Hope is the thing with feathers

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    Vaughn Fender, Elijah Fed by Ravens (2013) for the Old and New Project

    THE DAYS ARE dark in Israel. The Davidic monarchy has long since fallen apart and King Ahab has made an unholy alliance with the neighboring nation of Phoenicia. His worship of foreign gods is problematic, as is his refusal to do what Yahweh plainly tells him to do. The Old Testament litany — “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” — applies fully to Ahab. Accordingly, the people suffer.

    So Elijah, at the bidding of the Lord, gives Ahab a piece of his mind. He tells the monarch to straighten up or God will send a drought on the land. Having delivered his message, Elijah heads for the wilderness, where even a king cannot find him, to wait out the dark, dry days:

    The word of the Lord came to Elijah, saying, “Go from here and turn eastward, and hide yourself by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. You shall drink from the wadi, and I have commanded the ravens to feed you there.” So he went and did according to the word of the Lord; he went and lived by the Wadi Cherith, which is east of the Jordan. The ravens brought him bread and meat in the morning, and bread and meat in the evening; and he drank from the wadi.

    1 Kings 17.2-6

    Now, a word about Mickey.

    Mickey is my friend. He is kind and thoughtful. A week or two before the election we were standing around yakking at the church. He said, “You know, Paul, regardless of how this election goes, we have a lot of work to do here in America. No one is listening to anyone, we seem to have turned against one another, we have lost sight of courtesy and mutual respect. This hostility prevents us from acknowledging even simple facts and basic reason.” He was right, and it’s clear that that things are no better today, post-election.

    We as a nation have entered the wilderness. Not a wilderness to which God has sent us for our protection, but a wilderness of incivility and insecurity and insularity. What are we to do with ourselves?

    One thing we could do is take note of the wilderness. This time I mean the one that scurries and flits in your backyard, the one that turns silently over your house at night, the one that pushes its way up between the cracks in your driveway, the one that churns in your very body. The one in which you have lived every day of your life, that you are a part of, that sustains you and provides for you and is your very source. That wilderness stands ready to be valued and loved regardless of what happens in Washington. We might as well value and love it; our dependence on it is complete.

    As was Elijah’s. He relied on the wilderness to survive a dark and dangerous time. It was God’s good pleasure for things with feathers to attend to the “troubler of Israel” (Ahab’s name for the prophet). Birds brought him what he needed. They pulled him through and gave him his future. They brought strength when Elijah had none.

    This is what the towhees and the thrashers and the kinglets do for me. They bring strength. They set my heart at rest. They take me out of self-concern and worry about my country and my life and connect me to my source. They bring me hope. Their serenity makes me less likely to snap at people. Their beauty helps me see the same in those I disagree with. Their simplicity inspires me to purge the non-essentials that clutter my mind and my life. Like ravens, the birds I mention are not flashy. They’re as common as grass. The wilderness is now, and very present.

    Maybe birds aren’t your thing. Perhaps you prefer flowers, or the night sky (another of my favorites, right up there with birds), or your pet cat, or the silence and darkness of a morning walk. Maybe you’re a fool for a sunset or horses or seashells or rainbows. Maybe you prefer relativity or genetics or neuroscience or particle physics. These are all faces of the wilderness. They all bring us what we need: serenity, wonder, connection, admiration for the neighborhood.

    The wilderness is healing and thoroughly good because God shines through it, all of it. This light can be hard to see but I tell you it’s there. Keep looking — the wilderness never disappoints.

    Grief is the cleanest cut

    Marl Bed Flats

    Scott Simmons, Eastern Phoebe (2013)

    THERE IS A quiet clearing alongside a pond in the forest not far from here.

    That’s how I like to think about it, anyway, because it sounds like I live in the deep woods, perhaps in some magnificent and lonesome boreal expanse, which I do not. I live in Decatur, Georgia, a small city. Atlanta, which you may have heard of, is a suburb of Decatur. So it’s more accurate to say:

    There is a grassy patch surrounded by some trees and a retention basin not far from here.

    These trees and this basin are themselves surrounded by streets and cars and city buses and old closely-spaced houses. The pond is sealed behind a chain-link fence, which itself is covered in kudzu. So you cannot actually see the water without some effort. A concrete manhole juts out of the grass near the center of the patch. Immediately to the north is the college running track. Just beyond this is the science building (“here”), the college, and downtown Decatur: hulking public buildings, banks, schools, restaurants, bars, shops, churches, train stations, pedestrians galore. Surrounding Decatur is the metro itself, 5.5 million souls getting through the day, every day. The interstates never sleep. Overhead, jets fly into and out of ATL without letup. It’s a noisy and bright place.

    This is not only accurate, it is good. I love my city.

    But I also love my quiet clearing alongside the pond in the forest. On better days I walk over to it and sit for a few minutes to pray and meditate as I’m able. I imagine I’m in a far northern wood, a thousand miles from civilization. I take my binoculars and scope the place out.

    There’s always something. Some days it’s a new species like a grosbeak or Tennessee warbler. Sometimes I get an excellent look at a familiar but stunning bird like a pileated woodpecker. One day an eastern towhee, a secretive and beautiful creature, hopped within a few feet of me, totally unaware of my presence. I nearly had a heart attack.

    Sometimes the pleasures are less obvious. Last Friday afternoon I walked over and sat down. The sun was low and nothing AT ALL was happening. The crows and jays and cardinals and thrashers that usually fill the place were absent. With no birds to occupy my attention I became aware of the fact that I was worried. My worry is always there but I can only hear it when it’s quiet and I’m not distracted. It goes something like this:

    The kids are not okay.

    I am a not a good father.

    My country is going to hell.

    I do not like my neck.

    I will not see a total solar eclipse before I die.

    I will die.

    Etc.

    Each thought a dull blow to my soul.

    I inhaled and started counting out my breaths because that’s what all the super-balanced mindfulness people say to do.

    Then a small bird landed on the uppermost branch of a very tall tree on the far side of the basin. I pulled up my binoculars and got a fix on it. The sky was bright behind it so I could see only its silhouette. It was an eastern phoebe. I knew this by the way it continuously worked its tail like a stir stick. I had read about phoebes doing that, and there it was! A tiny but real connection and a funny thing to see. He sat way up there stirring and surveying like the Swizzle King of Atlanta. It spotted a flying bug and went after it and returned to its perch. It did this a few more times and then zipped away for good.

    I stood up and left the place.

    On the way back the low sun and yellow leaves reminded me of Dad. I missed him so suddenly that it took my breath away. I stood for a few minutes in the shade, looking up at the trees. A Delta jet, banking north, flashed high above them. I knew it was Delta because of the red tail. I thought of the trips he took with me to India, to the UK, to Eastern Europe. He was an excellent travel partner.

    Worry is about me. Grief is about everything. It is fundamental, cosmic, and unpolluted by ego. It comes like quicksilver out of its hiding place at the center of the universe and cuts me clean open, exposing me to the noise and light of the world, leaving me standing, poor and empty and free, in the midst of the city I love.

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