Wednesday, November 19, 2003

The Five Little W's On A Motor Tour

Or, Who What Where When Why and sometimes How.


At work I keep a photo of the Andromeda nebula, a beautiful spiral galaxy like the one depicted above, tacked at eye level on the wall in front of my desk.

It helps me keep things in perspective.

It's a reminder that I have, improbably, awakened in the midst of an immense mystery. But maybe "mystery" is not quite the right word. Awakened into a big astonishment -- that contains the wonder, even the interrogation, but not the assumption that there is something as simplistic as a conundrum and a solution.

I am grateful to the astrophysicists and quantum chemists who work to elucidate and describe how the universe is put together and functions. I appreciate their metaphoric attempts to explain their discoveries to unmathed folks like myself. I have to take all they say on faith. I don't even know enough about math to frame any questions about the nature of it as a universe-describing language.

For all its esotericness, it's as far from my experience as Christian mysticism's "infused contemplation." (See Evelyn Underhill.)

One of my favorite cosmological metaphors is the expanding loaf of raisin bread. Not that I can remember, now, what point it was making. Something about distances and galaxies in an expanding universe.

And once, I think via Greene's The Elegant Universe I may have intuitively grasped, for a fleeting second, the space/time/movement/relativity thing. And it was not via the usual alarm clock in the speeding train example.

I think the "Big Bang" is "Fiat Lux" minus the speaker.

Mystic Cowboy has got me thinking a bit of creation stories and cosmologies.

Do we need to postulate a creator separate from creation ? A speaker separate from the spoken ? Creator/Speaker works as a narrative device. But I wonder whether the question "why" is even applicable to fundamental creation and existence. What and how, where and when seem relevant questions, but "why" is slipperier. It seems more particularly human, an interrogation of motive:

"Why did you eat the plums that were in the icebox and that I was saving for breakfast ?" "Because I was hungry and, like many doctors and poets, I am an inconsiderate, self-centered asshole."

When it's applied to the physical world, it asks for antecedents and causation: "Why is the driveway wet ?" "Because it rained last night." But isn't that a "how" question ?

I'm thinking of the old Bill Cosby routine "Why is there air ?" (We're talking comedy records of the late 1950's, gang. Mommy, what's a record ?)

"Why is there something instead of nothing" may be more of a neurogical symptom than a valid, useful question.

Calling existence a Mystery with a big M implies that there is a meaningful question with an ultimate, if unknowable answer. Maybe even a Perp. Whom we can apprehend if we read the clues right.

Let's take the famous question and rework it a little.

Why is there something instead of nothing ? there something ... nothing ...

...there is something ... nothing

one more tweak

...there is something/nothing ....

Now that might be something I can sit with.

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