The Thinker

The universe through a straw

National Public Radio has been running a series called This I Believe. The series gives ordinary people like you and I the opportunity to tell the world what we believe and why. The series is always insightful and worth your time. Even if you cannot agree with the person’s beliefs, you should be moved by the passion and eloquence by which participants express their beliefs. Since the producers receive thousands of entries, they unfortunately cannot broadcast but a tiny fraction of them. However, there is a This I Believe web site where you can contribute your essay. Perhaps this one will end up there too.

Frequent readers of Occam’s Razor will have little doubt about what I believe. Like all of us, I have many beliefs. I may spend the rest of my life trying to put them all down here on this website. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I do not often say I am certain that my beliefs are accurate. They simply represent the perspective of me: a 49-year-old white middle class man living here in the United States. My beliefs are undoubtedly formed by my life experiences. Since your life was on a different path, I should not be surprised that you would have different beliefs. However, it has only been in the last few years that I have found the time and the energy to organize my thoughts. Here they exist online for your amusement, castigation, insight, or dismissal.

Last night in my covenant group, we discussed our “isms”. Simply saying what your “isms” are gives insight into your own beliefs. To help us out, many of us turned to Beliefnet. On the site is an online survey you can take if you are having a hard time categorizing your beliefs. Since we are a small group of Unitarian Universalists, not one of us was surprised to find out we were categorized highest as UUs. In fact, the survey showed me as 100% Unitarian Universalist, but also 98% Quaker. Perhaps I should not be surprised that I have a brother who is a Quaker.

For many, labeling their beliefs is simple. For me, it is hard to put a label on what I believe. The label probably does not exist. I can say I am a Unitarian Univeralist, but this really does not say what I believe. After all, you can be a UU and believe anything you want. There is no creed you have to profess in order to be a UU. I can say that I subscribe to agnosticism, but that does not say much about my beliefs either. It simply asserts that I cannot find a rational basis to either believe or not believe in God. In some ways, I feel the call of Buddhism. I have acknowledged before that I think karma is a real and natural force. Yet I maintain some skepticism that we go through a series of lives, and each life is an attempt to address our karmic issues from previous lives. Perhaps I align most closely to natural pantheism. Wikipedia says it is “a form of pantheism that holds that the universe, although unconscious and non-sentient as a whole, is a meaningful focus for mystical fulfillment.” However, I am not quite so certain that I can wholly dismiss the notion that some external or omnipresent God did not set our universe in motion. I do believe that our universe is an amazing place.

As human beings trying to understand the universe, I believe we have some serious limitations. First, we are temporal. This gives us perhaps a biased perspective. Our natural fear of death I think drives many of our beliefs, since most seem to offer tailored solutions that address our fear of nonexistence. Since we experience existence through time, we naturally assume time exists for everything. However, arguably time only exists for organisms of sufficient complexity. For example, the physicist Brian Greene asserts that at the subatomic level, time ceases to exist.

Since we are also limited by our senses, it can be excruciatingly hard to relate to things that we cannot directly perceive. We can infer that radio waves exist, even though we know we will never touch, taste or feel a radio wave. We can make similar observations about the limitations of our other senses. For example, there are sounds we cannot perceive but other animals can.

What I infer from all this is that we perceive the universe at best through a gauzy curtain. I believe what we see approximates the universe’s actual complexity. Perhaps you read recent news reports about the indirect proof for the existence of dark matter in the universe. Here again is something that physicists tell us simply must exist in the universe, but which we cannot examine. I think that my analogy that our view of the universe is through a gauzy curtain is too expansive. I believe we see the universe through a straw.

A therapist I am seeing tells me that humans tune out most of the experience that surrounds them. Perhaps there is so much of it that it is impossible for our brains to process all of it. Like a horse with blinders, to survive we focus on what is straight ahead of us. Perhaps this is because we have learned through experience that straight ahead is where it is easiest to make sense of the world. At best, we are only dimly aware of the consequences that our behavior has on not just our intimates, but on everyone who we meet.

If we spent our life looking at the same small part of the sky through a straw, we would clearly not have a very good understanding of our universe. All we could do is describe what we see through the straw. It would be hard to infer the meaning of the things we saw. If a cloud obscured our vision, we could not necessarily infer the entity we call a cloud. We would likely need a wider perspective to detect the cloud. We might pick up some clues. If a bird passed through our line of vision enough times then we might be able to infer the existence of birds, although the concept of flight may be beyond our comprehension. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine trees, or houses, or the ground, or computers, or time, or perhaps even death.

So if I am a natural pantheist, it is because I believe that the universe is far more complex, far more amazing and far richer than what I can comprehend, simply because I am bounded by a finite life and limited senses. Philosophers and scientists must do the best they can by seeing the universe through a straw. However studying the edges of the straw, which is what physicists, philosophers and the devout spend much of their lives doing, likely gives them a very jaundiced and probably inaccurate perspective of the universe as it actually is. Even if we could see all aspects of the universe as it actually is, it is unlikely our brains could comprehend its full complexity and manifestation.

It may be that instead of seeing the universe through a straw, we are seeing it through a drainage pipe. In other words, perhaps we perceive more of the complexity of the universe than I assume. There is no way to know for sure, however. Since there is no way to know, that is where I personally draw the boundaries of my faith.

I do my best not to infer too much about the truth of our universe because I assume my perspective is severely constrained. However, I could just as easily be wrong. It can be fun to speculate on whether God exists, and if it exists whether it is a personal or an absent God. Nevertheless, I believe that when we do so we are really arguing about what we see on the edges of the straw. We are using that very limited field of observation to infer much more about the universe than we should. Perhaps that is why I often feel the need to surrender to the mysticism of it all. It is why the Pantheistic Church, if there were one, would probably call me more than Unitarian Universalism. As much as I try, I do not really understand our universe, but I am still in awe of it and under its spell. However, I sense, what the character Ellie Arroway in the movie Contact (and by inference, the late Carl Sagan, who wrote the book) said:

I … had an experience… I can’t prove it, I can’t even explain it, but everything that I know as a human being, everything that I am tells me that it was real! I was given something wonderful, something that changed me forever… A vision of the universe, that tells us, undeniably, how tiny, and insignificant and how… rare, and precious we all are! A vision that tells us that we belong to something that is greater then ourselves, that we are not, that none of us are alone! I wish… I… could share that… I wish, that everybody, if only for one… moment, could feel… that awe, and humility, and hope.

 

2 Responses to “The universe through a straw”

  1. 6:41 am on November 15 2006, Neska said:

    “The series gives ordinary people like you and I the opportunity to tell the world what we believe and why. ”
    Nice grammar error for the sake of the rhyme : )

  2. 11:26 am on November 15 2006, john obrien said:

    Hi:
    I hope you remember me. I am the 70 year old retired computer teacher who first found your school web site and I was brought to this site. I commented on some 2002 blogs about Jesus.
    I just completed reading two books and I can recommend them to you. I wish you would read and give me you ideas about them.
    The first is
    “The five people you will meet in heaven”
    The second is:
    “Damage Control:
    How to stop making Jesus look Bad.”
    Please let me know of what you think of them

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