State Street Scribe
by Jeff Wing
Why does the country seem to become more interestingly spiritual as you move from east to west? Out east you have Plymouth Rock and Calvinism, the legacy of pilgrims in ill-fitting black garb with buckles on their shoes, buckles on their hats; it’s just a mess. Why all the buckles? Here in California, by comparison, our governor dated Linda Ronstadt when she was a hottie on roller skates, and we have drum circles and barefoot executives and a form of Buddhism you can put on and take off like a shirt. I think it’s called Now and Then Buddhism, though I may have misheard. See? Pilgrims over there, Linda Ronstadt in silk shorts roller skating around the Governor’s mansion over here. “Say, maybe we should go back east and get buckles on our hats.” Yeah, send me a postcard. AND we have all the good Thought Leaders out here. Ram Dass, Krishnamurti, Gurdjieff! (gezundheit) – more soothsayers than you can shake a Borneo Rattle Stick at. The effect of which is, among other things, my having just ended that last sentence with a preposition. So…the search for truth. Whaddya say? Isn’t it all a puzzle in the end? Not if the rationalists have their way.
Age of the Effable
You see, for centuries human civilization wore colorless burlap, flung mud, poured boiling oil onto attacking ne’er-do-wells, and died in their millions of rat-borne diseases. But it wasn’t all fun and games. There was also lots of quiet gazing and awestruck silence. At day’s end the sun would sink out of sight and the unknowable stars would appear as a luminous shawl drawn across the black dome of the night. For uncounted eons humans without college degrees would stare straight out through the ether and contemplate the impenetrable riddle of life. Why am I here? What am I? What is all this for?
Then came the Age of Enlightenment, known also as The Reductionist Downer. The Answer Men burst in clapping their hands like schoolmarms and began hollering explanations. Newton, Kant, Rousseau, Voltaire, Locke, the depressingly prescient Adam Smith, Hume; these overwrought smarty-pants knew it all, and they waved their remonstrative forefingers in our faces and scolded us for having been lame enough to be drawn to the ineffable. Suddenly the intellectual world was all about the Effable, excuse me. Western civilization, such as it was, involved itself in a search for the Knowable sub-basement.
Preincarnate Dorks Terrorize The Known World
Emboldened by the idea that a whole Age of Man would soon be named after their blabbermouth exploits, these rationalist thugs began lustily dismantling supernature itself, turning a flower (for example) into a numbingly explicable machine with a pistil, a stamen, a peduncle, and a bunch of other utterly practical, obscene-sounding parts. Okay, guys, we get it! Reason, reason, reason! Shaddup already! For about 150 years a steady and pressurized diet of Science, Logic, and Rational Self-Congratulation were pumped into the upturned yap of western civilization like boiled corn through a foie gras duck funnel. Scientific rigor became hip, (centuries later scientific rigor would earn one a beating by the swing set at recess, but for now the dorks were in the ascendant), religion became the fat, slow-moving target of the New Science Class, and lots of serious-looking guys in frankly pitiable wigs began the excited but slightly joyless business of slapping away mankind’s distracted thousand yard stare.
From this distance we can now say this has not been completely helpful. The Age of Enlightenment was never more ruinous than when it infected the Star Wars franchise in the bet-hedging Phantom Menace episode, wherein the previously mystical Force, once reverently described by Obi-Wan as a kind of unifying energy field of love, is awkwardly re-imagined as a side-effect of swarming amoeboid midichlorians in the Jedi plumbing. Yipee!!
Complainants: Please Take a Number
But what’s to complain about? These rationalists are on our side, right? We all want to get to the bottom of All This, right? Something happened back there during the Age of Reason, though. Empiricism adopted a know-it-all smirk. The very idea of an unknowable Creator-Thing brought on rationalist giggling, so much so that even when the Creator-Thing could be shown to be inanimate and unconscious but mechanically willful (see below), the guys got their Newtonian panties in a humanist bunch. Daydreaming and intuitive speculating were thrown out with the bathwater and later gently mocked in televised debates. Staring and free-associating fell out of fashion, sort of for all time. Big bummer, especially if you were a kid who spent most of his school day staring out the 3rd grade window at that one tree moving in the breeze. These questing Academic types would take a perfectly lovely Search for Meaning and turn it into a quantifiable search for meaning. If you think waterboarding is torture, try a little mortarboarding; the pedagogical pursuit of an Answer that is not fleet enough to outrun our consensus. It’s all in the joinery to these guys. This is most evident in the Creationism versus Evolution “debate”, wherein both sides synchronously embrace the unknowable. And don’t know it. A spectacle that is usually so annoying to watch, the irony sort of wanders away while you’re throwing your shoes at the dais.
Full disclosure; I believe in evolution (or something very like it, I guess) because, for reasons I can’t coherently explain, it makes some sense. But I’m both galled and amused by the condescension that typifies the Evolution Team’s demeanor in a discussion comparing the two world views. Why am I galled?
Because the scientific case for All This having been flung out of a literally unimaginable primordial explosion is as sublimely fabulist as a giant bearded ghost in a terrycloth robe.
“You don’t have to be a religious person to believe in miracles; you have to be a mathematician.”
You don’t have to be a religious person to believe in miracles; you have to be a mathematician. Given that this is all an explosive accident, the math stacks up spectacularly against our most secular intuitions. It seems at the very least extraordinary that the precise gravitational influences and weak nuclear forces and minutely calibrated attraction of subatomic doodads throughout the whole universe could not be altered by a whisker without screwing the precise conditions required to create life. The phenomenon has been called the Fine Tuned Universe. There is a set of six of these so-called ”Cosmic Coincidences” which are individually boggling to the scientific/mathematical mind, and which as a group of distinct, confluent and complementary improbabilities lead doctoral atheists to uncomfortable places.
The scale of the improbability of these half-dozen reality-constraining features all happening in the universe at the same time? Well, the improbability is such that, rather than accept these universal serial coincidences and the all-but-impossible lightning strike they suggest, many physicists see this as good a time as any to look for a bunch of other universes, so the odds of this one being perfectly tuned aren’t so impossible to fathom. And more specific to the evolution question is the numerically nonsensical Specified Complexity and Information Theory written into our stupidly complex but chemically legible genetic code. To sum up; as procreating living things, the least of us is a philosophically implausible supernova. At the very very (very) least.
Fine Tuning That Demands a Verdict
The monstrously implausible sequence of cosmic events to which we owe our existence is not entirely credible. The Anthropic Principle, which many in the scientific community are able to discuss without the tenure-jitters, even cautiously posits that the universe’s maddeningly perfect state of human-friendly quantum perfection may exist only to create the conditions which give rise to intelligent life. Why would this be? Because the universe needs us in order To Be. Or as physicist David Bailey has said regarding the Anthropic principle: “(The universe) cannot really be said to exist in a scientific sense, unless at some point in its history it spawns conscious observers.”
This is not a theist observation, but a mechanical one, but it begs a couple of those questions that give hard-line materialists what I call the Angry Giggles; that all-but-eye-rolling demeanor they radiate when asked to discuss or debate things you can’t touch, see, or empirically prove. The Anthropic Principle simply suggests the universe organically (unconsciously, to be clear) promulgates the conditions necessary to produce observers, that it may, by the very fact of their witness, exist. And this is a purely mechanistic model that needn’t involve G*d. This is not a philosophical game, but an attempt to make sense of something that frankly shouldn’t Be. There are six fundamental measures that undergird reality, which, taken together as cosmic happenstance, defy the basics of probability. To my mind, the Anthropic Principle is tantamount to a tire rolling down a hill. The universe is just doing what it has to.
Still, our race’s post Age of Enlightenment aversion to supernature and the Unknown has us clinging to a militant common sense that leaves little room for this sort of mathematical magic OR a Supreme Being, a So-So Being, or even a non-sentient mechanical process whose cosmological Wankel Rotary Engine only means to let the gears guide our omniverse to a necessary and possibly anti-climactic Cosmic Self-Regard. Let the Evolution gang chortle their way through as many televised debates as they want. It looks to me like the Creationists and Rationalists aren’t all that far apart, really – two sides of a loaded coin. It’s mostly nomenclature and ego. C’mon, Dawkins and Chopra. Can’t we just get along? Hold hands for the camera, boys, it won’t kill you. Okay…that’s more like it. Dawkins, can we get a smile out of you? Just a suggestion of a smile will do. Chopra, can you dial yours down a notch? Thanks. After all, this is California! There is plenty of enabling teleology to go around. And anyway, something is clearly happening Out There, and In Here. You guys agree and don’t know it. Or as Linda once memorably sang:
“You and I travel to the beat of a different drum…you can’t see the forest for the trees…”