Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine
Longing for Absolutes in a Relative World
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I understood the powerful allure of the Absolutes—ethereal things that are all-encompassing, unchangeable, eternal, sacred.
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qualities of permanence and changelessness, ubiquity, perfection. All refer to an enduring and fixed reference point that can anchor and guide us through our temporary lives.
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Unprovability is a central feature of all Absolutes. Yet I did not need any proof of what I felt during that summer night in Maine looking up at the sky. It was a purely personal experience, and its validity and power resided in the experience itself.
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The unattainable Absolutes might also be considered our ultimate strivings, the best and most beautiful we can imagine.
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the Absolutes have been challenged rather than disproved, because the notions of the Absolutes cannot be disproved any more than they can be proved. The Absolutes are ideals, entities, beliefs in things that lie beyond the physical world. Some may be true and some false, but the truth or falsity cannot be proven.
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From all the physical and sociological evidence, the world appears to run not on absolutes but on relatives, context, change, impermanence, and multiplicity. Nothing is fixed. All is in flux.
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In aesthetics and culture, we have long been accustomed to the absence of absolute standards—that is, we more or less accept aesthetic and cultural relativism, the dependence on context.
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we have found no physical evidence for the Absolutes. And just the opposite. All of the new findings suggest that we live in a world of multiplicities, relativities, change, and impermanence. In the physical realm, nothing persists. Nothing lasts. Nothing is indivisible. Even the subatomic particles found in the twentieth century are now thought to be made of even smaller “strings” of energy, in a continuing regression of subatomic Russian dolls. Nothing is a whole. Nothing is indestructible. Nothing is still.
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How could it be that the exquisite and indescribable experience of consciousness, of thought and emotion, of the overpowering sense of an “I,” is simply the result of so many electrical and chemical flows between neurons, which are themselves nothing but atoms and molecules? I am constantly struck dumb by this mystery.
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whether living matter has some special quality not present in nonliving matter, some nonmaterial essence or spirit that is associated with life, especially intelligent life. The two sides of the debate have been called the “vitalists” and the “mechanists.” Mechanists believe that a living creature is just so many microscopic pulleys and levers, chemicals and currents—all subject to the known laws of chemistry and physics and biology. Vitalists, on the other hand, argue that there is a special quality of life—some immaterial or spiritual or transcendent force—that enables a jumble of tissues and chemicals to vibrate with life. That transcendent force would be beyond physical explanation. Some call it the soul. The ancient Greeks called it pneuma, meaning “breath” or “wind.” In the Christian Bible, pneuma means “spirit,” as in “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit (pneuma), he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.” Qi in the Chinese tradition. Prana in the Indian. In all of these cultures, this transcendent invisible energy, this pneuma, is associated with the magic of life. The pneuma rests cozily in the home of the Absolutes.
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Why do we create systems and patterns? Are those patterns already there, independent of our desires, or do we impose them on a chaotic universe in order to scratch some existential itch? Could it be that we crave order for sanity?
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Gestalt psychologists. Those thinkers hold that we naturally and unavoidably tend to organize all experience into meaningful patterns. When a picture of random dots is presented to us, we parse it into figures and background. When we see a broken circle, we mentally complete the circle. When we see odd behavior in people, we struggle to place it within some rational system.
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I think I see patterns and meaning in the moment. But not beyond. Maybe the moment is all there is. Maybe I should just gather my clamshells and be quiet. The exquisite experience of joy—when I am completely consumed by a pleasurable activity such as conversation with good friends or good food or laughing with my children—is certainly one of the moment. But for some reason, I and many of my fellow travelers are not satisfied with the moment. The Now isn’t enough. We want to go beyond the moment. We want to build systems and patterns and memories that connect moment to moment to eternity. We long to be part of the Infinite.
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The project of science is to make accurate predictions about the measurements of rulers and clocks, the outcome of experiments.
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Einstein had few loyalties and commitments—none to pre-existing science, none to social norms of behavior, none to his teachers, none to organized religion, none to his country. None to any of the Absolutes (except to his faith in a lawful cosmos). Einstein rejected the possibility of life after death, immortality, permanence in the material world. If he believed in God, it was not a personal God, concerned with the affairs of human beings. Yet Einstein, like Spinoza, did believe in a majestic order in the universe.
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“Try and penetrate with our limited means the secrets of nature and you will find that, behind all the discernible laws and connections, there remains something subtle, intangible, and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything we can comprehend is my religion.”
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The transcendent moment in science is both inner and outer. You travel deep into your own imagination and being, and you are totally alone with the experience. At the same time, you find something that is larger than yourself, that exists in the world outside of yourself. It is a double discovery. It is a discovery of something inside of your mind and also of something out there in the world, a pattern, a law, a piece of the fabric of nature. Despite the relativity of the world, you sense something enduring, something at rest.
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As the seconds tick by, I breathe one breath at a time. I inhale, I exhale. These spruces and cedars I cherish and know, the wind, the sweet scent of moist and dark soil—these are my small sense of enlightenment, my past life and present life and future life all in one moment.