Probable Impossibilities: Musings on Beginnings and Endings
Between Nothingness and Infinity
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In our minds, we have the power to combine things that we’ve seen in our paltry experience to create spectacular apparitions never before encountered, and even things that do not exist.
Highlight(blue) - What Came Before the Big Bang? > Page 27 · Location 406
There are no definite cause-and-effect relationships in the quantum world, only probabilities.
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the feeling of selfhood, of thinking and emotion, of self-awareness, of “I-ness” is so overwhelming, so absolutely unique, so impossible to explain, that it seems incomprehensible such a sensation could be rooted completely in material atoms and molecules.
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The British philosopher Colin McGinn has argued that we can never understand consciousness because we can never get outside of our minds to do the analysis. We are necessarily trapped within three pounds of moist gray matter, thinking and perceiving within that constraint.
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we cannot think outside of our minds.
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Evidently, what we perceive as “paying attention” to something originates, at the cellular level, in the synchronized firing of a group of neurons, whose rhythmic electrical activity rises above the background chatter of the vast neuronal crowd.
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Isn’t the experience of consciousness and Self an illusion caused by those trillions of neuronal connections and electrical and chemical flows? If you don’t like the word illusion, then you can stick with the sensation itself. You can say that what we call the Self is a name we give to the mental sensation of certain electrical and chemical flows in our neurons. That sensation is rooted in the material brain. And
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The Self and consciousness, I think, are names we give to the sensations produced by all of those electrical and chemical flows.
Highlight(blue) - The Ghost House of My Childhood > Page 77 · Location 1202
When I last visited the house, two years ago, my father was waiting to greet me. He sat in the den in his wheelchair, wearing a warm sweater even in April and soft bedroom slippers, an open book on his lap. I turn onto West Cherry Circle, drive past familiar houses. Flowers are blooming, it’s spring. But something is wrong. The house isn’t here. There’s a hole in space where the house used to be. Slowly, I inch up the driveway and park the car. Something is terribly wrong. I feel as if I’m not in my body any longer. My body is a distant, cold moon. There was a two-story house here, with pink brick walls and a porch with white posts and dormer windows. I can see right through the empty air to bushes and trees on the other side. And on the ground where the house was, new grass. Not a single brick or splinter or piece of debris. Slowly, I get out of my car, a knot forming in my gut, somebody’s gut, and I walk around the patch of grass where the house used to be. The space is too small. I stare at the driveway, follow it with my eyes as it winds down to the street, curves by the towering magnolia around which my brothers and I once chased one another with a gushing garden hose. I stare at the neighboring houses, the fence at the back of the lot, thinking that somehow I’ve made a mistake. I take a step back, blink. But there is only the silent, dead air. There was a house here. There was a cosmology of lives lived here, meals of fried chicken and mashed potatoes at the wood table in the kitchen, closets of clothes, drawers, homework by the light of the maroon double lamp, cops and robbers games with my brothers, my father shaving in the morning, evenings watching TV. I try to put the house back where it was, the kitchen, the bedrooms, the closets, my father practicing his guitar, my mother dressing in front of her long mirror. I try to will it into solidity. It was here. Some careless god has cut the ribbon of my life. The sixty-five years of the past, and the remaining years of my future. The piece that was the past has slipped away into black eternity, or perhaps into nothingness. Until this moment, I was sure that the past was still present, caught in the spaces between things, in photos, in books, in places my body had been. I try to spool back time in my mind. I walk to a spot near a disheveled azalea. Here, in this empty corner of air, I remember waking up with a bad dream and getting into my brother’s bed beside him. Our beds were six feet apart, a desk against the wall, a closet, a white woolly rug on the floor. Here, where I am standing at this moment. And over there, I remember helping my father get the boat paddles out for a trip to the lake. Second floor. A closet with a dangling bulb for light. And there, the mahogany secretary with the leather-bound books, where my mother wrote letters in her back-slanted script. I can see her sitting there at the desk in her bathrobe, twitching her legs nervously under her chair.
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Neurobiologists say that memory isn’t the replay of a video camera, but instead a pastiche of neuronal fragments gathered from here and there, wandering smells, oddly cut visual scraps, translucent experiences laid on top of one another. It’s all in the electrical currents and flow of particular molecules.
Highlight(blue) - In Defense of Disorder > Page 82 · Location 1274
the most basic fact of aesthetic experience, the fact that delight lies somewhere between boredom and confusion.” Too much order, we lose interest. Too much disorder, and there’s nothing to be interested in.
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throughout history most of us have considered ourselves and other life-forms to contain some special, nonmaterial essence that is absent in nonliving matter and that obeys different principles.
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In our extraordinarily entitled position of being not only living matter but conscious matter, we are the cosmic “observers.” We are uniquely aware of ourselves and the cosmos around us. We can watch and record. We are the only mechanism by which the universe can comment on itself.
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I have argued that our bodies and brains are nothing more than material atoms and molecules, we have created our own cosmos of meaning.
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We are inescapably trapped within the network of neurons whose mysterious experience we attempt to analyze. Likewise, I would argue that we are imprisoned within our own cosmos of meaning. We cannot imagine a universe without meaning.
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Life and all complex structures require the larger atoms such as carbon and oxygen and nitrogen. (Even computers, which may someday be deemed alive, require heavy elements in the form of silicon.) The smallest atoms, hydrogen and helium, simply do not have enough structural components to build much of anything. We have a great deal of evidence that the larger atoms were made in the nuclear fusion reactions in stars. The first stars, in turn, could not form until the universe was about one billion years old, as they required a slow condensation and contraction of giant clouds of gas. So the beginning of the “era of life” was around one billion years after the Big Bang.
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the evolving universe, as scientists believe they understand it, lasts for something like 82 powers of ten, while the era of life occupies only 3 powers of ten.
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I would argue that we “conscious” beings share something more during our relatively brief moment in the “era of life”: the ability to witness and reflect on the spectacle of existence, a spectacle that is at once mysterious, joyous, tragic, trembling, majestic, confusing, comic, nurturing, unpredictable and predictable, ecstatic, beautiful, cruel, sacred, devastating, exhilarating. The cosmos will grind on for eternity long after we’re gone, cold and unobserved. But for these few powers of ten, we have been. We have seen, we have felt, we have lived.
Highlight(blue) - The Man Who Knows Infinity > Page 124 · Location 1984
Particle physicists study nature at the smallest sizes, while cosmologists study it at the largest.
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I would hate to die just being a physicist. I enjoy photography. That allows me to feel another part of my brain. There is something beyond physics that is not measurable… Photography is my art. You need to have a first priority and then a second priority. When I was sixty, someone gave me a camera. With a camera, you can produce beauty. I can produce things that are better than what I see in museums. You see, I am now talking like an arrogant American. I am producing images that make my heart sing—both my photographs and the computer graphics illustrating inflation. I am among the first to see the beauty in it.