Don Rogers: Nothing for an answer?
I have this theory that how we respond to the most basic question reveals everything about us.
Of course I got it from a book: “Why Does the World Exist?” The author, Jim Holt, calls it an existential detective story. I’ll go with lay person’s guide to our best thinking about nothing.
What is this thing, existence? Yours, mine, that table over there. Particles, waves, dark energy, vacuum, spooky quantum theory, mathematical symmetry, everything. Where did it all come from? How can something come from nothing?
This is no koan, no riddle, no exercise in semantics or rhetoric or logic. Wordplay won’t help. Neither will the right set of premises, scientific theory or scripture get to the very nub.
I love it. Precocious children have asked this ever since we’ve had language. And no doubt dads have deflected as my dad did and I did in my turn.
But everything we think we are as adults is contained in what we tell ourselves, or shrink from telling ourselves, about this question. This is the seed of our sense of purpose, our place in this world.
How we answer dictates how we live, what we think about, whom we love, our faith, maybe our politics, certainly what we find important, our capacity for imagination.
To be sure, plenty of intellectuals, theologians and dolts alike have found the question silly. And it is kind of beside the point.
Look around. We’re here. No real need to wonder why. It is what it is. Jeez. Grab a beer, watch the game. There’s one answer: Do something. Nothing can wait.
OK, so maybe this isn’t for everyone. I’ve had my share of weird looks bringing it up, obsessed when I first read the book in 2013.
But I’ve also had fascinating, bonding conversations over the mystery. We don’t all repel the question like magnets at bad ends.
I remember a campfire in South Lake Tahoe with old college friends, single malt in hand, stars above, warm and in wonderment together. And chance conversations, earnest ones, thoughtful, humorous, fun. One new acquaintance at a retirement party looked at me a little wide-eyed, like “so much for small talk, eh?” Then we got right into it.
Holt wrote this story for us. He scoured for the great tomes and traveled the globe to talk with today’s great thinkers about why there is something rather than nothing.
He gives us history, wit, theories including one about our existence being the creation of a hacker, the initial disbelief at the Big Bang, the nesting doll notion that if it all does come to God, where did God come from? Always was? Sure, that’s still something.
His work is readable, if demanding full focus. Holt was wise enough to write the story as an adventure finding and engaging with his sources as well as getting down what they had to say.
He ends in Paris with an anecdote about a preacher, a physicist and a monk he sees on a TV show. Each is asked the question. God, the preacher declares. Some quantum fluke, the physicist postulates. It always was nothing and is still nothing, mostly, the monk says with a smile.
None of these is any answer at all, really. Holt goes for a walk into the night, flicks a cigarette into a black river and that’s that. He leaves us with the journey, for me a wonderful read.
This simplest question is the great leveler. It renders the weirdest, most arcane cult’s theology on par with the most exact science to date. The densest soul on equal footing with the highest intellect. It might be the best case going for humility.
A child full of wonder can ponder it. An adult caught up in the world can shove it aside, yet there it remains, never far.
How we live with this paradox — the objective fact of the unanswerable — in wonder, in terror, trying to ignore it, convincing ourselves we really do know, well, that defines us. Says everything.
Pascal’s wager and Kierkegaard’s leap of faith are direct responses. Mysteries gnaw at us. We yearn to know. Often we make things up to feel like we do know. Sometimes scientific findings mess us up. The Big Bang did, at first. The politics in the scientific community were withering. But even Einstein eventually came off his “always there” pulpit.
Still, none of this has come to nothing. I’d say, if we’re rigorously honest, we know we don’t have the answer. But the question, our north star, gives us direction. If we guess all this is random, meaningless, we may go one way. Holy, another.
I think this question, this unanswerable question, makes life infinitely richer, more interesting. That’s something, at least. Better than nothing.
Don Rogers is the publisher of The Union, Lake Wildwood Independent, and Sierra Sun. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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