Peace In Unchanging Things

The other day I found myself reading Spinoza’s Ethics and I came across a quote which really jumped out at me.

spinoza

He argued that we should only attach ourselves to things which are eternal and incorruptible, the best thing being the laws of nature.  He looked around him and saw that all things on Earth decay, all empires eventually fail, and that we all age and die.  He says, “Look at how much pain we have by attaching ourselves to fickle individuals for love.”  But the laws of nature felt different to him.  He would look up to the stars and imagined that there was this eternal clockwork running the universe and that it was eternal and unchanging.  He put his faith in that.

Considering the information available to him at the time, I can see why he thought the way he did.  He saw the universe as this pristine, unfailing machine, always in operation, eternal and unchanging.  When you compare that to anything we humans try to build, just the idea of being a part something that is truly eternal can be calming.  Unfortunately it’s just a thought.  We’ve learned more about the universe since then, and we physicists don’t really see the universe in that way anymore.  If Spinoza knew all of the physics and cosmology we do today, I don’t think he’d find the same peace in that line of thought.

High energy physics along with cosmology is leading us to something physicists call eternal inflation.  Basically, an infinite number of bubble universes are coming in and out of existence, all with different laws of physics, and every possibility can happen or will happen an infinite number of times.

With this in mind, what does it mean to believe in the laws of nature?  That anything is possible?  That all things are happening or will happen?  I don’t know.  It’s not exactly comforting because there are bad possibilities along with all the good ones.  Every possibility, mundane or profound, horrible or beautiful, it’s all happening over and over and over, an infinite number of times.

Quantum field theory, which is our most accurate description of physical reality to date, represents all the matter composing our world as vibrations (excited states) of these fields which interact with one another.  Universes can essentially come out of the void, from nothing.  When physical matter is created, that has a positive energy balance and the gravitational fields in the space between the matter has negative energy.  If you add up the gravitational field energy with that of the physical matter, you get a zero energy balance, so it all works out.

The same idea applies to motion.  For every chunk of matter spinning one way, there is another chunk of matter spinning the other way.  If there is a galaxy spinning clockwise, there’s another equally massive galaxy spinning the other way.  Electrical charges also work this way.  For every positive charge there is a negative charge.  If you add them all up, you get zero net charge.  For every this there’s and equal and opposite that.  A yin and a yang.

Considering all of this, I suppose you could argue that all of this may be eternal, but incorruptible?  Everything seems very transient and ephemeral to me.

I have more to say about all of this, but I’ll have to write up another post.

I’m An Agnostic

I consider myself an agnostic.  I don’t know whether God exists, what forces created our universe, or how it all began.  I don’t know if those ideas are even relevant to the universe and what it is.

I wanted to share two videos from two prominent thinkers of our time.  This first video is the Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind discussing his agnosticism.  Considering he’s one of the founders of string theory, a scientist at the forefront of our knowledge of cosmology and the universe, you may expect him to take a really strong stance like, “We can explain how the universe began without needing a creator.”  But you don’t see him doing that.  He has no idea if this universe had a creator or not.   He feels we humans probably lack the intelligence to even ask the right questions to begin with.  Our minds can’t even comprehend what this universe actually is.

In this next video, the naturalist David Attenborough gives a really interesting analogy.  He explains how he often would encounter termite mounds and would open the top.  Since the termites lacked the sense organs, they had no way of knowing he was even there.  He feels that our position in the universe is similar.  There may be all kinds of things going on around us for which we lack the sense organs to perceive.  There may even be intelligent entities watching us without us knowing.  How would we know?  We’re like the termites.

If you combine the positions in these two videos, you can get a good idea about how I feel about these sorts of big questions.  I simply don’t know.  There are some things I know and other things I don’t know.  Some things I’m more sure of than others.  That’s about all there is to say.