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Deep Questions

When we ask deep questions, at first it seems that the answers can be found by digging, by extending our usual explorations to greater depth.  However, when we persist, we always find something totally unexpected, and qualitatively different.  And then we realize that the “totally other” forms the basis for the world we thought we knew.  This is the greatest surprise.  And in this way, we realize that our everyday view of the world and of ourselves was never more than a summary picture, convenient for getting around in our daily life, but only a story, worse than inaccurate, in fact totally wrong in its essence.

When we asked about the structure of the universe, it became clear, first, that neither the Earth nor the Sun are in the center of the Universe.  For a few hundred years our understanding of our Universe offered a picture that grew ever vaster in space and time.  But then we began to understand that our Universe had originated in a Big Bang, in the tiniest of beginnings, possibly at the origin of time itself.  We can now trace the initial footprint of our own galaxy back to a space smaller than that of an atom.

When we asked about the structure of matter, we found all matter to be made out of atoms, which in turn are made up out of just a few particles: protons, neutrons, and electrons.  All properties of different materials are caused not by differences in substance, but rather differences in configurations of the same building blocks.  And what is more, these building blocks behave and are related to each other in a totally different way than physicists expected at first.  Quantum mechanics tells us that there is only one electron field, in which each individual electron appears as a different wave in the same ocean.

When we asked about the structure of life, we found all forms of life that we have ever met to be related, stemming from a shared origin.  The huge diversity we see around us shields for our eyes the commonality of the basic structure and mechanism of operation of each living cell.  Every detail of our skeleton and organs and anything that makes up our body has been sculpted and refined in a slow planet-wide experiment of testing for efficiency, a process that has stretched out over hundreds of millions of years.

When we asked about the structure of our mind, it became clear that we are only aware of a small sliver of what makes us tick, and that there is a vast amount of unconscious processing that results in what little it is that we are consciously aware of.  Just as the blueprint of our bodies has been refined over the ages, so has our mind been shaped in a slow process of adaptation and innovation.  Who we think we are and what we think the world is, does not so much reflect reality as it reflects the complex processes of natural selection.

This is, in a nutshell, the magnificent story that science has told us, so far.  The furthest galaxies share a subatomic origin.  All subatomic particles share a single field that spans the universe.  All forms of life known to us share a single ancestor.  And all these insights now take shape in a mind not designed for insight but bred for survival.

This last point implies that we have no guarantee at all that our insights reflect the nature of reality.  In fact, many contemplatives in vastly different times and cultures have told us something similar: that even our most refined insights are part of a far-flung story, produced by but not reflecting reality.

It is my guess that the scientific journey will continue to yield even deeper surprises.  After showing us the intrinsic relatedness of the way in which space, time, matter, life and mind appear, I expect science to throw light on the nature of appearance itself.  If such a revolution were to happen, it would go deeper than the Copernican or Darwinian revolutions, or anything science has found so far, and the implications would be wider and even more shocking.

Just as technologies, such as metallurgy and alchemy, have foreshadowed aspects of later scientific insights, so I presume contemplative traditions to foreshadow aspects of scientific insights that are yet to be discovered.  And while we cannot know in detail which parts will turn out to have played this role, we can safely predict that those parts have nothing to do with particular cultural habits and trappings in terms of rituals and rules.  The best way I can think of for catching a glimpse of a future science is to sift through past contemplative traditions to find those rare gems of insight that are most tradition-independent.

Piet, 7/31/06.

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