Who are we? Where are we?
Here’s my current answer. I think I can put it in a four line stanza. And I suppose it’s what I might tell my children the next time one of them asks me:
At turns beautiful and terrifying,
Is dissipating to entropy
And we are its unwinding.
Isn’t that, basically, it?
Here’s how William Wordsworth, in his “Intimations of Immortality,” put it:
The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,
Hath had elsewhere its setting
And cometh from afar;
Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home . . .
Where did the ground of being—that is, the universe’s initial symmetry, physical laws, structure, and high informational state—come from? And why did it “bang” when it did (13.7 billion years ago) into this: a universe that is entropically running down and dispersing itself like heat spilling from an open oven?
This great heat dispersal, as it runs to cold, is taking its route through the perturbations of stars, planets, and us. Isn’t that wild? It’s as if a pot of boiling water, on its way to cooling, threw up, not just bubbles and steam, but flowers and balloons.
To echo Blake, what (or who) framed this fearful symmetry?
Is this unfolding of an exploded symmetry happening the way it is by chance? Or might there be a mind—that is, God—behind all this complexity, physical law, and order?
I don’t know.
The psalmist thought that he knew the answer (Ps. 102:25-26):
Of old hast thou laid the foundation of the earth;
and the heavens are the work of thy hands.
They shall perish, but thou shalt endure;
yea, all of them shall wax old like a garment.
The intuition that an extraordinary mind precedes matter, and that matter is running to entropy, is an old one, and it’s hard to say that contemporary physics really contradicts it. Indeed, physics basically says that a symmetry of mind-boggling mathematical complexity is unfolding via entropy. The psalmist, in short, is certainly not sitting on a dead thesis. But if the universe is eternal, and has, for example, been “big banging” and “big crunching” forever and ever, then, sooner or later, perhaps everything is inevitable—including us. David Hume, who seems to have addressed just about every great philosophical question, and to have spoken to each of them better than most anybody else, wrote this:
Many worlds might have been botched and bungled throughout an eternity, ere this system was struck out.
So what’s the proper response to the question of whether the ground of being resides in a Great Mathematical Mind or the blind goddess Fortuna (chance)?
The poet AR Ammons once wrote that the universe has no floor, “but we walk the floor.” Upon what ground (or floor) dances this woman, really?