A few days ago scientists in Europe announced that they had detected gravitational waves and suggested that this was one of the most important discoveries in decades:
This is transformational, said Prof Alberto Vecchio, of the University of Birmingham, and one of the researchers at Ligo. We have observed the universe through light so far. But we can only see part of what happens in the universe. Gravitational waves carry completely different information about phenomena in the universe. So we have opened a new way of listening to a broadcasting channel which will allow us to discover phenomena we have never seen before.
This observation is truly incredible science and marks three milestones for physics: the direct detection of gravitational waves, the first detection of a binary black hole, and the most convincing evidence to date that nature’s black holes are the objects predicted by Einstein’s theory. (The Guardian 2.11.16)Last year scientists at Harvard reported that they had observed gravitational waves consistent with the Big Bang Theory. If the universe started with a massive explosion sending matter and energy out in all directions, then these waves would be the ‘smoking gun’ that researchers have looked for since Alan Guth predicted them 35 years ago.
These waves, however, are not just clear evidence that the Big Bang happened, but explain why it happened – how something could be created out of nothing.
Guth discovered what might have made the universe bang to begin with. A potential hitch in the presumed course of cosmic evolution could have infused space itself with a special energy that exerted a repulsive force, causing the universe to swell faster than the speed of light for a prodigiously violent instant. (Dennis Overbye, New York Times 3.24.14)Despite the excitement expressed in the scientific world at both discoveries, there was a noticeable lack of enthusiasm in most other quarters. The magnificence of God’s creation, his eternal presence, and the Kingdom of Heaven were miraculous enough for religious fundamentalists. Whatever scientists might discover about the workings of the universe, their response was always, “Of course”. God’s ways are not at all mysterious.
For those who do not believe in divine creation but in a chance configuration of energy and matter that produced our universe – one among many in an infinite spectrum of space-time – the discoveries were equally unimpressive. Technically, yes, they were a great achievement. Detecting waves of an impossibly small dimension over a space of billions of light years was indeed remarkable, and a tribute to human ambition, curiosity, intellectual energy, and mastery of technology.
For others the discovery was simply irrelevant.
Konstantin Levin, a main character in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, saw only irony in creation. Man was created with intelligence, creativity, insight, and ambition; but after only a few decades is consigned to eternity in the cold, hard ground of the steppes. He, however, despite the finality of that judgment, was never able to life comfortably with it; and for his whole life sought meaning.
Tolstoy himself, as he recorded in his memoir, A Confession, spent nearly fifty years studying history, philosophy, science, and religion trying to sort out life’s puzzle. Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s story of the same name finds after years of trying to avoid the question, that he is dying and like it or not faced with the meaning of his life and the finality of its end.
In other words, the search for meaning and the existential questions of life, death, and eternity are more than enough for most of us. Whether or not the universe was created in seven days or seven to an infinite power, our only interest is either or spiritual salvation or figuring out what’s what.
As Chekhov said in his short story Ward No. 6, the only reasons we are on earth is to search for understanding and to scorn vanity; and in that story he debated the issue of stoicism and suffering. Ragin has built his life on a stoic belief of random determinism. The dice are rolled, the cards are dealt; and one could as easily end up a doctor as a peasant. All people die regardless of wit, talent, or intelligence. All people suffer, and there is no point in intervening to alleviate misery. Ivan Dmitrich counters Ragin by saying that because Ragin never suffered, his stoicism will always be theoretical, academic, and therefore irrelevant. “You will howl when your finger is slammed in a door”, Ivan Dmitrich says.
This short story gets to the heart of the issue of scientific relevance. How does knowing that one’s mind is hardwired and that one’s actions are predictable; or that one’s bloodstream flows with hormones and enzymes that regulate temper, self-control, and sexual urges make any difference at all? Is the drama of Othello any more or less resonant because some strand of male DNA is programmed for jealousy? Or because some extra drip of testosterone drove him to believe the preposterous story that Cassio was bedding his wife? It doesn’t matter what internal mechanisms were propelling Othello to his doom. A door got slammed on his finger and he howled.
Some scientists have conjectured that jealousy is as much of a human survival instinct as food or sex. It is a protective mechanism which assures the integrity of lineage. Non-jealous men do not produce offspring. Basic reflexes – flight, fear, shock – are certainly pre-programmed; and sexuality, temperament, and intelligence may be dealt to us in our genes. But whether or not we are products of nature or nurture, our finger still hurts when it is caught in the door.
If it it weren’t hard enough to figure out what’s what within the context of philosophical nihilism or existentialism; the seeker for meaning has to contend with biological determinism. In Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, the Grand Inquisitor challenges the returned Christ, angry at his deceit of the human race. Men don’t want free will, the Inquisitor tells Christ, only miracles, mystery, and authority. There is increasing evidence – both genetic and historical – to show that human beings are hardwired, pre-programmed to act in predictable, repetitious ways. How can there be any meaning in a life in which there is no free will?
In other words, those who seek truth, meaning, or purpose are likely to come up empty; but for better or worse, looking for answers is part of our makeup. Astronomical discoveries are not what we need right now.
Thomas Hobbes famously observed that life is “"solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short". Some people search for meaning to make this life more tolerable. The Grand Inquisitor challenged Christ for creating suffering when he could have fashioned a far less punitive world. Suffering to anneal one’s faith or to prove one’s worthiness was no excuse, the Inquisitor said, when innocent children were caught in its universal misery. Yet those who want only miracles, mystery, and authority accept Christ’s words literally, and give themselves over to the Church and let it explain and mediate between them and their Savior.
There are those who are neither so flummoxed by life’s inconsistencies that they turn to God and the Church; nor retreat into nihilism and a passive acceptance of what is; nor continue to search for answers; but who find life exhilarating. They are indifferent to questions of why and have little interest in whence or whither. What is, despite its penury, misery, and hard slog, is still worth more than what if.
There was recently an exhibit of Audubon’s original paintings and Havel’s prints at the New York Historical Society in New York. Audubon had a remarkable eye, and his paintings depict not only an accurate record of the physical bird but depict something of its essence. He captures each bird’s grace, strength, repose, aggressiveness, and vigilance. Audubon is an artist, and he has stylized each painting to express his own personal vision.
There are now millions of birders in America, some of whom are searching for the spirit of Audubon, but others who are interested only in identifiable songs, habitat, markings, tail feathers, or coloring. They are the amateur army deployed at the unwritten request of the ornithological generals who are less interested in how birds look but why they look that way. They are the anti-Audubons.
There was also a recent exhibition of birds in classical Chinese paintings as compelling and moving as any of Audubon if not more.
Art, music, dance, and literature at least mitigate or alleviate the suffering that Christ inflicted; and at best are proof that Hobbes was not entirely right.
Gravitational waves, therefore, have very little meaning whatsoever. Their discovery may illuminate one corner of an infinite universe, but in time their existence will be eclipsed by some other astrophysical phenomenon. Science, like everything else is relative, conditioned by perception, culture, psychology, and history. Getting to the bottom of things may be impossible if only because human brains are not up to the task.
Once complete interface between brain and computer is achieved, we may be more able to decipher the formerly indecipherable, but we will still be faced with imponderables. In other words, we will still be in the same boat.
Live and let live, pray, see Audubon or listen to Bach. Read about gravitational waves in the paper, nod appreciatively, and go back to breakfast coffee and donuts.