Monday, January 4, 2016

The Great Mystery

Okay, so once upon a time our ancestors attributed everything to god:

Equivalently, they considered "god" to be the cause of everything:

Today we're smarter than that. We know that things happen for a reason:

Wait, but how does the electromagnetic force work? As the inimitable Richard Feynman explains, we can't really explain it in terms of anything simpler:

This applies to basically everything:

For any statement, you can ask the question "why?", and there are only two possible outcomes:

1. Why?
 a. Because X.
   ii. Why X?
      => Goto 1!
 b. We don't know!

In graphic form:

In other words, ALL the leaf nodes of any "why?" diagram must be "???", because for any other node, we can keep asking "why?" until we cannot get an answer. It is the only base case in this recursion.

Even if we discover a new fundamental force, the situation is the same:

But we can of course invert the diagram as before:

Now, you might object to this inversion: the details of "???" may not be the same in all cases, so why are we treating it as if they were?

Well, we're not saying that the same unnamed thing is responsible for everything we see in the world. We're saying that existence is, at its root, mysterious. No matter how many boxes and arrows we draw, we can always trace them back to the place where we simply don't know

Often this sense of mystery is hand-waved away, by explaining that as science makes progress, we'll figure each of these things out. But this misses the point: as each of those things is figured out, they just create more arrows back to "???", not fewer! Far from "closing in on the answer", we're ever-expanding the scope of the great mystery.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” 
"If you try and penetrate with your limited means the secrets of nature, you will find that, behind all the discernible concatenations, there remains something subtle, intangible and inexplicable. Veneration for this force beyond anything that we can comprehend is my religion. To that extent I am, in point of fact, religious." 
-- Einstein 

‘The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.’ -- Werner Heisenberg
"The bad news is you're falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute.The good news is there's no ground." -- Chogyam Trungpa (Buddhist master)

If you don't like the word "God," feel free to substitute "???" or "the great mystery." It may not explain anything, but if it tickles your sense of profound awe, it has served a great purpose.

(Relatedly: awe is the emotion most directly linked to compassion.)