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To the Ends of the Earth

First, a definition:

Dilettante: noun; an amateur who dabbles in many things in a superficial way and professes knowledge beyond his means.

How things really are is a notion, more than a bunch of facts that one can tick off on oneís fingers. Reality is just too complicated for simple descriptions. Iíve read that in Jeffersonís time, an educated person might know everything there was to know about everything. I doubt that, but itís clear that weíre finding the universe much more complex than we used to think.

Itís certainly much more complex than I used to think. In a way, thatís dismaying. The horizon of my knowledge keeps receding before me like the mirage it really is. So in a way itís reassuring when I read something about how much nobody knows and might never know.

Iíve been re-reading Steven Hawkingís A Brief History of Time, the classic explanation of the history of the universe (which is, of course, also the history of time). I know Iíve read it before, or most of it, but I cannot remember having read many of the things I find so astonishing this time around. I suppose thatís the mark of the dilettante; one who doesnít fully learn anything deeply. Mea culpa.

The beginning of time, according to the currently accepted "Big Bang" theory, occurred millions of years ago. Before that, there simply wasnít any time. I find that hard to get my mind around. The Big Bang is a boundary of time. In his book, Hawking gives his reasons for not completely going along with the "The Big Bang" theory:

"Iíd like to emphasize that this idea that time and space should be finite . . . is just a proposal: it cannot be deduced from some other principle. Like any other scientific theory, it may initially be put forward for aesthetic or metaphysical reasons, but the real test is whether it makes predictions that agree with observation. This, however, is difficult in the case of quantum gravity, . . ." (From there, he gets rather technical.)

Hawking and his peers in the scientific community have been studying what we know about the nature of things in the universe, and have uncovered a vast territory undreamed of in Jeffersonís time. One thing that theyíre pretty sure of is Einsteinís discovery that time and space are inseparably interlocked and, whatís more, they are curved. Thatís hard for me to visualize, but all right. Iíll keep reading, and maybe it will become clearer to me.

He illustrates the concept of curved space-time by pointing to the earth and showing why our maps can never be completely accurate because they are two-dimensional representations of a three-dimensional surface. A straight line traced in any direction on the surface of the earth must be curved in space. Not only that, it has no actual end point. Its length is infinite. The four dimensions of space-time, taken together, are like that. And therefore, a time line cast backward from our present will never arrive at a "beginning," because "beginning" is merely a concept. Itís a boundary that doesnít really exist,

"To the ends of the earth," also supposes a boundary that doesnít exist. Most of us realize that fact but still find the expression useful. We mean something like "unending." Most of us have tried to visualize this line drawn on the ground that goes off past the horizon to a place we canít even imagine.

"When does life begin?" is another example. Some people feel that the actual beginning of a life is important to point to, in order to defend a legal or moral opinion. Itís become a controversial issue in identifying a boundary, in time, of an individual person. A case can be made that the boundary is at the moment of conception, upon the joining of a sperm and an egg. Unfortunately for that opinion, we have found that itís possible to begin a life without such a joining. That fact creates a question about the boundary, a question of fact. Another case, just as logical, can be made for specifying the beginning of a person as the moment of birth. The United States Supreme Court has essentially defined it as the moment when the individual has developed to the point where he or she could survive unassisted outside the womb. These are all simply opinions. Important as the question might be, there may be no answer that is grounded in fact.

A case can also be made for the claim that life does not have a clear boundary at all. My identity as an individual is rather fuzzy if I consider that the living DNA molecules of my parentsóa necessary aspect of life itselfódid not begin with me, nor even with them. Iím baked from a sourdough starter that began so long ago that itís like "the ends of the earth." I cannot point to a moment when my life began because prior life was necessary to my development. Iím just a new blossom on a very old vine.

It seems, then, that the beginning of life has to beófor the moment, anywayóan arbitrary distinction. Some people may find that idea troubling, but when I think about it deeply, itís just another conundrum.

Just because something cannot be proved scientifically does not mean that it is necessarily untrue. Some other avenue must be used to verify it. Moral and legal questions are of a different sort from scientific questions. They are issues of value, rather than of fact, and depend only upon agreement by a group of people. Given that agreement, and within that context, they are true. Science, valuable as it is in other circumstances, could be here almost irrelevant.

We seem to have a built-in need for certainty. We draw conclusions from whatever experiences we have, and after a while think those conclusions are made from stone. (That previous sentence is just such a conclusion.) We canít depend, forever, on anything. Uncertainty is a lot more prevalent in the universe than is certainty. Whatís important to me is to learn as much as I can, and stay open to new information. As soon as I dig in my heels and declare an end to discovery, I open myself to eventual rude awakenings.

Dilettantismófeeding our minds on the scraps of those who are truly knowledgeableóis for me better than settling for perpetual bewilderment. I want to keep reaching toward that horizon, nebulous as it isóto the ends of the earth.

August 10, 2006

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