What I Believe and Why, Part 2

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Course Ideas / Reflections / Science

[Part 1]

The biggest challenge of my young life was finding my way to a meaningful existence. Like all children I wanted to enjoy myself and have fun, but something about this desire required companions, and from an early age I discovered true companions were hard to come by. My settings as a being have always been oriented towards introspection, and because I was gifted intellectually and also fairly athletic, and perhaps because of other factors, it was not easy to find friends whose own proclivities and sensibilities dovetailed with my own. At any time in my life, my close friends could typically be counted on one hand. And it’s true, of course: at times I was lonely.

In the third grade, after my family moved from Anniston, Alabama to Birmingham, at one point my mother put me on a train to travel back to Anniston to spend three or four days with a good friend I’d made there. My friend David and I did this all through elementary school and into high school—we got together for large chunks of time at one or the other’s house and did everything together, nonstop, for days on end. We invented our own D&D style dice games. We snuck onto the golf course across the street from his house and played frisbee in the morning dew. Sprinting full speed down an open fairway with your head focused on the sky, knowing you could run until your lungs burst without hitting a single obstacle, was an ecstatic experience. We’d go from playing frisbee to playing video games on floppy discs to writing computer programs to conducting mad experiments with those childhood chemistry sets you could get through the mail to playing basketball to whatever.

Those times were precious, but overall a life of meaning was difficult to sustain, and I insulated myself from a strange and uncertain world by focusing most of my attention on playing soccer. That became my identity. I trained nearly every day in my driveway, learned to pass and shoot accurately with either foot, traveled to tournaments, read snippets of all the leagues around the world, went to camps in the summer, watched older kids play, splattered the walls of my room with posters of European stars. I immersed myself in it and soon my handful of friends were those with whom I played soccer. My teachers saw potential in me, and used to encourage me to do different projects at school—they thought I was languishing or something by doing well but not applying myself—but I wasn’t interested at all. I could have given two hoots about DNA. Chemistry and biology were painful, but necessary parts of the curriculum.

And then I took physics in high school, and I loved it.

It was probably the first science class I took that wasn’t about memorization, first of all. It was about problem-solving. Physics was about the regularity of the universe. You typically start out with the study of dynamics: cannon ball flight, bouncing balls, balls traveling around curved tracks and spinning wheels. What you discover is that by following the energy content of a given projectile, you can predict with sublime accuracy what it will do next. You discover the universe behaves as if it is able to maintain an astoundingly complex energy accounting system, active simultaneously and instantaneously at all points and upon every physical interaction at every scale. Energy can transform from one type into another–a thrown ball can scuff the ground and slow down, but some of the energy associated with that lost velocity will become a spinning motion, and some will become heat–but the energy itself cannot be created or destroyed. This was incredible to me. I loved it.

I tried to think in writing this piece what the big deal about that was, and I think at its most essential and most visceral, it was the realization that the universe exhibits a particular type of causeless order. The rules that allow us to perform the energy accounting of moving objects are not reducible to other physical necessities, meaning, the universe is clearly the way that it is but there is no obvious reason it should be that way and not some other way. That is what I mean by suggesting its nature is causeless. It’s most essential qualities cannot be explained. So while our universe exhibits a particular type of order, I could certainly imagine others.

Consider a universe consisting of twenty bouncy balls in a box. Because the balls have consistent properties, they bounce reliably and consistently. That is the universe in which we live. We do not think it strange, for instance, that a bouncy ball doesn’t suddenly change its mass or its elasticity. All the bouncy balls in the universe you and I live in have the mass that they have, except for what off-gases into the atmosphere when the sun shines on them, or what smears onto the concrete when we throw them as hard as we can against the pavement. They don’t spontaneously get more or less dense while they’re sitting on the shelf. And the conservation of energy applies in our universe applies to each bouncy ball, individually and collectively, and instantaneously, all the time. Because bouncy balls don’t change their intrinsic properties, and because the energy accounting of the universe applies to all bouncy balls, wherever they go, we can predict exactly how they will behave. When two balls collide, there is one and only one outcome possible, and we can predict exactly what it will be if we know enough about the velocity, elasticity, spin, texture and weight of the balls before they collide.

Appropriate responses are awe, fascination, getting up from your chair and shouting “Eureka!”—“Hot Damn!” being a reasonable alternative—or shrugging your shoulders. Some people don’t find this all that remarkable really. I thought it was astounding. What if, in another world, the conservation of energy only applied to the set of bouncy balls, and not to each one individually? What if, for instance, bouncy balls randomly became heavier or lighter without changing their velocity when this change happened. That would mean they suddenly had more or less energy essentially. So, all of a sudden a bouncy ball traveling at 60 miles per hour (roughly 30 meters per second) goes from an inertial weight of 1 ounce to 1 pound. What if it did this randomly? That would be a little beguiling. What if at the instant this occurred all the other nineteen balls in the box went from weighing an ounce to weighing a fraction of an ounce, so that the energy accounting was always and instantaneously preserved for the set?

Such a universe would also exhibit a conservation of energy, only it would do so a little differently than ours. That’s just not how our universe works, but there’s no reason it couldn’t. So physics for me was a revelation: we could see the character of our universe. And our universe was remarkably, astoundingly consistent and reliable. That tickled my fancy pretty good.

Hot damn!

You either grasp this moment of awe, or you don’t. Either existence itself is mind-blowing when you stop to think about it, or it is not. The notion that things all around us—obvious things, things we take for granted because they are the given properties of this world—are utterly incredible and incomprehensible even as they are perfectly ordered and consistent, is not a notion that fries everyone’s circuits. As I progressed through adolescence, it fried mine.

But physics had little to offer when it came to living a meaningful life. Physics, in fact, could not be used to derive meaning at all. At least for me. If I said, maybe this unique type of order is evidence of a loving God, and I tried to stitch together the givens of my childhood with the givens of my adolescence, I found I was trespassing in both directions. I was reading into things suppositions that simply weren’t there, that weren’t supported. And I could understand why.

Science, as much as I loved it, and dragged myself out of bed for a 7:30 AM Physics lecture for five days a week for each week of my freshman year of college–talk about a ridiculous freshman year–had nothing to offer when it came to feeling split down the middle, or overcoming my depression, or understanding how people of various beliefs could ever achieve a peaceful world. It had nothing to say about the psychology of empire-building, or racism, or the sexual objectifying of persons, or having an internship at a water heater factory that left me with the distinct feeling of being a rat in a cage, turning that little wheel. The things the world valued were hollow. The world felt magnificent at its core, but sick at every point. An indulgent wasteland. A trap that you couldn’t escape. A vortex of shortsightedness and selfishness in which a single person was futile.

I didn’t really belong to any of the worlds I was in. I was out of place, uncertain, and confused. I had little choice but to formulate and seek to answer a deeper set of questions.

28 Comments

  1. As always, Michael, a beautifully written piece, for which many thanks. I have to say, I never quite understand what’s connoted or signified in your use of the term ‘meaning’, though doubtless that’ll become clearer as we progress in this series. For now, I’m assuming it to be something akin to ‘a sense of purpose’; am I far off the mark with that? As to the point you raise about subjective responses to the world — “Some people don’t find this all that remarkable really.” — then it is interesting how varied our emotional and psychological takes can be on what may objectively be considered monumental or potentially transformative experiences. The field of spiritual seeking demonstrates this point vividly, it has seemed to me over the years, anticipations in some being built up in expectation of ecstatic feelings, or to dwell in oases of serenity. Yet it might just as well come out in others, to use your apt words, as “shrugging your shoulders”. For myself, then studying (questionable verb) physics at school never reduced me to tears of gratitude or ecstasy, but then I’m a hopeless shoulder shrugger. 🙂 Many thanks once again, my noble friend.

    Liked by 6 people

    • Hello Hariod,

      Your question of what is implied by the term meaning is a very important one I think. I’m glad you asked as addressing it seems relevant to the entire series. Instead of suggesting it is akin to a sense of purpose, I’d rather say it signifies the awareness of relatedness. Meaning is akin to a sense of connection, of knowing and being known. A few examples may help in clarifying perhaps, though examples are difficult as well.

      If I work in a factory for owners who never visit the place, and I am not known for who I am–I am just a cog in a machine–then it doesn’t feel very meaningful. Although I have learned from working in a factory that I can find meaning in such a setting in any number of ways, including internally, within myself, through focusing on doing the best job that I can, still it boils down to relationship. In this case, through meditative practices or simply by focusing on the goodness of being present in the act of assembling a device, I am coming into relationship with myself, with the moment, with the activity. But in general, being a cog in a machine engenders the sensation of meaninglessness.

      Another example might be teaching a course in science to a group of students. If they are all disinterested, and I must go through the motions, then that is closer to a meaningless act, as compared to the case in which even one student is interested, engaged, asking questions. Now there is an exchange, a relatedness, an ability to share, to know and be known. Again, there are many ways to create meaning in difficult situations, but “going through the motions” is a good vernacular expression for meaninglessness. The purpose–earning a living–does not make the act meaningful. What makes it meaningful is relationship, relatedness, connection.

      A last example could be the discovery your business partner has stolen from you, or that your estranged spouse has lied to your child about you and created real difficulties and breaches of trust. What makes these moments so difficult is their meaning, which of course we assign, but it is our relationship to them that makes them meaningful. If we hear there is a couple on the other side of the world we’ve never met who’ve gone through a bad separation, it just isn’t the same as when the persons we love are involved. People steal from businesses all the time, but when they are our own partners, it hurts.

      To live a life of meaning then is to live a life in which there is connection, relatedness and trust. It is to experience oneself in a setting in which one must not dissemble to fit in, in which one must not cultivate or force aspects of personality in order to find acceptance or sustenance, in which beings are intrinsically valued and appreciated. Where there is meaning, these things are understood I think. I hope that helps to answer the question.

      As to shrugging one’s shoulders, I think anytime we build up expectations about a particular experience, such as a moment of enlightenment, we are quite often disappointed. I wasn’t trying to speak to those particular experiences we desire; I was speaking to the unexpected experience that I had. Nothing of my sense of wonder at the order in the world was prescribed, or intended. I didn’t think that I should experience wonder at being able to calculate the path of a bouncing ball. It just happened. And I think a sense of wonder, as opposed to shrugging one’s shoulders, is a completely appropriate response to life itself. Not that anyone should experience it, but I think it is a very different thing to speak about the experiences people think they’re supposed to have because of the particular philosophy or path they’ve endorsed, and the experiences that arise naturally when one is confronted by a moment of beauty, or insight, or happiness.

      Thanks for such an insightful question, Hariod.
      With Love
      Michael

      Liked by 8 people

  2. I do enjoy your writing Michael! You express your childhood experiences in such an engaging way. I could see you on the dewy fairway and join in playing with. Frisbee, just for a moment 💛 Our experiences from childhood, and what we feel may be missing, may lead to our own interpretation of meaning. It makes sense that meaning comes from “connection, relatedness and trust”. Something that you yearn for perhaps.
    Your thoughts always prompt me to look more into my own experiences, thoughts and feelings. Thank you 🙏
    P.s. Alas I didn’t find joy in physics. For me it was geography. Drawing maps. Imagining myself there. Understanding the people and the world they lived in.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Hi Val,

      Thanks for your note. Yes, I have and do yearn for connection, relatedness and trust. I’m wondering after reading your comment how particular you think those yearnings are, or whether they are universal? I have often thought of meaningfulness in general, and a sense of connection in particular–connection to one another, to life itself, to events–as being common human desires.

      I think physics is a pretty specific area of interest, but that wherever the desire to understand more about our world and our place in it arises–whether it be through science, or the study of other cultures and traditions, or art, or literature–we face the question: what is true for me? And how will I make this determination?

      Glad you enjoyed it!
      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

      • Perhaps there are common desires for humans (such as belonging and being loved) and our personal experiences reveal aspects of this that become meaningful personal desires. Thank you for your gracious response. You are such a good teacher Michael. 💛

        Liked by 1 person

  3. “Some people don’t find this all that remarkable really. I thought it was astounding.” – YES. Caps and everything. It is. It is incredible. I love that about physics, and I don’t grasp the parts that get too caught up in maths, but by gum it’s a gateway to seeing the universe and beyond in such a way that can only open up the imagination to a whole swathe of ‘what ifs?’ in other dimensions, other realities, maybe parts of the one we inhabit we just haven’t seen yet. It’s why I love sci-fi as a genre, the potential is amazing. The actuality of what we know here and know just as eye widening.

    Great post! Loved this Michael, and I’m very pleased to hear you are enjoying my book choice of Oryx and Crake. I;m loving it second time around as I have problems remembering information at times, so much of it is almost knew to me. The viewpoint written from is both comfortable and quite unique. Clever lady is Margaret.

    – Esme waving at Michael upon the Cloud

    Liked by 5 people

    • Thank you, Esme! For your visit and your enthusiasm and your sharing in this feeling. I’m so glad you can relate to this awareness that what is, (whatever it is), is unprecedented! I do think our ability to see this opens us up to appreciating so much more about things, as you note. An open mind catches a lot of nuance in the world that a closed mind misses…

      Yes, I enjoyed Oryx and Crake very much. I’m uncertain about the ending a bit, though…I liked the story and the writing and all that Mrs. Atwood dreamt into being. Then in the last moment I felt she was trying to hint at something allegorical or profound, and I missed it. I felt it brush past, but I didn’t get a bead on it…

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 3 people

      • Always a pleasure Michael *beams*.

        I’m not at the end of the book yet and can’t remember it from the first time round so I’ll be interested to see how it sits with me. I know I read the second and third books afterwards because I enjoyed the first one so much though, which is a good omen heh.

        – Esme enjoying their cosmic book club upon the Cloud

        Liked by 2 people

  4. Thanks for another peek into your life and search for meaning. I didn’t start that search, at least consciously, until my late 20s, and I still don’t have much clarity.And yet, I’m thankful for the moments of awe and insight. As to understanding the world or myself, not so much. Maybe meaning is simply what value we ascribe to our experiences in life. Thankfully, I’ve learned to be more compassionate with myself, not needing the answers as much and focusing on doing the best I can each day. Thanks for caring, pondering, and writing about your journey Michael.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hi Brad,

      Glad you enjoyed it. Moments of awe and insight are certainly beautiful markers along the way I think.

      When you say you don’t understand yourself or the world, I wonder what you mean by that? If you don’t mind sharing. I can understand living without feeling as though all the big questions are answered, because I think we all do that in one way or another. When I’m watching the hockey game, or a good book, or a new place or country or culture, and I’m loving it, and I’m in a moment of pure enjoyment, it’s not because of some reason or philosophy. It’s just what it is.

      Mostly this other stuff we talk about lives in the background. We drag it out in between things, don’t we!? So I think if we’re honest we all have chunks of our lives that are unexamined and unexplained, and simply don’t need any validation. And for some of us, like myself, the big questions lurking around the edges have always been fascinating.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Michael, I smiled all the way through this lovely piece, and really savored your passion in describing your adventures with your friend David, then your interest for soccer, and then your wonder of physics. And I enjoyed your response to Hariod, and Hariod’s great question.
    Perhaps if I had you for a physics teacher, I would have seen the workings and creations of our universe more clearly. 🙂 For me, it was biology and the magic of life, how the seed grows, the force through which it can push through the dirt, even rock, the uniqueness contained in one cell, the knowledge of the plant how to reproduce, when to make male flowers and when to make female ones, how to signal danger, conserve energy, and the amazing continuum of it all. I remember beeing in complete awe working in our school little garden, and browsing through biology books. And still, I am. And there is no way of telling where “physics” ends and where “biology” begins, it is all magic of life.
    Thank you for these stories, Michael.
    Peace and Love
    Kristina

    Liked by 3 people

    • Biology is amazing, too, Kristina! I have come to like it very much–it just wasn’t where my interest in science really began. But when you really see what’s going on in biology you realize it’s also quite amazing. And I can be as equally in awe of a single cell as of the whole cosmos. At the end of the day, just like you said, all these seemingly distinct disciplines blur together in various ways, into something common and majestic. There’s almost nothing you can look at in the natural world which, if you really see it, does not inspire you in some way!

      Thanks for reading and sharing!
      With Love
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Being so naturally connected to the fabric of the universe is both a blessing and a curse. The exaltation and alienation. We want so much to share our fascination, but people of true depth are so very rare. Hence the depression. Thank you for sharing your life, Michael.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Julie. Yes I think having a yearning to share things with others and to explore the depths of things has contributed to a distancing of myself from certain crowds or movements. I wouldn’t have it any other way, really. I’m not sure any of us would be other than we are. You’re right, though, about how a sensitivity to things can be both a blessing and a curse.

      Peace
      Michael

      Like

  7. A beautiful engaging piece. Your times with David sound magical, and your time as a soccer maniac clearly filled an adolescent need. Perhaps you would have been even more depressed without all the endorphins from all that exercise. Still I certainly don’t see your depression as a problem, but rather as a gift that led you to seek a deeper truth, just as my own unhappiness and sense of not belonging led me.
    The notion that things all around us are utterly incredible and incomprehensible totally fries my circuits, but I didn’t get it until later in life. To me everything is a miracle.
    Much love
    Alison

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Alison,

      I’ve always–or maybe not always, but as I went along came to this idea–thought that my emotions in some way signaled the condition of my inner life. Depression being a cue there are some things I’m holding onto or thinking are so, which are not in keeping with how things truly are, and then this discord leads to the outer expression as discontentment or depression. So yes, it is totally a gift. Also for the reason you suggest, of looking even more closely at what’s going on in there! We need these times to unearth the really good stuff, it seems.

      Yes, everything is a miracle. I can second that!
      Much love to you and Don,
      Michael

      Liked by 2 people

  8. i sure can relate to the seeking after something
    especially connections & friendships, but less so
    the smart geekyness, Michael!
    i’m impressed with the sincere clarity with which
    you express this retrospection.
    had i not spent much time in societies
    where members experience themselves
    as part of a we and less of a collection of “me’s”
    then i might not believe that it’s possible
    to know, without question, that we inter-are.
    wishing you continued great success finding
    the answers to life’s excellent questions 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, David! I fell into a happy resonance with your discussion of the way we inter-are, and of the societies that operate with a slightly different starting point in their hearts and minds. It is not easy to see how our logic can be correct, but the starting point broken. So it is hard for us to grasp that we are mass-manufacturing what is real to ourselves–that we are painting the canvas with our own suppositions. To shift to the knowing that we inter-are requires a moment or two of not knowing, not presuming. Of listening in the dark, to our open-endedness.

      Peace
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Pingback: What I Believe and Why, Part 3 – Embracing Forever

  10. Another beauty here Michael, to you Physics is to me like the amazement that something inside of us makes us breathe, it’s not something we do consciously, it just is….until it isn’t of course. I find at times when I am so caught up in something that I forget to breathe, then it becomes a bit painful and I realize I’m holding my breath….perhaps encountering a snake or holding back tears in a sad film I’m watching. This universe is such an amazing place and I often try not to put too much emphasis on anything, not getting caught up in the meat of the pie, for it is only meat after all and dwelling on it will not turn it to chocolate or coconut cream…..instead, to close the eyes and imagine, the worlds we can find in there (the big noggin I speak of), and for school, I was bullied and hated most of it but was entranced by learning to write Japanese words in ink with huge floppy brushes and creating haiku. I found a peace and gentleness there that I can still see, sitting at the little wooden desk, finding finally something that came to me so naturally and with such a happy little joy. Writing has become that, and now watercolor painting…perhaps finally finding the little niche ❤ peace and love and hoping there's a part three, although everything you write is connected in one way or another<3 happy universe, happy reads and life is certainly so good ❤

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Kim. Nice to have a little peek into the young Kim’s world, too. Seems somehow that confrontations with pain when we are young can help us to become more compassionate sometimes, although I suppose it can also cause us to take another road in which we become hardened inside. It is all about how we respond to life… And those responses are what create new life… And so it matters. You’re a wonderful, warm-hearted being and it is so crazy how the world creates conditions in which those profoundly necessary qualities can be glossed over in favor of some fashion or orthodoxy…

      Shine on, my friend! You enrich us all.
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Walking My Path: Mindful Wanderings in Nature says

    This is great, Michael. I can see you as a young person, running and running with your eyes toward the sky, trusting you wouldn’t hit anything. Sounds like bliss to me.
    I second Kristina’s notion that if you had been the physics teacher, I would have loved it. Like Kristina, I was more into the natural world, which made biology the most interesting, until I let all the mice go and all the frogs go that were slated for our labs, and of course death. I got in trouble for that, but at least the animals lived. Haha. And philosophy and psychology, which is where I ended up.
    It really does all seem to blend together – spirituality, science, relationship, wonder, like one big magical miracle. It’s fun to experience this universe.
    Peace and Love,
    Mary

    Liked by 1 person

    • Awesome, Mary! I love the image of you as a girl setting the mice and frogs go. At my school they were already dead by the time they made it to our labs (for dissection)… These little movements we make say so much about us. How do these tendencies come into being? It’s fascinating, and I agree totally that these fields ultimately merge together somehow. It would be fun to teach science some day, for sure.

      With Love
      Michael

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: What I Believe and Why, Part 4 – Embracing Forever

  13. Pingback: What I Believe and Why, Part 5 – Embracing Forever

  14. I loved the way you reflected on your childhood, it was so genuine and real and then you found your passion. I guess the take home message is go with where the energy takes you. 🙂 Harlon

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Pingback: What I Believe and Why, Part 6 – Embracing Forever

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