When I was a little kid, “infinity” meant something really big or really far.
It was something “out there,” unreachable and abstract. My head would hurt trying to contemplate it. “So what’s beyond that?”
After awhile, I didn’t bother to contemplate it. Beyond my understanding, it became a waste of time to even think about it.
A series of recent experiences have changed that for me.
The first of them – a virtual voyage on the New Horizon space probe at the Liberty Science Museum’s Planetarium – consisted of a series of virtual fly-bys of various planets and moons in our solar system, showing previously impossible images of their environmental characteristics. Pluto, for example, has mountains of water ice, topped with methane ice snowcaps. Our solar system contains a series of beautiful but completely inhospitable and forbidding environments, with the blue orb of Earth winking from afar.
Earth is special. There’s infinite life expressed here, but nowhere else nearby, at least not how we understand it. Maybe the universe itself is alive, maybe the solar system is an element of some larger organism – all that is speculative. The life that’s here is what we have, to savor and observe. In contrast with the forbidding wastes of the rest of the visited Universe (so far, anyway), it’s nothing less than miraculous. The infinity of Earth’s life, not restricted to species of plants and animals, includes the abstractions of ideas and information, customs, culture, tradition, languages, music – all of them infinite systems in their own right.
A few years ago, we joined the New York Botanical Garden, which became my ongoing second experience of infinity. With millions of species expressing their genetic makeup throughout the changes of seasons, no moments in time are the same there, with an infinity of detail in every leaf and flower. It’s an incredible explosion of life and beauty, infinitely rich and variable – and especially miraculous when you think about our neighbors in the solar system. Why Earth? Why us? What makes us so special, that we get to live here and experience this?
Given the alternatives the universe comes up with, every molecule of every aspect of all reality here is a miracle. In the face of this understanding, it becomes impossible to walk around with anything less than a sense of abject awe and wonder.
When you think about a small object, something you can walk around or hold in your hand, how many angles of view are there on the object? Think about it as surrounded by a series of view angles, which taken together form a sphere. How many viewing angles is that? Answer: infinite. Every object has an infinite number of angles for observation. Infinite quantities of observable points, each with its own set of infinite perspectives. We are surrounded by infinity – it’s not “out there.” It’s right here in our pocket.
It’s convenient to define reality in terms of the confines that appear to surround us. The walls, the space we live in, the surroundings and the neighborhood appear to have a material stability, which fades into a state of given-ness as we become accustomed and inured to their presence and nature. In our adaptation to our surroundings, the “getting used to it” engendered by the sheer persistence of materiality, we take these things for granted, while in the process, we lose sight of the true nature of these material phenomena. Matter is energy and resonance, with properties governed by physical laws. The operating system underlying all the physical things we see is mathematics. All of these constructs are ultimately ephemeral, change being the only constant of the Universe. The rocks may outlast us by innumerable generations, but in the last analysis they are just as impermanent. In the meantime, we are all subject to the magic pull of the moon, the warmth of the sun, and we are all porous in the face of the bombardment of cosmic particles and waves passing through all material reality as if it didn’t exist.
There are forces in the Universe not yet understood, and even yet to be detected. Science does not yet have a means to detect the existence of consciousness. Contemplatives (meditating monks) tell us that its quality is light. Do plants have it? Some are asking if consciousness is an attribute of Universe… and what about thought? wisdom? justice? truth? harmony? Where do these come from? If these are attributes of Universe, what is their mode of transmission? And our dreams? At this time in our history, and in this state of our being, we don’t know the answers to these, and cannot know them, any more than we know the source of evil, greed, exploitation, cruelty, and malice – all distinctly human traits.
If people are telling you they know the answers to these questions, they’re hiding the true reason they’re trying to give you the answers.
But, given that we can tell right from wrong, no matter how that happens, and we have the urge to help others to survive and prosper, we can go forth with positive energy, comfortable in the fact that nobody really knows, and fulfill our true mission, which is to bear witness to the miracle of existence, of ourselves and all that is – and keep asking the questions. What is that? Why is that? What’s the true nature of things?
A useful working definition of “faith” is – “comfort in the presence of mystery.”