I don't know why drinking a latte at Starbucks makes me feel so cosmically strange. But here's what been happening recently.
I sit down at a table, look at my cup, all festooned with the Starbucks logo and a quotation from somebody or other, and it just feels unbelievably weird. So freaking unlikely.
That me, Brian, is existing right here and now, in an Oregon Starbucks, about to sip a warm caffeinated drink out of a cardboard container.
What are the chances of this happening, given our 13.7 billion year old universe that sprang into existence from a speck of pure energy much smaller than a sub-atomic particle, and now has expanded to an incomprehensible size – some 46 billion light years from us, because the universe has been expanding faster than light.
Holding my latte, dumbstruck by the seeming discordance between how mundane this Starbucks moment is and how majestic the cosmos is, I visualize myself whizzing around the Earth at the equator more than seven times in a second – like Superman did in the old TV show (showing my age) but at the speed of light.
Then going that fast for 46 billion years. Mind-blow!
That's how large the observable universe is, courtesy of the big bang. It's filled with wonders that I can't begin to conceive of. And I'm clutching a Starbucks latte. What are the chances?
Well, 100% obviously. Because this all seems perfectly real. Starbucks, me, the table, other customers, the whole earthly shebang.
Yet from another perspective it's all exceedingly unlikely, as physicist Paul Davies talks about in "Cosmic Jackpot: Why the Universe is Just Right for Life," the book I blogged about in my previous post.
The laws of nature, and their associated constants, have to be almost exactly just the way they are or life (including me and my Starbucks latte) couldn't exist as we know it.
This leads religious types to posit a creator who made a universe perfectly suited for us. And scientific types to ponder why, of all the countless sorts of universes a big bang could have fashioned, ours is so peachy-keen for us human beings.
Maybe I've got a philosophical blind spot, notwithstanding my attraction to most other Big Questions About Existence, but I find it difficult to see what the problem is here that theologians, physicists, and other deep thinkers are trying to solve.
Because my feeling of Starbucks' strangeness obviously is part of my subjective psyche, not objective reality. I mean, it's all in my mind – the product of learning a lot about cosmology and our place in the universe.
Speculations abound about why things are as they are.
Davies runs through the main candidates in his book (listed in my post). For example, there could be countless universes of every variety, and we happen to have evolved in one of the few that are suitable for life. Or this all could be a computer simulation run by an advanced civilization, ala the Matrix movie.
Though I've always been spiritually inclined, I seem to be coming around to the first option described by Davies: The Absurd Universe. He clearly doesn't like it, as his description strikes me as slanted.
This is probably the majority position among scientists. According to this point of view, the universe is as it is, mysteriously, and it just happens to permit life. It could have been otherwise, but what we see is what we get. Had it been different, we would not be here to argue about it.
The universe may or may not have a deep underlying unity, but there is no design, purpose, or point to it all – at least none that would make sense to us. There is no God, no designer, no teleological principle, no destiny. Life in general, and human beings in particular are an irrelevant embellishment in a vast and meaningless cosmos, the existence of which is an unfathomable mystery.
Davies goes on to explain seven other possibilities (including "none of the above"), his favorites being "The Life Principle" and "The Self-Explaining Universe."
However, he readily admits there's no solid evidence that favors one hypothesis over another. So the universe remains an unfathomable mystery, just as The Absurd Universe proponents recognize.
"Absurd" doesn't seem to be the right word, though. Davies chose it because he believes, or wants to believe, that the universe is endowed with a life principle of some sort – a quasi-religious conception. Leaving mystery as mystery clearly bothers him.
I used to feel that way also. Now I'm more at ease with the astounding strangeness of drinking a latte on an insignificant planet in a universe that extends 46 billion light years from the Starbucks I'm sitting in.
Absurd. Strange. Mysterious.
Human conceptions. Somehow I doubt that the universe uses these words to describe itself. It just is what it is. Contentedly, if that word – like all words – means anything when applied to the cosmos.
Yes, for us the universe is a mystery. We strive to explain it. And though bits and pieces have come to be understood, the whole remains a mystery.
What's wrong with that? I drink a latte in Starbucks and marvel. Einstein did the same. He said:
The fairest thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. He who knows it not and can no longer wonder, no longer feel amazement, is as good as dead, a snuffed-out candle.
It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, of the manifestations of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which are only accessible to our reason in their most elementary forms – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute the truly religious attitude; in this sense, and in this alone, I am a deeply religious man.
I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the type of which we are conscious in ourselves.
Hey, Einstein and me have something in common. I can't conceive of such a God either. Questions – that's all we need to be "religious" in the Einsteinian sense. Answers not required.
Mysteries should remain mysterious. Until they're not.