It's Thanksgiving Day here in the United States. Almost everybody is into thankfulness, whether sincere or feigned.
Myself, I'm thankful that I was able to get a HP wireless printer working with my wife's new iMac this afternoon. It was touch and go for a while but I finally figured it out.
My philosophical problem, though, is who or what I should offer my thanks to.
This quandary is common to every exclamation of gratitude, including religious ones such as "Thank you, Jesus" or "Thank you, God." Where the heck do you stop?
I read some reviews of the Photosmart C4780 that pointed me toward the need to download Snow Leopard compatible software from the HP web site. I'm thankful to the people who took the time to share their experience with getting the printer to play nicely with a Mac.
They wouldn't have been able to do this if they hadn't been born.
So I also need to thank their parents. Along with every relative, human, animal, or whatever, along the several billion-year timeline of life's evolution on Earth.
Which wouldn't have been possible if the universe didn't exist, of course. Fourteen billion or so years ago the big bang started everything off. About ten billion years later the Earth formed.
And here we are.
Now, scientifically minded religious believers don't want to stop with thanking the big bang for making everything exist. They assume that God or some other supernatural entity was responsible for the big bang.
(Fundamentalists, of course, don't accept that the big bang and evolution even happened, but that's so crazy I'll ignore them in my thankfulness analysis.)
I get blog comments on this subject fairly frequently. Someone will say, "There had to be something before the big bang, because something can't come from nothing." Well, who says?
The human mind is doing that saying, using human cognition based on human perceptions. Why, though, should we believe that the cosmos operates in accord with the limitations of the human mind?
We're certain about all kinds of things that we shouldn't be. Including who to thank for existence. Such is the central message of Robert Burton's "On Being Certain," a book I like a lot (and blogged about here and here).
Burton is a neurologist. He points out that reason can't be separated from bodily sensations, since "any notion of space -- no matter how abstract -- must be filtered through our bodily perceptions of space. In our mind's eye, emptiness occupies space."
So our notions about the big bang get confused by our perceptual conditioning.
Close your eyes and try envisioning a face. You will see it against some kind of contrasting background, whether it is a neutral color or a vague grayness or blackness. Now try to visualize a perfect vacuum.
Even if I know that a vacuum contains nothing, there is still an "it," a nothingness that must exist within some type of space. My mind serves up a dim empty darkness as it simultaneously tells me that this can't be so. Empty space is a visual non sequitur; there is no visual counterpart of nothingness.
Let's move on to cosmology. Try to visualize the big bang -- a single infinitely dense point that suddenly explodes. To see this object in our mind's eye, we place this dot against some contrasting background.
Most people, when questioned, will offer that they see a dim darkness against which the initial singularity is framed. This problem of borders isn't confined to spatial considerations; time is equally impossible to visualize as either always existing or suddenly beginning.
We see a beginning in contrast to what was present just before the beginning. The cruel irony is that a mind's eye representation of no surrounding space or time occupies some space and suggests a prior time.
To relieve the resulting tensions, we feel compelled to ask a key question shared by science and religion -- what, if anything, was present before the beginning?
However, Burton says, we have no way of knowing whether this question is even meaningful. It could just be a product of our all-too-human way of perceiving things.
So in the end I'm thankful to...mystery.
Because nobody knows what, if anything, is at the end (or beginning) of existence. Our thanks directed toward ultimacy echo into the seeming infinity of time and space, landing nowhere.
Yet maybe also, everywhere.
Whichever or whatever, I'm thankful for being alive and able to ponder the wonder of being able to wonder.