Saturday, October 16, 2010

An Ode to Autumn

To help us get in the proper spirit of the Fall Season, here's a little inspirational essay:

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Plenty of Nothin'

In last month's blog posting, I quoted Stephen Hawking, "Because there is a law such as gravity, the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist." In the comments, Doug wrote, "Particle/anti-particle pairs can appear spontaneously out of empty space... it's almost beyond comprehension to wrap one's brain around the 'why?' something can appear seemingly from nothing."

What exactly does it mean when we say that something appears seemingly from nothing?

Say you're a primitive human. Each morning, you see the sun appear on the eastern horizon. You know nothing, zero, about what exists beyond that horizon. So from your perspective, you could say that the sun appears spontaneously, seemingly from nothing. What you'd really be saying is that you don't know anything about where the sun originates.

Isn't it the same when Hawking says the universe creates itself spontaneously from nothing? We don't know how or why the universe initially appears; we don't know where it comes from. To name the source of the universe as "spontaneous" or "from nothing" is simply a way of saying "don't know."

Hawking may also be implying that when it comes to the universe's origin, there are uncertainty principles that prove we can't know the answer. It's like trying to see your own eyes: impossible. It's like trying to understand your true self: anything we understand is by definition separated from the subject. When we know that we can't know, OK, that's something. But we still don't know.

Buddhist teachers have said that everything arises from "Emptiness." This is just a name given to the mystery. It may be worthwhile to clearly perceive that it's a mystery, to make peace with that fact. My Zen teacher would say, "Your body's name may be John or Joe or Mary. But your true-self's name is 'don't know.'"

Our monkey-brains love to know things; the desire to understand is integral to survival and development of the human species. We easily fool ourselves into believing that when we name something, we've learned something about it. But names are just names. We may call the source of the universe "Emptiness" or "God" or whatever, but that doesn't mean we know it in the slightest. To say it all arises spontaneously from nothing... is just giving another name to "don't know."

Socrates would always teach everyone, "You must know thyself!" But when he was asked, "Socrates, do you know yourself?", he said, "I don't know what I am either... but I understand that I don't know."