Why Does The World Exist? An Existential Detective Story by Jim Holt
The Big Bang hypothesis opened up a new and purely scientific inquiry into the ultimate origin of the universe. And the explanatory possibilities seemed to multiply. There were, after all, two revolutionary developments in twentieth-century physics. One of them, Albert Einstein's relativity theory, led to the conclusion that the universe had a beginning in time. The other, quantum mechanics, had even more radical implications. It threw into doubt the very idea of cause and effect.
According to quantum theory, events at the micro-level happen in aleatory fashion; they violate the classical principle of causation. This opened up the conceptual possibility that the seed of the universe might itself have come into being without a cause, supernatural or otherwise. Perhaps the world arose spontaneously from sheer nothingness. All existence might be chalked up to a random fluctuation in the void, a "quantum tunneling" from nothingness into being.
The Arithmetic of Nothingness
Mathematics has a name for nothing, and that is "zero." It is notable that the root of zero is a Hindu word: sunya, meaning "void" or "emptiness." For it was among Hindu mathematics that our notion of zero arose. To the Greeks and Romans, the very idea of zero was inconceivable -- how could a nothing be something?
The idea of emptiness was familiar to Indian mathematics from Buddhist philosophy. They had no difficulty with an abstract symbol that signified nothing. Their notation was transmitted westward to Europe during the Middle Ages by Arab scholars -- hence our "arabic numerals." The Hindu sunya became the Arabic sifr, which shows up in English in both the words "zero" and "cipher." Whether discovered or invented, zero was clearly a number to be reckoned with. As for the origin of the numerical "0," that has eluded historians of antiquity.
Now, suppose we let 0 stand for Nothing and 1 stand for Something. Then we get a sort of toy version of the mystery of existence: How can you get from 0 to 1?
Consider a simple equation:
What might it represent? That 1 and -1 add up to zero, of course.
Picture the reverse of the process: not 1 and -1 coming together to make 0, but 0 peeling apart, as it were, into 1 and -1. Where once you had Nothing, now you have two Somethings! Opposites of some kind, evidently. Positive and negative energy. Matter and antimatter. Yin and yang.
Even more suggestively, -1 might be thought of as the same entity as 1, only moving backward in time. This is the interpretation seized on by the Oxford chemist Peter Atkins. "Opposites," he writes, "are distinguished by their direction of travel in time." In the absence of time, -1 and 1 cancel; they coalesce into zero. Time allows the two opposites to peel apart -- and it is this peeling apart that, in turn, marks the emergence of time. It was thus, Atkins proposes, that the spontaneous creation of the universe got under way.
All that from 0=1-1
(*Note: John Updike was so struck by this scenario that he used it in the conclusion of his novel Roger's Version as an alternate to theism as an explanation for existence.)
The bus station was really just a muddy parking lot. Wei-ching bought their tickets from an old woman sitting on a bamboo stool. She told them that the Kun-ming bus didn't leave for another hour, so they wandered through town in search of breakfast. At the outdoor market, they found a stall that served soybean milk and yut'iao, which is something like a doughnut.
"Watch me," Wei-ching said, holding his yut'iao with a piece of newspaper so the hot oil would not burn his fingers. He dipped the end of it into the cold soy milk, then took a large bite out of it. "This way," he said once he had swallowed it, "you get hot and cold, solid and liquid, at the same time. It is a balance of opposites, which helps the digestion."
Hsun-ching had never had such a fancy breakfast before. He followed Wei-ching's instructions and dipped the yut'iao in the milk, but once he put one end in his mouth, he just kept stuffing and chewing until the whole thing disappeared in one huge bite. Wei-ching had to laugh; with his cheeks full of dough and his eyes wide open with excitement, Hsun-ching looked more like a squirrel than a young monk.
The bread of the Maya has always been and still is made of ground maize (corn) formed into thin pancakes called tortillas, the Spanish name for pancakes. Cooking, and especially making tortillas, was and is the peasant wife's main activity.
First she soaked the hard, dry kernel of maize over night in limewater to soften the hulls. The next morning she washed off the hulls and ground the grains into thick dough called zacan on a smooth stone metate. When it was close to time for the main meal, she took a lump of zacan and patted it into a round, thin, flat cake and baked it on a round stone griddle placed on the stone hearth.
Today the Maya housewife takes her corn to the village mill for grinding and carries the dough in a bucket. If she is really a modern woman, she may have a press to make the family's tortillas, unless her husband insists that she pat by hand, the way it was always done.
The Maya farmer, meanwhile, who has been laboring in his milpa (corn field) since daybreak, pauses occasionally for a snack. He mixes a lump of zacan with water to a make a drink called pozole. ( A thicker mixture of zacan and water, served hot and sometimes sweetened with honey, is known as atole.) When he comes back from the fields, he expects his meal to be ready and his tortillas hot. The average Maya man eats nearly twenty tortillas at one meal.
One difference between ancient and modern Maya eating habits seems to be the time of the main meal. Formerly it was "an hour before sunset"; now it is usually noon or early afternoon. Whenever it is, the women today serve stews, tamales (corn mush with a spicy filling wrapped in dried corn husks and steamed), chili, beans, vegetables, fruit, and maybe some chocolate, if they can afford it-- and of course, stacks and stacks of tortillas kept hot in the gourd.
The men and women eat separately, as they always have. The men first, seated on mats or low stools. After the men have been fed, the women and girls eat their meal, saving the leftover tortillas to be toasted for breakfast the next day.
For the majority of mollusks, the visible organic form has little importance in the life of the members of a species, since they cannot see one another and have, at most, only a vague perception of other individuals and of their surroundings. This does not prevent brightly colored stripings and forms which seem very beautiful to our eyes (as in many gastropod shells) from existing independently of any relationship to visibility.
Like me, when I was clinging to that rock, you mean? -- Qfwfq asked, -- With the waves rising and falling, and me there, still, flat, sucking what there was to suck and thinking about it all the time? If that's the time you want to know about, there isn't much I can tell you. Form? I didn't have any; that is, I didn't know I had one, or rather I didn't know you could have one. I grew more or less on all sides, at random; if this is what you call radial symmetry, I suppose I had radial symmetry, but to tell you the truth I never paid any attention to it. Why should I have grown more on one side than on the other? I had no eyes, no head, no part of the body that was different from any other part; now I try to persuade myself that the two holes I had were a mouth and an anus, and that I therefore already had my bilateral symmetry, just like the trilobites and the rest of you, but in my memory I really can't tell those holes apart, I passed stuff from whatever side I felt like, inside or outside was the same, differences and repugnances came along much later. Every now and then I was seized by fantasies, that's true; for example, the notion of scratching my armpit, or crossing my legs, or once even of growing a mustache. I use these words here with you, to make myself clear; then there were many details I couldn't foresee: I had some cells, one more or less the same as another, and they all did more or less the same job. But since I had no form I could feel all possible forms in myself, and all actions and expressions and possibilities of making noises, even rude ones. In short, there were no limitations to my thoughts, which weren't thoughts, after all, because I had no brain to think them; every cell on its own thought every thinkable thing all at once, not through images, since we had no images of any kind at our disposal, but simply in that indeterminate way of feeling oneself there, which did not prevent us from feeling ourselves equally there in some other way.
It was a rich and free and contented condition, my condition at that time, quite the contrary of what you might think.
What are the very first words of the Bible? Everyone knows that: In the beginning God created... But for the Zohar, which insists on interpreting the original Hebrew words in their precise order, the verse means something radically different: With beginning, It [Ein Sof] created God [one of higher sefirot].
There is divine reality far beyond our normative conception of "God." Immediate reality of God is not foreign to us; it was once our original nature. (1)
"See how many hidden causes there are ... hidden
from the comprehension of human beings ...
There are lights upon lights, one more clear than
another, each one dark by comparison with the one
above it from which it receives its light. As for the
Supreme Cause, all lights are dark in its presence."
-- The Zohar (2)
(1) -- Zohar : Annotated & Explained
Translation and Annotation by Daniel Chanan Matt
Published by Paulist Press (1983)
(2) The Book Of Lights
by Chaim Potok
Published by Alfred A. Knopf
New York - 1981