August 28, 2009

Whistling in the Dark: "Nothing" Except Perhaps the Will and the Idea

Another human, confronted with the co-joined alpha and omega point of both what we know and the limits of what we can know, explains it all for you. She's convinced and yet, somehow, lacking in conviction.

"Something happened."
"Nothing was there. Really nothing.... but the potential to exist."
"For all we know... we know something happened. Something that created.... from which the universe expanded and evolved."

Of Mere Being

The palm at the end of the mind,
Beyond the last thought, rises
In the bronze distance.

A gold-feathered bird
Sings in the palm, without human meaning,
Without human feeling, a foreign song.

You know then that it is not the reason
That makes us happy or unhappy.
The bird sings. Its feathers shine.

The palm stands on the edge of space.
The wind moves slowly in the branches.
The bird's fire-fangled feathers dangle down.

-- Wallace Stevens, 1954

Posted by Vanderleun at August 28, 2009 12:12 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

My head hurts, thanks.

Posted by: tim at August 28, 2009 12:40 PM

The simplest picture is that: In the beginning of God's creation of the heavens and the earth, the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was on the face of the Deep, but the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters, and God said: There will be light. There was light . . .

It is amazing the lengths to which people will go in order to escape the simplest explanation for the fact there are things, instead of nothing.

Posted by: Punditarian at August 28, 2009 1:17 PM

Whoever made that film should have added subtitles. The sound effects drown out her voice (for those of us whose hearing is no longer acute).

Posted by: Frank P at August 28, 2009 3:52 PM

After reading Tim's and Frank's comments I decided to pass on the video. Time of life and time of day kind of thing.

I'm reading Pritchard's "On Poets and Poetry" wherein he comments that: "Repeated readings of Stevens' poems don't necessarily lead to clarification of them - as in my opinion, they do with those of Yeats, Eliot, Frost."

He is an unabashed Frost fan and remarks that "It is at least possible that although, of course, there is 'room' for both geniuses, one's heart and head cannot be equally committed to them both."

I did google the poem and found in Modern American Poetry that "The Greek word for this fabulous sacred bird is also used for a date-palm."


I am glad to read this poem and would welcome any of his great rival who told Stevens that he " . . wrote on bric-a-brac." Wallace later sent Frost his latest book of poetry wherein he had written "S"more bric-a brac.

Frost described their relationship as "the prettiest kind of stand-off."

Posted by: Cathy at August 28, 2009 6:01 PM

Just to be completely crass...
Smart women are so hot.

Posted by: Duncan Winn at August 28, 2009 7:17 PM

A thoughtful comment deserves to have it's request granted, Cathy.

Here's a Frost poem that is not as well known as his standards but still, I think, one of unusual power.

With a lantern that wouldn't burn
In too frail a buggy we drove
Behind too heavy a horse
Through a pitch-dark limitless grove.

And a man came out of the trees
And took our horse by the head
And reaching back to his ribs
Deliberately stabbed him dead.

The ponderous beast went down
With a crack of a broken shaft.
And the night drew through the trees
In one long invidious draft.

The most unquestioning pair
That ever accepted fate
And the least disposed to ascribe
Any more than we had to to hate,

We assumed that the man himself
Or someone he had to obey
Wanted us to get down
And walk the rest of the way.

Posted by: Vanderleun at August 28, 2009 8:17 PM

Punditarian - The whole point if the current version of Big Bang theory is that there was no "before"; that asking what was before the Beginning is as meaningless as asking what is north of the North Pole, and for similar reasons.

You missed out the rest of the first book of Genesis - which wasn't a bad effort for the Bronze Age nomads that wrote it, but is in fact arrant nonsense.

If God exists at all except as a personification of the totality of existence, then She is outside time as we know it.

Let's make a stab at a version that agrees rather better with agreed knowledge as it is now:

"In the beginning, She who is outside Time and beyond the Universe caused to be a point of infinite brilliance and infinite heaviness, within which was contained, as the tree is contained within the seed, the whole of what was, what is and what ever shall be. And by the laws that She established at the beginning of Time and never shall and never can be broken, the seed grew over ten thousand times a thousand thousand years, and following those laws, into everything that is; the Sun that is in our sky, the other suns that twinkle in the sky at night and the Moon that lights our night also. And the Earth and everything that is upon it was created also from the dust of stars, even unto Man himself; and then perhaps for the first time in those ten thousand thousand thousand years, the Universe knew itself and had a voice."

The reality makes Genesis seem incredibly petty.

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at August 29, 2009 7:34 AM

And people look at me funny when I say that discovery IS the action of the unknown.

Posted by: John Hinds at August 29, 2009 5:49 PM

Fletcher,The key is the word "potentiality". Read Aristotle. I think his word was "energia". If life and love are embedded in star dust as potentiality, and we know it is, for we ARE this dust and we do live and love, then I have to accept the lady's affirmation that the whole of creation came to be because of the necessity that that primordial potentiality would come into being. Genesis is rather incredibly pretty, not petty, not to take away from your translation thereof. The problem is the Bronze age men did not arrogate this "knowledge" to themselves as you do. They had the proper response, which, I think, is simply to stand in awe.

Posted by: John Hinds at August 29, 2009 6:08 PM

In my mind one thing is absolutely certain: whether or not time exists, at this moment in it, this is the best feckin' blog in the Multiverse (despite stiff competition). Keep it up Gerard, you'll do as the Main Man until my travels into the unknown find somebody or something better. I doubt that is possible. Now there's faith for you!

Posted by: Frank P at August 30, 2009 2:15 AM

Dear Fletcher Christian,

Thank you for troubling yourself to respond to my comment.

A comparison of the turgid, confused prose with which you propose to replace the opening lines of Genesis, with the simplicity and power of the poetry of those opening lines themselves, even in translation, speaks for itself.

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear in my original comment. What I meant to say, is that whatever there is in the young cosmologist's breathless and convoluted account of the universe, that is actually supported by any sort of scientific evidence at all, seems awfully close to what we are told in the beginning of Genesis. Much of what she says about multiverses and so forth is absolutely unsupported by any observations, and has been adumbrated by cosmologists, at least in my opinion, in order to evade the truth that the account in Genesis anticipates and epitomizes what they have been able to deduce about the Big Bang. The usual reason for seeking to evade the consequences of realizing that the account in Genesis accords with our best scientific understanding of reality, is the effort to avoid constraint by the ethical principles enjoined by the Entity that gave us the account and which identifies Itself as the Creator. Bear in mind of course that the Scriptures were never intended as a cosmological textbook, and the account of the origins of the universe is there only to the degree and in the level of detail that is needed in order to set the intentions of the Scriptures in the proper framework for understanding.

Posted by: Punditarian at August 30, 2009 7:20 AM

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.
Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

-- Burnt Norton

Posted by: Vanderleun at August 30, 2009 11:26 AM

No single thing abides, but all things flow.
Fragment to fragment clings, the things thus grow
Until we know and name them. By degrees
They melt, and are no more the things we know.

Globed from the atoms, falling slow or swift
I see the suns, I see the systems lift
Their forms; and even the systems and their suns
Shall go back slowly to the eternal drift.

Thou too, O Earth—thine empires, lands and seas—
Least, with thy stars, of all the galaxies,
Globed from the drift like these, like these thou too
Shalt go. Thou art going, hour by hour, like these.

Nothing abides. Thy seas in delicate haze
Go off; those mooned sands forsake their place;
And where they are shall other seas in turn
Mow with their scythes of whiteness other bays.

Lucretious on Life and Death.
(Paraphrased by W.H. Mallock )

Posted by: Frank P at August 30, 2009 4:28 PM

Yes, Gerard, dear.

I am acquainted with . . . that one.

Lionel Trilling called him the poet of darkness, terror and human limitation.

(I should 'out' myself as an unabashedly thrilled recipient of a third place award in the 2006 Robert Frost poetry contest)

Sorry I misused your thread for my personal tapestry ;0)

Posted by: Cathy at August 30, 2009 6:04 PM

Punditarian - So an entity of infinite power, infinite knowledge and infinite intelligence (therefore infinitely complex) is the simplest explanation?

Perhaps we ought to think of the God of Spinoza, who reveals Himself in the harmony of all that exists. Or put more simply, God and the Universe are One.

None of which, of course, detracts from the moral messages that Jesus gave. Perhaps he was the Son of God. Aren't we all? (Well, strictly speaking half of us, anyway. :) )

Posted by: Fletcher Christian at August 31, 2009 12:03 AM

Dear Fletcher, Not only the simplest, but the best explanation . . . but God & the Universe are assuredly not one . . . the physical Universe can only exist in a tiny window of not-God from which God withdrew in order to permit things to exist at all . . .

Posted by: Punditarian at August 31, 2009 4:05 AM

That video reminds me of nothing so much as a high-school freshman trying to explain a subject he simply does not comprehend. I actually feel sorry for her in her mishmash of inarticulate fumbling. I can't help but suspect that some people actually think it shows off how intelligent and wise she is. Just like high-school freshmen think about their peers.

Posted by: ELC at August 31, 2009 8:27 AM

Zero Hour (To be danced-to.)

Of the nights there are so many
As only one at a time
This night can be as any
Before was light, before was time.

But yet before all of these things
A dread great depth of Void
What is the Nothingness to things
That in idling, He was alloyed?

What is this shade but ere a Light
That is as darkness, as pitch
As black infath'mable night
(Sight or blindness? Which?)

Where beyond no reasons reach
For too simple, far too strong
Is He for all, and for each:
(Speak then, not too long)

Tell me then a story
For only stories tell
Tell it short, no allegory
And always tell it well.

Let us speculate a bit
And say that light came first
The lightest of the elements
Blinding as a burst

Over above the water there
(Keeping with the verse)
Sudden, daylight lightnings tear
Across the universe!

Earths of many rise and fall
Among the waters cosmic
Heavens, firmament and all
Sensational and seismic!

From dust and seas of voided night
Arise the many worlds
Waters up and O, aright!
Dust like clouds unfurled!

Many germs about the place
Those seeds of every kind!
A many colored living face
Rooted rocks entwined.

Now before the many lands
A lighted sky is scryed,
Cast across by cosmic hands
A host all far and wide!

A sea of stars, the firmament
The waters up above;
Sail them by centuries went
Ceaseless, ebbing love

Now before the host we see
A rippled righteous life
The white and moving sea
Waves its wooing wife.

Across the plains of purple there
Sighing like the trees
Songs of no man's tongue do bear
The windings of the breeze

But among the rocks and rills
Crawl things small and great
An army of mouths (save the gills)
And those mouths, they ate!

So how would end this oddly song
Except within a bower
Man and wife and Lord belong
And end the Zero Hour.


If I don't see some dancing up-in-here...

Posted by: RiverC at August 31, 2009 8:35 PM