Watchmakers All the Way Down

By Cyberquill 12/27/20118 Comments

A body with a fractured calvarium is found lying face-down on the sidewalk.

The coroner explains that the victim was smashed over the head with a blunt object from behind.

No witnesses, no murder weapon, no footprints, no fingerprints, and no DNA other than the victim’s, who, by all accounts, had no enemies.

Tough filbert to crack.

Neither Sherlock Holmes nor Inspector Columbo are available to investigate, and the standard-issue law enforcement professionals are stumped.

At long last, the search for the killer is suspended. The case ends up an unsolved-homicide statistic.

Now I walk into the police station.

“Can I help you?”

“Yes. This is regarding the fractured calvarium on the sidewalk. I know who did it.”

The officer perks up, puts down her coffee, and fixes me with a quizzical stare.

“I’m all ears!” she says.

“Satan did it,” I reveal.

“First name?”

“Just Satan. You know, the devil. Beelzebub. Lucifer. This savage goes by a lot of names.”

The officer leans on the counter that separates the staff from the visitors, briefly drops her chin to her chest, then lifts her head back up and sends her baby-blues into a slow spin of one full revolution until her pupils come to rest in an upturned position, apparently trying to assess whether the ceiling needs a paint job.

“Did you witness Satan commit the act?” she asks, her gaze still locked plafondward and her voice colored with a tinge of irritation, over-enunciating the word “Satan” as if giving dictation to a hearing-impaired siamang that doesn’t speak English.

Frankly, I understand neither the relevance of the question nor can I put my finger on the provenance of her manifest sarcasm. Does the good officer believe Julius Caesar was stabbed to death by a bunch of aggrieved Roman senators? If so, did she witness the act?

“No,” I say. “But I know he did it. I mean, I just know. Plus there’s a dead body in the ground, and you have no better suspects, do you?”

Silence.

“In fact, you have no suspects. You’re clueless. Correct?”

Silence and a scowl.

“There you go. I’m just putting two and two together. Satan did it. So do I get a reward or something?”

Palpably disinclined to continue the conversation, the officer ignores my question, thanks me for coming in, instructs me to beat it in as polite a manner as she is able to effect short of using those very words, and returns to her cooling cup of joe.

I don’t get it. The cops couldn’t solve the case. I solved it for them. Why am I not being taken seriously?

Sure, I may not be in a position to furnish conventional evidence to back up my claim. In fact, my claim is really all I can furnish.

But even so, isn’t an answer better than no answer?

Besides, the fuzz can’t prove that Satan did not do it, can they?

Of course they can’t. I win.

I lamented that I’d let weeds take over my flowerbeds. I didn’t have garbage can space, and my composter died in a windstorm, so I was left with a pile of uprooted weeds. They screamed failure to me. That is, until God whispered, ‘You can compost them right there. They can mulch the dry soil. Provide natural fertilizer.’ I thought about that a moment and realized God was telling me something compelling. In essence He was saying, ‘Compost your failures.’

Thus began a little motivational essay titled How to Compost Your Failures I read a few weeks ago.

In other news, back in June, Reagan International Airport was briefly shut down due to a security scare. A woman had informed a ticket agent at a US Airways counter in Ohio that a specific D.C.-bound flight had explosives on board.

Upon landing, the suspicious plane was searched. No explosives were found.

When asked how she had arrived at the erroneous conclusion that there was a bomb aboard that very flight, the woman cited God as her source and insisted she had passed on the Heavenly intel to the authorities in a sincere attempt to avert disaster.

So what exactly is the difference between receiving divine composting pointers versus specific intelligence information?

Obviously, the main difference is falsifiability. That the Ohio bomb lady “has a history of mental health problems” (Source: CBS) makes perfect sense, for sane believers wisely tend to confine their claims about God’s communiqués to information of a type that is inherently unsuitable to being disproved, such as “Compost your failures” or “Write a book about radishes” or “You are wonderful the way you are” as opposed to “A Großglockner-sized meteorite will plunge into Lake Ontario on Wednesday,” a strategy that greatly reduces the potential need for damage control down the road, i.e., the need to present awkward ex-post-facto modified versions of their original claims, which, in turn, may not pan out either, thus compounding the risk of eventually getting branded with a Scarlet D for “delusional.”

(Nothing wrong, of course, with heeding that inner voice, whether we call it “God” or “intuition” or “cupcakes.” More often than not, it may be the best guide we have. However, “if the voice comes from a place of fear, it usually isn’t true intuition,” a psychologist once explained on some show. Fear, alas, is a master of disguise.)

In essence, the whole concept of faith implies the absence of proof. We don’t need faith to believe in things that are proven. In fact, proof and faith are mutually exclusive in that the latter necessarily ends as soon as the former arrives on the scene. It makes no sense for you to have “faith” in the existence of whatever gadget you’re looking at as you’re reading these lines (save, perhaps, faith in your senses and in some commonly agreed-upon notion of reality—if you think you’re living in the Matrix, all bets are off).

Attempts to place religious faith on a plinth of logic generally amount to chopping off the very branch on which the faith itself rests.

Consider these two parables:

  1. Walking on the beach, you find a watch in the sand. You pick it up and examine its marvelous design: the hands, the oscillator, the whole intricate clockwork. Obviously, its parts didn’t assemble themselves into this particular configuration by accident, so the watch must be the result of intelligent design. It couldn’t have come into being without a watchmaker.
  2. A woman raises her hand during a cosmology lecture and declares that the universe rests on the back of a giant tortoise. Asked by the lecturer what this giant tortoise might be standing on, the woman replies, “It’s turtles all the way down.”

Thus, when we marvel at the magnificence of the universe—including the magnificent phenomena it contains, such as life and nature—we are tempted to ascribe it all to the work of a cosmic watchmaker; after all, like that watch on the beach, a universe of such complexity couldn’t possibly have arisen by accident out of nothing.

Needless to say, having been able to conceive our universe in all its resplendence, this cosmic watchmaker must be pretty magnificent in His/Her/Its own right.

Trouble is, our whole logic rests on the assumption that magnificent entities—be it watches, universes, or life—must have been created by at least one superior magnificent entity, and now our own logic compels a chain of watchmakers all the way down, so to speak: the universe created by God, God created by an Über-God, and so on, ad infinitum (“infinite regress”).

There’s really no logical reason to stop, quite arbitrarily, at our “familiar” God rather than, say, the fourth or the 29th Über-God in our cosmic watchmakers chain; or, indeed, no logical reason to assign the frustratingly counter-intuitive property of existing without having been created to some Deity as opposed to simply the universe itself. What’s the point of pushing the mystery back by exactly one generation and postulating a God that merely replaces one vexing conundrum with another? (Although, admittedly, the “God of the Gaps” comes in handy as the rote answer to all things inexplicable at a given time.)

This “first cause” paradox has, of course, been mulled over by philosophers for millennia, and we’ve all heard religious people debating atheists: the former accusing the latter of having no explanation, and the latter accusing the former of having a bad one, namely one that itself begs the very puzzle it claims to resolve.

Bottom line, God or no God, we invariably end up with some phenomenon whose origin defies rational explanation; so we might as well stick to our God, you may say, even though, technically speaking, this amounts to adding a cog that doesn’t really turn anything—not exactly the way a watchmaker would design a timepiece.

Back in the 19th century, science’s prevailing assumption was that all waves needed a medium to travel through: water waves needed water, sound waves needed air, etc. So when electromagnetic waves (e.g., light waves) were discovered, and these peculiar apparitions appeared to ripple through a vacuum as effortlessly as sliding off a greasy log backward, scientists posited the “ether,” defined as the substance that electromagnetic waves traversed. After countless failed attempts to suss out the nature of this invisible, intangible, and ostensibly massless stuff termed “ether,” science finally gave up on it and conceded that electromagnetic waves indeed traveled through nothing at all. Exposed as a cog that didn’t turn anything, the trusty ether got the heave-ho, and henceforth light waves were officially capable of whizzing through the void.

Johannes Heesters † 2011

A few days ago, on Christmas Eve, Johannes Heesters, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s oldest active entertainer, passed away at age 108.

The following day, NYC SoulCycle spin instructor Clare Walsh—whom I’d never met nor heard of until yesterday—was “found dead” at age 22, having been allotted all of one fifth of the earth time Mr Heesters was given. (As of the time of this writing, her cause of death has not been made public.)



Clare Walsh † 2011

Exactly one year ago, my friend Heidi, a little younger than myself, was also found dead, eleven years after my father abruptly collapsed and crossed over.

Kim Jong-Il died; Vaclav Havel died; not to mention the myriad individuals unknown to me or you or the public at large whose lives grind to a halt every minute of every day; many sudden and untimely; many whose loss is mourned; others whose departure is welcomed; yet others whose quietuses go virtually unnoticed, as perhaps their lives may have gone.

As per the roughest of estimates, more than 100 billion humans have sloughed off their mortal coils to date, a figure which (1) equals the number of people who have ever lived minus those alive today (and minus Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, if you believe it), and (2) is expected to (a) keep rising and (b) include me and you one of these days, years, or decades at the most.

In Hannah and Her Sisters, TV producer Mickey Sachs, played by Woody Allen, suffers an existential crisis:

MICKEY: I mean, you’re gonna die, I’m gonna die, the audience is gonna die, the network’s gonna… The sponsor. Everything!

GAIL: I know, I know. And your hamster.

MICKEY: Yes!

So what happens after we die? Where are we going, if anywhere? What are we turning into, if anything? Or do the lights just go out, and that was that?

Tough filbert to crack.

Someone wrote a novel about two-dimensional “flat people.” They’re like us, except they can only think and move back/forth and left/right. So when someone draws a circle around them, the poor critters are helplessly corralled, as they are neither mentally equipped to conceptualize nor physically equipped to enter the third dimension, i.e., to simply step over the dopey line in order to escape the circle.

Now imagine yourself locked in a dungeon. You can’t get out—at least not through any of the three spatial dimensions you’re familiar with yet which you might be able to transcend if you had a mind and a body capable of entering higher dimensions. In essence, you’re like a flat person trapped inside a drawn circle. When told by, say, a twelfth-dimensional creature that there are plenty of higher dimensions through which you could easily escape your paltry three-dimensional dungeon, you’re confused. “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Higher dimensions? Is this some kind of joke?” you’ll wonder as you drive your fist into the brick wall that stubbornly refuses to give way.

Nor do we know how much we would perceive if we had more than five senses (or six, just to include the one from the Willis flick). A person blind from birth couldn’t possibly know what “seeing” is. He only hears about this curious skill that most people have but he allegedly lacks. So what would our ninth sense pick up? Or our 147th?

Perchance our minds simply aren’t designed to grasp that which lies beyond, much like a flat person is lost when asked to visualize a third dimension or a blind man when asked to picture George Washington’s glower on Mount Rushmore. By definition, everything we can conceptualize is everything we can conceptualize, no matter how seemingly exotic, counter-intuitive, and super-sensitive those conceptualizations may be by human standards.

The moment we attempt to imagine a six-dimensional doughnut or the type of information our tenth sense would ply us with if we had one, we find that all our conceptual resourcefulness has collapsed and that, for better or worse, we can’t help but stick to our conservative carbon-based thought and perception patterns.

Or perhaps nothing lies beyond.

But we can’t conceptualize nothingness, either, can we?

If you think you can, try imagining nothing.

Not even empty space.

And no time.



Heidi † 2010

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  • Testazyk

    Lots of interesting insights here--where is Mr. Hitchens when we need him?

  • Testazyk

    Lots of interesting insights here--where is Mr. Hitchens when we need him?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com Cyberquill

      He’s in heaven, trying to get God to stop believing in fairy tales. 

  • Pingback: The Creation Conundrum « Cyberquill()

  • Richard

    I came to this by accidentally touching my iPad screen and am glad I did.

    It is a masterly survey of the ultimate imponderables and rightly reaches no conclusion.

    There is no reason for us to cease pursuing the ponderables, though, as long as we acknowledge our limitations. The lady and the tortoises had a point.

    It is interesting, too, how it was necessary to construct an abstract mathematical aether to elucidate the ponderables of wave motion. I hope you do not have any experts in your readership inclined to refute this statement, because I couldn’t cope. I’m thinking of quantum phase-space -- but not very deeply.

    What a glorious mine of thought there is in blogging. Will it only ever be revealed by remote chance?

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      You have an iPad? I don’t have an iPad. But if I found one while walking on the beach, I’d know there must be an iPad maker somewhere. And then it’s iPad makers all the way down.

      My own understanding of theoretical physics is cursory at best, and even to call it cursory may be an exaggeration. All I know is that that physicists of yore couldn’t fathom the non-existence of a medium for waves to travel through … until they could.

      By now there are probably more blogs than there are people to read them, so most of these mines of thought, glorious or otherwise, are destined for eternal obscurity.

  • Richard

    At first, my brain couldn’t make out the image of Heidi. Then it gradually adjusted and came into stunning focus.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      I obviously didn’t use a tripod on that one. Upon her death, though, its spectral and otherworldly cast took on new meaning.

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