Thursday, August 25, 2016

If the Universe is friendly, why is there so much hostility?

"The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity."--Einstein

Daniel Wilcox raised some good questions in response to my recent blog, "Is the Universe friendly?, and they are not easy to answer. If the "arc of the moral universe bends towards justice," why is there so much injustice? Why are people inclined to war and oppression? Why do earthquakes, floods and diseases strike down the just as well as unjust? You might as well ask: Why is there darkness, as well as light?

Asking questions like these implies that there is something inside us that cries out for justice. I know all too well how painful it is to lose someone to disease who doesn't "deserve" to die. When I was a youth director for my wife's church, a twelve-year-old named Christian came down with a virulent form of cancer. He earned his name and was the epitome of virtue, an artistic young man who loved his sister, treated everyone with kindness and certainly didn't deserve to die young. My wife Kathleen and I spent a lot of time visiting him and his family. Christian was a model patient, caring, funny, and eager to live. When he died, his hippie-themed memorial was a beautiful testimony to life well spent, but far too short. Shortly after his death, my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we went on a ten-month cancer journey together that tested our faith and our love for each other. Despite the prayers of many people, people of diverse faiths, my wife died all too soon and too young. I grieve such losses. Such deaths don't make sense, unless there is an afterlife in which souls live on to fulfill their destiny. But even if you don't believe in an afterlife, I am convinced that a life well lived is not wasted. Christian and Kathleen have inspired me, and many others, to live a life worthy of their example. They live on in my heart, for which I am deeply grateful.

We don't choose these natural evils that break open our hearts. They are part of the human condition, and the fabric of the universe. Without disease and death, the universe as we know it could not function.

But there is another kind of evil that is not inevitable.  It is based on human choice, the decision to do what is harmful to oneself or others. We usually do this unconsciously, unaware of how our actions are affecting others. But often we are in denial. We rationalize decisions that hurt others because they benefit us. As Scott Peck points out in his book "People of the Lie," this denial is what constitutes evil.

Our Quaker faith teaches that the Light shines in the darkness of every soul, and cannot be extinguished (or understood). It can guide us towards a life of love and justice towards all. But we have a choice. We can live according to the Light or we can deny it. If we deny it, we live in darkness and sooner or later we resort to violence, violence towards ourselves or others.

What physics teaches is that there is order in the physical universe, a tendency for matter to organize itself into more and more complex organisms. These organisms come to embody the Light that we call conscience or morality. As we become increasingly aware, we realize that we are all interconnected, and we need to act accordingly. This is the basis of morality. As Einstein observed:

"A human being is a part of the whole, called by us Universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest-a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole nature in its beauty."
The delusion of separateness is related to another cosmic tendency: entropy. This is the tendency to disorder, to death. When we embrace separation and isolation instead of connection and compassion, we align ourselves with the forces of entropy and death. This is what religious people call "sin."

These two tendencies are what create the moral Light and Darkness of the universe. Faith teaches us that the light of love is stronger, more enduring than the darkness. As Martin Luther King says so beautifully: "Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that."

As Daniel points out, Einstein was a "strict determinist" and didn't believe in a personal God. He described himself as an agnostic who had a deep admiration for mysticism. He profoundly admired the Quakers, as he made clear when he gave an address at Haverford College in the 1930s. Einstein was not a mystic, but he appreciated the "mystic emotion," a sense of awe at the mystery of the universe. I'd like to conclude with what Einstein had to say about his religious life:

The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenetrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties - this knowledge, this feeling ... that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself among profoundly religious men.


  1. Hello Anthony, I just I saw this and my name;-) and I'm not Daniel in the lyin's den...

    Of course, like many of us do, Einstein is contradicting himself, because if everything is determined then it was determined that the Germans must murder 12 million in the gas chambers.

    None of them had any choice.

    Indeed, there can be no evil, if no one has a choice.

    Nor any good.

    Even worse, if everything is determined then, everything that happens--no matter what--was determined, and everything that ever will happen in the future was already determined from the moment of the Big Bang. (Or for the many Calvinists I battled against for 55 years--determined by the Reformed God's foreordination of all events, both good and evil down to the movement of a molecule in the distant future (R.C. Sproul's imfamous example). Or as Piper explains, every time a tornado kills people, it is Jesus causing the slaughter with his "winds."

    In other words, we humans are only finite specks in conscious despair caught in petrified cosmic amber:-(.

    If everything is determined, then, contrary to Einstein's statement, there can be no curiosity, because curiosity can only happen if there is the ability to choose, the ability to receive, the ability to marvel. "Puppets" can do none of that.

    We studied all of this at university with a professor who earned his PhD. in determinism, and then I had the misfortune to encounter thousands of determinists in my life (all sorts--atheist, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, etc.:-( for many years.

    If everything is determined (which I am totally opposed to), I guess I can be thankful that it was determined that I not be a determinist;-) Well, no I can't even be thankful...

  2. And here's a powerful poem for your wife's memory, and for Christian, and for all those who are dying now, including my relative's best friend, a single mom who just died of cancer at 33, leaving behind 3 pre-schoolers:-(

    And for all those who've died this week in Syria, and elsewhere, horrific deaths...

    Dirge Without Music

    I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
    With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

    Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
    Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
    A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
    A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

    The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
    They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
    Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
    More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

    by Edna St. Vincent Millay,
    “Dirge Without Music” from Collected Poems © 1928, 1955 by Edna St. Vincent Millay and Norma Millay Ellis. Reprinted with permission of Elizabeth Barnett and Holly Peppe, Literary Executors, The Millay Society.

  3. Beautiful poem. I love it and can resonate with her feelings. Thanks for sharing it.