Albert Einstein once said the most important question a human being can ask
is "Is the universe friendly?"
Think of that for a moment. How would you answer? If you think the universe is truly friendly and supportive of you, this obviously has a huge effect on your perceptions and behaviour. The same applies if you think cosmos is hostile - or just indifferent to your fate.
On a first reading, Einstein's question is trivially true. If you've decided, consciously or unconsciously, that the universe is friendly, your positive outlook is likely to be mirrored by positive responses from others, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about your world being fundamentally good. You are likely to have more friends, job offers, etc. Conversely, if you are suspicious by nature, or walk around with a cloud over your head, you're not likely to be much fun at parties, although you may win nodding approval from fellow grumps. At the very least your life is likely to seem a series of disappointments. This is pretty self-evident stuff. From Ralph Waldo Emerson to Dale Carnegie to Wayne Dyer, most of us have heard the drill: life is what you make it.
But if it's Einstein talking, there's a good chance there's more to it than this. Spend a bit of time on it, and you realize the question's depth. This goes far beyond the soothing homilies about high self-esteem, or the pieties of religious dogmatism. This is about whether universe is friendly (unifiable, consoling) or unfriendly (neutral, fragmented, hostile, "other"). From the choice you make, you can extrapolate the direction of subsequent life decisions. Your state of being could evolve from the answer to that one all-important question. But bear with me; because it's a big topic and this essay is all over the map, from childhood psychology to the pest problems of a Hollywood star author, to the paradoxes of cosmology and quantum physics, to the "angel" in the library.
The choice to believe in a friendly or unfriendly universe undoubtedly begins in our early years. It may well be that people who are preternaturally content, seemingly at peace with themselves and the world, were introduced to "a friendly universe" through proper nurturing as infants. Their early experiences became the foundation for their psychic life. The results of less desirable childhood beginnings are also obvious. If a child suffers a traumatic birth, and/or their parents abuse their natural trust, that individual may grow up extrapolating their experience to the whole of existence, always suspecting the worst and failing to trust in others.
Rev. Gerard Pantin is the founder of Service Volunteered for All (SERVOL) in Trinidad and Tobago. In a speech he gave in 2000, he noted how the Yequana Indians of Brazil make sure that their babies are in physical contact with the skin of another human being 24 hours a day for the first two years. "These children grow up without that emptiness that we modern people spend our lives trying to heal or cope with. A lot of our modern preoccupation with 'feeling good' through sex and drugs dates back to the fact that the way in which we were brought up didn't give us the opportunity of feeling good about our infant bodies."
Citing Einstein's famous line, Pantin adds that "Yequana children, because of close bodily contact, not only see the universe as friendly but feel it to be loving." Beginning with a bodily, visceral sense of an all-embracing love, the Yequena don't intellectualize over whether the universe is friendly or not; they carry within themselves the felt conviction that they are loved beings. That's all well and good, a skeptic may say, but we live in a modern, fast-paced world where such bonding is difficult with our busy schedules. We have to "compete in the market," after all. Besides, what real difference does how we feel about the universe actually make to how it really is?
Well, as they like to say in political circles, perception is reality. Sometimes we need reminding how much our expectations drive what we experience. Sci-fi author Michael Crichton supplies an amusing example in his 1988 memoir Travels. In the early seventies, flush with success from spinning his novel The Andromeda Strain into a critically and commercially acclaimed film, he bought a home in the hills of Los Angeles. A friend asked him if he was afraid of the snakes. "What snakes?" the author asked. The rattlesnakes, of course, which his friend told him, come out in force during the dry season.
Crichton returned to his magnificent new home in a complete funk and didn't have any fun at all. He just looked for snakes.
"I worried that snakes were sneaking into my bedroom, so I locked all the doors every night to keep the snakes out. I thought snakes might come to the swimming pool to drink the water, so I avoided the swimming pool, particularly in the heat of the day, because the snakes were probably sunning on my deck. I never walked around my property, because I was sure there were snakes in the bushes. I walked only on the little path on the side of the house, and I peered around every corner before I turned it. But, increasingly, I didn't like to go outside at all. I became a prisoner in my own house. I had altered my entire behaviour and my emotional state purely on the basis of something I had been told. I still hadn't seen any snakes. But I was now afraid."
One day he saw his gardener tramping fearlessly around the property. The author asked if there were any rattlers in the area. Sure, his gardener replied, especially in the dry season. Wasn't he worried? The gardener shrugged and said he'd only seen a rattler once in over six years. He simply went and got a shovel and killed it. Only one snake in six years? Crichton's mood brightened. In rational terms, there was really nothing to be worried about. He sat by the pool for the rest of the day.
As the gardener was leaving, he told the author he could be sure there were no snakes on the property, because Crichton had so many gophers.
Gophers! The very critters that the recent homeowner had spent weeks setting traps for, trying to poison, and taking potshots at with his air rifle. All to no effect whatever. "Each morning fresh gopher burrows crisscrossed my lawn. It was extremely frustrating. My house looked like National Gopher Park." Crichton began to rethink how to deal with the tunneling terrors, and eventually the gophers' mortal enemies came to mind. "Was there anything I could do to attract rattlesnakes to my house? Put out some favourite rattlesnake food, or some dishes of water?"
Thinking back on his conceptual gymnastics over pest problems, Crichton realized he went through a whole series of changes without ever actually seeing a snake. "I felt different only because I had shifted perspectives," he noted, at one moment hating gophers, the next fearing snakes, the next hating gophers even more and wishing for more snakes. "Each shift in perspective was accompanied by a total change in my attitudes, the physiology, my behaviour, my emotions. I was immediately and wholly modified by each new perspective that I adopted."
If a person can change their mind-body state that radically over something as mundane as snakes and gophers, imagine what choosing between a friendly or unfriendly universe might mean to their state of being.
Westerners aren't like the Yequana; we demand empirical evidence for one point of view or the other. And there's certainly no shortage of confirmation for an unfriendly universe - or unfriendly planet, at least. All you have to do is to pick up a daily paper. The universe doesn't seem to have been too friendly recently to the women and children in Sudan, or the rest of Africa for that matter. And that's just the cruelty humans regularly visit upon fellow humans; earthquakes, floods, volcanoes and other natural disasters dispatch thousands yearly. Randomness reigns. If there's anything friendly here, it seems to have the same sense of humour as Mike Tyson.
And as far as mainstream science goes, some intellectuals insist it promote the idea of cosmic indifference, which is pretty much the same thing as unfriendliness from a human point of view. One of the central concepts of orthodox evolutionary theory is that humans are the products of blind chance and selection. Like all other creatures, we're Darwin's wind-up toys, entropically rolling around in a meaningless cosmos, duking it out for resources and mates. In this view, our purpose is no more than biological: eat, breed, and die. If you can call that purpose.
As cosmologist Steven Weinberg famously concluded in his book The First Three Minutes, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Yet this scientific-materialist philosophy doesn't have to necessarily result in despair over our apparent lack of purpose here. Some intellectuals exult in the freedom this philosophy offers from the strictures of organized religion and other apparent superstitions. But others aren't so sanguine. As physicist Nick Herbert put it in a bit of doggerel:
Some suffer from a bone-deep fear
That matter's all that matters here
That love and hate and pretty faces
Are naught but atoms changing places.
But is modern science really so unambiguous in its assessment of a lack of purpose for sentient beings? Astronomers now tell that the fundamental constants of the universe (for example, the electron's charge or the rest mass of the proton) are precisely set at just the right values to allow the emergence of life. This so-called "anthropic principle" has been endlessly debated by academics. Some physicists see it as evidence that, as Princeton University's Freeman Dyson has it, "the universe must know in some sense that we were coming." Others say the anthropic principle is no more than a tautology - a universe hostile to observers wouldn't have anyone sitting around wondering about such things. A trendy new theory in cosmology is that we live in a fathomless "multiverse," with universes popping into being all the time, and we just happen to be - we can only be - in one of the lucky ones.
Try as you might, it seems damnably impossible to settle Einstein's question about a friendly universe with absolute finality, at least in any intellectual sense. If you believe that this plane of existence is all there is, and that death rings down the curtain for your little playlet, you might have some difficulty believing this universe is anything other than indifferent. Philosopher Bertrand Russell once said our knowledge must "build upon the solid bedrock of uncompromising despair," but does this represent the heroism of unflinching realism, or an existential seed program for psychic and cultural implosion?
Either way, the unfriendly proponents can trot out innumerable historical anecdotes to make their case, from the fall of Greece to the rise of Nazi Germany. When whole societies decline, faith doesn't necessarily protect the faithful. In fact, it's often the faithful who are the problem, with "God's children" killing God's children.
This is bigger than a simple question of religious belief (after all, there are plenty of fear-driven fundamentalists who believe in an unfriendly universe presided over by a smite-happy deity). Ultimately, it seems to come down to taking a leap of faith, and choosing to buy into one universe or the other. Einstein didn't say the universe was or wasn't friendly; he said it was the most important question a human being can ask. It is what you choose to believe that is critical. And here's where things get really interesting, because choice has a very, very, interesting relationship to the quantum world.
A fundamental experiment in quantum physics involves shining a beam of light at a barrier with two open slits. Some of the light gets through the barrier, forming an interference pattern on a screen. This indicates light has the property of a wave. Yet if you close one slit, leaving the other open, the light appears as just a single shaft of light built up photon by photon on the screen, which indicates that light has a particle property.
Forget for a moment that no one has ever truly figured out how light can be both a particle and a wave at the same time, things which are as different as baseballs and Bach fugues. The critical part is that how it behaves depends upon the experimental setup. Ask nature a question a certain way, and you get a certain answer. (According to quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg, "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.") Recent variations on this experiment, where scientists try to "trick" light by changing the testing apparatus while the photons are in flight, have only led to the spooky conclusion that the light behaves as if it knows what the experimenters are up to. That seems like a pretty nutty interpretation. The one marginally less nutty alternative, favoured by most quantum physicists is that our intentions seem to drive, in large part, how certain physical phenomenon manifest to our consciousness.
In other words, the nature of the question determines the reality you perceive. Our choice plays a critical role in determining the outcome of a situation in our local space-time - at least for experiments with photons. If our choices have this kind of dynamic going with the quantum world, the question then becomes how deep does this craziness run? Scientists insist such paradoxical phenomena are limited to the nano-world of the quantum. At larger scales, they are smudged out by the cancellation of a huge number of differing quantum states. It's called "decoherence," and it prevents the Alice in Wonderland weirdness of quantum physics from erupting into the kitchen, boardroom, or lab. Yet with the discovery of "microtubules" in human neurons, there is some evidence that the human brain may actually process some information on a quantum level, which may or may not reopen this whole can of worms for the macro level of reality.
So what does this all mean? Is the universe the ultimate Rorschach blot, with the meaning only what we read into it? Or is there something even more interesting than this going on?
From "many worlds" interpretation of quantum mechanics to the research into parapsychology at Princeton and other universities, it is apparent that the simple push-pull, subject-object model of reality is no longer tenable. What we are discovering is that sentient beings bring a profound level of participation to the construction of reality. Of course, the create-our-own-reality idea has been around for some time, but the situation may be more subtle, and even stranger, than we think.
How far does consciousness go in determining the reality we experience? Earlier, I remarked on some remarkable experiments in physics that demonstrate the bizarre role played by the observer/experimenter, and how the nature of their inquiry conditions the answer received. In a 1978 lecture, author John Michell took this idea one step further, describing what he saw as the universe's habit "of reflecting back ideas projected onto it, of seeming to provide positive evidence for any theory that can possibly be formulated." He claimed you could test it for yourself. "Take the wildest idea imaginable, commit yourself to believing it, become obsessed with it, and you'll soon find all kinds of evidence turning up as confirmation of it."
"This same risk is notoriously inherent in all occult studies. If one is studying a subject intensely, particularly if writing about it, ideas on that subject from unknown sources flood into the mind, and phenomena connected with it may even intrude into one's life, as the raven of Edgar Allen Poe intruded upon the midnight scholar."
According to Michell, this phenomenon infects scientific research. "The great Charles Fort gave several humorous instances of the same experiment yielding two different results, each one gratifying the experimenter." Recently, the same problem has been noted in parapsychology investigations into the "sense of being stared at." PhD psychologist Dean Radin notes the hair-raising possibility that the scientific world picture may be in large part an extremely robust consensual hallucination, cobbled together by the participatory nature of our collective consciousness with the physical world.
"The universe is so generous that it gives to anyone, crank, scientist or religious believer, the evidence which confirms his particular belief or theory," wrote Michell.
If there is any merit to this meta-mad idea - and it may be worthwhile to entertain it for a while before you choose to discard it for its crazy consequences - it means we need to be very choosy about what we believe in. There is more at stake than just our choice of words; it means we can power our delusions and fantasies far more than we previously thought. That sounds like the royal road to the loony bin - the old line that "neurotics build castles in the sky, but psychotics live in them" - but according to Michell there is more to this than just the "delusory tendencies in the universal feedback effect."
"I now come to the interesting part, the way in which the effect can be used creatively," he said. "Study a subject, allow it to obsess you, ask questions of it, and next time you visit a library, a bookstore or a friend's house, you may pick up the one book in the world which gives the answer you were looking for. Coincidences can be invoked. I have asked many writers about this, and nearly all of them were able to give striking personal examples of being helped by this useful aspect of the feedback effect which Arthur Koestler attributes to library angels."
After reading through a score of library cases, wrote the late Arthur Koestler, "one is tempted to think of library angels in charge of providing cross-references." Koestler was the one who put the seraphic spin on this particular species of good fortune. His library angel will be no stranger to many writers, readers and researchers. Whether she's sister to serendipity, or just cousin to dumb luck, she seems to make her appearance at the moment when your guard is down. You're either idly seeking some piece of trivia, or giving up on some search through the stacks, when suddenly the right book or magazine falls at your feet open at the right passage.
The sign of a friendly universe, or just a playful one? Or just a misinterpretation of chance events?
In Notes From a Small Island, travel writer Bill Bryson tells of his own encounter with the library angel, after pitching a story to a travel magazine on, of all things, extraordinary coincidences.
"When I came to write the article," Bryson writes, "I realized that, although I had plenty of information about scientific studies into the probability of coincidence, I didn't have nearly enough examples of remarkable coincidences themselves..." After writing a letter to the magazine saying he wouldn't be able to deliver, Bryson "left the letter on top of his typewriter to post the next day," and drove off to his job at The Times of London. Here he saw a notice on the door of an elevator, altering staff to the literary editor's annual sale of review copies sent to The Times. "The place was full of mingling people. I stepped into the melee and what should be the very first book my eyes fell on but a paperback called Remarkable True Coincidences. How's that for a remarkable true coincidence? But here's the uncanny thing. I opened it up and found that the very first coincidence it discussed concerned a man named Bryson."
Of course, given the millions, if not billions, of variables that interact throughout the course of the day, it's impossible for there not to be the occasional coincidences, which are no more than that. But every once in a while some whopper drops on your head that gives you doubts. When a highly unlikely textual coincidence occurred to astrophysicist Jacques Vallee during a Los Angeles cab ride, he was inspired to consider the nature of chance. Pondering the equivalence of energy and information, Vallee decided "we live in the associative universe of the software scientist rather than the sequential universe of the space-time physicist." Which means our focus on a given idea or emotion may be like performing a cosmic file request.
The library angel and related phenomenon suggest something like a Google-search aspect to existence, or, to use a different metaphor, that the universe occasionally behaves the way an author does with the characters in his or her novel. This brings us back to Michell, and what he concluded from all "the hermetic quality of the universe, the way it will respond to desires implanted in it and reflect back images projected onto it." Michell said that "we are all, individually and collectively, responsible for the world as it really is, which is how we experience it."
"In terms of objective fact there is little to choose between any cosmology, traditional or scientific," he insisted, a claim that is even more radical than the postmodernist deconstruction of truth, and one that I have some problem with myself. But this doesn't have to lead to a nightmare of relativism, because reality construction is a largely a collective act, according to the author. Since we get back what we project, why not believe in the best option? (Paranoia is the belief that the world is out to get you. Pronoia is the suspicion the universe is a conspiracy on your behalf. )
"Evidently therefore it is to our advantage to regard this best of all possible universes, this fascinating organism of which we are part, with the most high-minded expectations in the knowledge that as we imagine this world and our relationship to it, so it will become."
A good argument for believing the universe is friendly rather than unfriendly? You may not be convinced, but then, neither am I (If the reader has doubts, that goes double for this writer). But considering the potential return, I'm willing to go with it, even if Michell's idea seems somewhat Pollyanish - the "best of all possible worlds" lampooned by Voltaire in his novel Candide. It's also an idea fundamentally alien to the materialism of Western thought. In any case, the straightforward idea that our thoughts have consequences in the world we live in is beyond argument. Whether it's a cantata or a cruise missile, every cultural artifact we humans have conjured into physical existence began as a dream in someone's head.
But how do we jibe Michell's sentiments with declining living standards, species decline, resource wars, and environmental breakdown? It appears Homo sap is in for a serious ass kicking from an episode of When Good Biospheres Go Bad. If conscious intent plays this much a role in the universe we live in, we've apparently been thinking some very bad thoughts for quite some time.
This brings us to the nature of the world we've created, which some would cite as evidence for an unfriendly universe. But who imagined it into being? From the feudal-era heathen-beating by the Holy Roman Empire to the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund, westerners have built their lifestyles to an great degree on the suffering of others. The Christian God, the first deity we conquered under, was imagined by believers as alternately beneficent and wrathful. The second god, capital, has its own bipolar disorder.
In the 1920s, German sociologist Walter Benjamin recognized the religious dimensions to the worship of money. "It (capitalism) is a religion because it is based on faith - untested and unproven by the individual acolyte - in materialism and rationalism. It is a passive worldview, a negative theology," he wrote. (We can replace the neoMarxist scholar's "capitalism" with "crony corporatism" if we like.)
Although he wasn't directly addressing the topic of belief in a friendly/unfriendly universe, it lies at the heart of his thesis. "Disbelief in any spiritual reality is also a belief system," he noted. "The capitalist mind perceives the world purely in terms of material resources to be used for its benefit, to increase productivity and profit without thought of long-term consequence. If there is still a vague and oppressive sense of guilt, of wrongness and imbalance, this gnawing guilt spurs capitalism on to greater acts of consumption, more violent attempts to subjugate nature, more totalizing efforts to create distractions. To the "rational materialist" mind, death is the end of everything, and this thought feeds its rage against nature, which has placed it in this position of despair. The destruction of the world is revenge against a vanished God, and a drastic attempt to invoke the spiritual powers."
"Capitalism is probably the first instance of a cult that creates guilt, not atonement ... The nature of the religious movement which is capitalism entails the endurance right to the end, to the point where God, too, finally takes on the entire burden of guilt, to the point where the universe has been taken over by that despair which is actually its secret hope. Capitalism is entirely without precedent, in that it is a religion, which offers not the reform of existence but its complete destruction. It is the expansion of despair, until despair becomes a religious state of the world in the hope that this will lead to salvation."
Decades before the resource wars of the present day, Benjamin insisted "the destruction of the world as the real goal of world capitalism - its systemic hope and transcendent ideal."
That may seem more than a bit extreme, but these musings may have even greater resonance now than they did in Benjamin's time. We seemed to have reached a spiritual brick wall in our secular ways of thinking and feeling. The ads don't deliver, the politics don't heal, and the science doesn't connect. We know all too well the damage that organized religion can do, but we're also beginning to understanding the destructiveness of our financial - corporate networks and the military-industrial complex that protect their interests. It's not that there are no options - it's that the marginalization of these options fuels a profound despair, along with a growing sense that we have passed beyond the point of no return. Ironically, this despair is likely to feed the addictions, violence, clinical depression, endless distraction, and retail therapy that is already ingrained in North American culture, encouraging further its monstrous consumption of resources and human potential.
This is the true horror of the world we have imagined into being. If children are not nurtured properly in homes where true love prevails, and are raised in a culture endorsing deceit and a Darwinian competition for jobs and resources, a "friendly universe," one they could have otherwise internalized as emotionally real for themselves, may elude them all their lives.
In the so-called First World, we seem to have dug ourselves into a God-sized hole. But the First Law of Holes is to stop digging. If there is some vast consciousness that dreamed this whole shebang into existence, one thing we embody from Him/Her/Whatever is a spark from the fire of creation: the power to choose, to imagine, and to dream new worlds into being.
But remember the quantum experiments I cited earlier, and the lesson from light: often, the way in which we ask a question is inextricably bound to the reality we will be answered with. At the end of her book on remote viewing experimentation, Multidimensional Mind, Dr. Jean Millay summed up how consciousness can become an active partner with the world we inhabit. The final sentence of the book is highlighted in script, so the reader recognizes its importance: "Real magic can be created by maintaining a steady focus of intention through an appropriate belief system." Don't believe it? Consider that a single shlumpy guy in a baseball cap may help swing the next US election, through a documentary that was released domestically against all odds. If Michael Moore's not one person creating magic, I don't know what is.
The universe manifests in many forms, from sunsets to soccer hooligans, seemingly supplying us with abundant reason to decide either which way. The answer we decide, ultimately, is intimately connected to our own deepest level of being. According to the scientific picture of the world, the very chemical elements of our bodies were cooked up in the hearts of supernovae; we have a certain identity with the universe itself. And throughout history, in certain "occult" branches of mainstream religions - Kabala, Sufism, and neoPlatonic traditions - there is the radical idea that our existence is neither accidental nor alienated from its source. In these traditions, the immense variety of creation is simply an itemized efflorescence of the divine. At bottom, there is no otherness to the foundation of being - although we have the free will to think or believe otherwise.
I suspect our answer to Einstein's question involves nothing less than the universe answering itself, through the agency of the human heart and mind. Will our decision, yes or no, mean we will receive the kind of subtle verification Michell speaks of? This isn't an experiment for the Royal Society or the National Research Council; it's a subjective test each person must perform on their own.
But it's a tricky question. There is a line from transcendentalists like Walt Whitman and Emerson to the practitioners of Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People to the "looking out for number one" ethos of self-advancement, which has created a philosophy of winning at all costs. The results are obvious. The problem is that conflating the ego, rather than the self, with a rewarding god or universe has mostly been a recipe for disaster.
Albert Einstein is not on record as saying the universe is actually friendly or not; he concerned himself with the importance of asking the question. As in the theory of relativity, the position of the observer is fundamental.
Einstein was as much a philosopher as he was a scientist, and he was more interested in the meaningful answers than cold abstractions. His desire for an ultimate unification of knowledge included life, human nature, human intelligence and human personality. As author Charles Hansen pointed out in The Technology of Love, the question Einstein posed was deceptively simple, "but it becomes the most profound of questions, for it has no meaning outside of human observation, of all that humans are, and all that we might become."
The storm that brews on the horizon, the flag that whips in the breeze, the hand outstretched by a stranger, the gaze of a lover; whether we've projected our self into the skies or onto our nation, or through the pupils of a fellow human being, the same question brews for all of us: are you friendly or not? Storms occasionally destroy property, friends sometimes betray us, and government doesn't always have our best interests at heart. But what if you add it all together and ask the universe as a whole? Perhaps the answer depends on the way you put the question.
Geoff Olson is a Vancouver writer and political cartoonist. firstname.lastname@example.org