I had a good talk today with Dr. McCorkle, my favorite physicist down the street. I was working to support a tree limb that was poised above his bedroom, causing him to lose sleep. He bemoaned the eventual death and collapse of his favorite tree, and resigned himself to the “undeniable law of gravity”. If I were to just support it with a temporary cable, he might sleep better. I mentioned that Newton’s apple had made a much greater impact than this branch ever could. This was, somehow, more personal, he reflected. I wondered to myself whether he had considered how the gravity-defying limb had found its way up over his bedroom in the first place.
While we worked, I thought I would draw him out on the subject. I asked him about his views on the birth and eventual death of the universe. The professor that he is, he seemed amenable to the question. Either that, or he is an exceedingly polite old southern gentleman. I thought it might be a way to explore the “undeniable” nature of physics, with someone who had pondered and explored it intelligently for almost a quarter of a century.
“Nothing,” he said emphatically, “is eternal.” He was quite definite that the physical universe seems to have arisen out of a singularity, before which, there was nothing; no space, no time, nothing. He was also clear that the physical world is ‘progressively’ falling apart into an ever-more-limp and disorganized condition. Perhaps black holes will eventually consume their galaxies, coalesce and return us all to a singularity in which the known laws of time and space will, once again, dissolve into nothing. (breath…)
I pointed out that the tree he was worried about was far more complex and self-directed than was allowed for by these laws of physics. He exclaimed that life was, indeed, a ‘marvelous, localized anomaly’, and that, for 150 years, this tree seemed to have defied the very laws of gravity that might soon bring it down on his head.
I wondered whether he also considered the restlessness and worry in his soul to be just anomalies; quirks in the otherwise orderly state of things. With another long breath, he replied that he had struggled with the question of consciousness and self-consciousness when he was a young man. He had come to realize that they were phenomena completely beyond the jurisdiction of the laws of physics. So, he had not given them more study.
“Isn’t consciousness just an anomaly on the path from the ‘Big Bang’ to oblivion?” I ribbed, with a smile.
He was cautiously and pensively speechless. “Consciousness”, he said, after a few moments, in a professorial tone, “is practically lawless, from a physicists point of view. Life, on the other hand, obeys its own exasperatingly complex rules, and manipulates the laws of physics to achieve its own separate agenda.” “Self-consciousness,” he continued, “appears to be the most extraordinary phenomena of all. You see, I am able to direct even my own consciousness, because I am self conscious.” This was a devoted physicist telling me this, as I directed my hands with my own self-taught engineering to cable the limb and settle his troubled mind. Perhaps, by averting his intellect from the question of ‘consciousness’, he had let his life-experience ripen in the warm glow of his intuition.
We talked a bit more when I was putting away my tools. I said I felt it was a bit of a stretch for a law abiding physical universe to have given birth to such ingenious offspring as life, consciousness and self consciousness. The laws of physics may be undeniable, but the laws of nature work with them like putty in their hands. It is only when the life of the tree ebbs, that gravity takes the upper hand. That is when I have to resort to mechanical engineering to keep it from the grip of gravity. Had physical nature really created all the “marvelous local anomalies” that I care for on a daily basis? I just had to wonder which had really been the parent and which, the child. Like the devoted educator that he had been for longer than my own 60 years, Dr. McCorkle noted my enthusiasm, smiled and said; “Philosophy is wasted on the young, isn’t it?”
His face lit up a bit, relieved that my efforts had temporarily denied gravity its claim on his tree and his sleep. Then he led me inside the house, suggested I read an article by another prominent physicist sympathetic to my train of thought, and paid me for my work.