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Category: Big Picture

Free (hah!) Will
I didn’t think much about free will until I got to college. Then came Philosophy 1 and my introduction to the theory of Determinism. If this is your first encounter with this numbing concept, I apologize. Your comfy world view is about to be upended and spilled out onto the Parcheesi board of your life. As you will soon see, however, there was nothing I could have done to prevent this from happening. No offense; it was simply meant to be.

Determinism asserts that everything that happens must happen because it has been caused by all that has gone before, all the way back to the First Cause (if there was such a thing). That fabric of causality can only unfold in one way, and every event within it is predetermined from here to the end of time (if there is to be such an event). The universe is fully determined and immutable forever. Within such a framework, I am sad to say, there is no place for free will.

The first time I heard this line of reasoning, I immediately accepted it as true. Of course every event is an outgrowth of previous events. That’s obvious, it seemed to me. Furthermore, the mesh of causality could certainly be fine enough to include the most complex human motivations, genetic structure, and ways of being. Not only is our behavior predetermined, then, we are predetermined.

This realization is a double-edged sword. Cosmically, we’re off the hook for anything we do (and that’s a relief), but at the same time our lives are rendered utterly meaningless. That’s kind of a tough sword to swallow, philosophically. Ever since that first collision with Determinism, I’ve been trying to square my acceptance of a universe that is already written in stone with my conviction that what I do makes a difference. It’s proven to be a difficult task. Until now.

Though it is not widely known, I am something of an amateur theoretical physicist. Furthermore, I am happy to report that my research in this field has brought my decades-long struggle with the free will/determinism conundrum to an end. I call my discovery the Negligible Differentiation Effect, or NDE. I won’t get into all the technical stuff about event eruptions along intertwining chains of causality projected within a four-dimensional field of space/time. Most of you would be bored by the math. Suffice it to say that free will does exist after all — but not quite in the way we have imagined.

Here’s how it works. Within the parameters the NDE, we have a narrow range of control over the events we experience. We can make real choices which are not predetermined. We can choose to have granola for breakfast, for example, or we can choose Dinosaur Eggs Benedict, and that choice would be wholly our own and utterly unaffected by events that have preceded it. So yes, there is free will — but there is a catch, as well. Our choices, no matter how consequential they may seem, will have no effect on subsequent events. The egg dish might well cause us to experience an episode of indigestion that we would not have had with the cereal, but that slight variation in events will bring about a negligible differentiation among succeeding events. Such choices disappear into a kind of causal vortex within the NDE and hence count for nothing in the grand scheme of things. I could show you the calcs, but you are fated neither to understand nor to care, so why bother?

Perhaps it would be helpful if you imagined the entire universe of events, from the beginning to the end of time, as a giant tree sloth covered with a thin layer of slime. That slime is the NDE. It has an interesting sheen to it, especially when the sloth is moving, but it will wash right off in the first rain.

Again, I should apologize… for that sloth metaphor and for what I’ve done to your peace of mind. The only thing my years of work have accomplished is to replace one double-edged sword with a smaller, tarnished one. I should apologize, but I won’t. It is what it is, as they say, and it couldn’t have been anything else. It was set in stone, you see, and covered with slime.
Einstein Was Wrong
Three times. What a dope.

His first mistake came when he thought he was wrong. Worrying that a logical extrapolation of his own work on general relativity seemed to indicate an expanding universe (an idea that repelled him), Albert inserted something called a “cosmological constant” into his equations. This mathematical doohickey provided him with the comforting notion of a static universe, fixed in space forever.

A few years later, in 1929, the astronomer Edwin Hubble published proof of the redshift phenomenon. His data showed that distant objects appear slightly redder than they really are. The only explanation for this effect had to be that those objects were moving away from us at high speed, thus skewing our perception of their color toward the red end of the spectrum. Ergo, the universe was expanding after all, heading outward in all directions and going faster and faster all the time.

Einstein, reading Hubble’s work, took it as a confirmation of his original equations and retracted his insertion of the cosmological constant, calling it his “biggest blunder.” Well, that was his second mistake. Physicists have recently revived the constant to help them understand dark energy, a heretofore mysterious aspect of our universe that seems to counteract gravity. This anti-gravitational force is thought to be the very reason the universe is expanding!

That’s twice, then, that Einstein thought he was wrong, and twice that he was wrong about being wrong. Now comes the charm: what if Hubble was wrong? What if the redshift he observed is not caused by the movement of objects, but by something else entirely?

Up steps Christof Wetterich of the University of Heidelberg with an answer. Christof suggests that the reason those objects appear redder is that they are getting heavier as time passes. The mass of an object also affects the light it emits. Specifically, if an object becomes more massive, it will emit more energy and appear redshifted. Wow.

So, if Christof is right, Albert is wrong… again. Not only that, I may be right. Not about the cosmological constant or the redshift, but about my own theory of Pulsating Nodes.

Let me explain. You won’t find references to the Pulsating Nodes Theory in any of the scientific literature because it’s not there. This is my own, personal theory that I made up. No, I am not a theoretical physicist or an extragalactic astronomer; instead, I consider myself a thinking ignoramus. But never mind that. In order for my theory to be correct, this universe and all other universes must explode into being, expand, then contract to their starting points. Again and again and again. If Hubble and Einstein are right, and the universe expands and expands until entropy finally triumphs and the whole mess just sits there forever, then there is no contraction. The universe, in that case, would not pulsate, and my theory would die in the icy cold of space.

Thanks to Professor Wetterich, however, new life has been breathed into the nostrils of my cosmos. If he is correct about all mass everywhere getting heavier all the time, then the Pulsating Nodes Theory — a product not of science but of common sense — will live on and, who knows, someday might be vindicated. Now, at least, there is hope.

I leave it to others to come up with the numbers. I’m just an ideas guy who wants the universe to make sense, which is something that dope Albert Einstein wouldn’t understand.

How Does God Do It?
I mean, really? Think of what he has on his plate: overseeing every vibration of every subatomic string in every nanosecond in every multiverse. Forever. Granted, he’s all-powerful, but where does he find the energy to do all that and still get offended when some earthboob disses him?

Let’s be honest; he must be farming out some of this stuff. Earth, for instance, is a tiny planet in the backwaters of a dim little galaxy. Surely he has delegated our management to someone else — not an angel, necessarily, but at least some super-smart alien being. Any good manager would do the same; it makes sound business sense, and I would never dare say that God is a bad businessman.

My guess is that our local super alien lives in the sun. What better vantage point to run things from? The lighting is great. There’s plenty of raw energy there to supply him (or it) with all his needs, whatever they might be. Plus, it’s a great hiding place. No one is ever going to voyage to the center of the Sun.

I have no doubt, furthermore, that all of these alien subcontractors are very, very nice beings. God wouldn’t have it any other way. They must have undergone a rigorous screening process so that only the best, the brightest, and the lovingest would fill these positions.

Even so, systems fail. Somehow, there is a small malfunction… and some boneheaded foul-up gets the job. It’s nobody’s fault, really, but there he is, running a solar system.

Maybe that’s what happened here, on planet Earth.

Now again, I’m not faulting God, and any talk of a lawsuit would certainly be premature. I simply want to say that the service has been spotty, at best. The suffering-to-joy ratio has been out of whack from the beginning, way too many innocents are getting chewed up in the gears, and God’s brand is taking a beating.

Let me state for the record that I am fully down with the God-moves-in-mysterious-ways caveat. Unlike Pat Robertson, I don’t imagine that I can understand the motivations of an infinite being. Still, all this agony and waste seems unnecessary. I can only assume that our alien, seeing the mess he has made of things, has been submitting false reports to the head office, thereby compounding the unrighteousness. This blog, sadly, might never be seen by higher-ups in the chain of command.

But I had to try. If our alien is as incompetent as he seems, maybe the sun will get in his eyes, and this message will slip through.

Somewhere out there, there is a comet with our name on it. Right now it’s hanging out in the Oort cloud, far beyond Pluto, where it’s hobnobbing with the billions of other comets. The time will come, however, when complex gravitational forces will nudge the rocky ice ball out of its position. It will then begin, as so many of its companions have, its long, curving trajectory toward the sun — except that this one will be heading directly at planet earth.

This should be a cause for concern. The last time something really big hit the earth, all the dinosaurs died. When the next big thing hits, some other dominant, pain-in-the-ass creatures will probably disappear. In case you’re wondering, that’ll be us, dude.

The last such collision, as it is generally agreed, occurred 60 million years ago when an asteroid smacked into the Yucatan. It kicked up so much crud that the sun was blotted out for years. That was long enough to lop off the top of the food chain and set up the steady rise of the hairless apes to the top spot. And now here we sit — a moving target, no doubt, but you can count on the universe to keep trying to knock us off our perch.

Asteroid strikes like the one that offed the dinos are more common than comets, of course, but getting whacked by a comet is a whole other level of disaster. The Yucatan asteroid, assuming it was typical, probably hit Earth traveling about 40,000 miles per hour. A comet would likely be going around 120,000 m.p.h. If you’re a bacterium buried deep in the earth’s crust you might walk away from such a collision without a scratch. The rest of us are toast.

The thought of such a cataclysmic event might be too horrible for you to imagine, but wait around for a year and a half and you may not have to imagine it. October 19, 2014 — that’s when comet C/2013 A1 passes directly through Mars’ orbit and may (or may not) clobber the red planet. If it hits, we’ll all have an example of the awful violence of the cosmos to study and ponder. The music of the spheres will be transformed for a time into a heavy metal rock concert.

We were given a similar opportunity in 1993 when Comet Shoemaker-Levy (the celestial body formerly known as comet D/1993 F2) collided with Jupiter. That was certainly a violent event, but it’s hard to identify with the damage done to a gas giant like Jupiter. Astronomers tell us that the scars left by the impact were truly horrendous, but the concept of damage to a huge ball of hydrogen was somewhat difficult to grasp. Mars is a different story. It’s somewhat smaller than Earth but just as solid. What’s more, it’s right next door; we’d have the best seats in the house.

I have mixed feelings about this hypothetical encounter. For starters, I have nothing against Mars. Some astronomers point to evidence that it may, in fact, have been the source of life on Earth. Under their theory, bits of life on Mars were dislodged by another cosmic impact long ago and spattered across the surface of this planet; we are the descendants of those splatters. In a way, then, Mars is home, and I’d hate to see anything bad happen to it. There is also a possibility that some form of life still exists there, and I don’t wish any harm to befall any of my relatives, no matter how distant.

Still, it would be a hell of a show. If you like explosions, you’d love the mayhem of this interplanetary train wreck. Waves of destruction and chaos would spread across the Martian globe, changing the face of the planet forever. Some think the climate will become warmer. Water could flow again. It might even become habitable.

All fantasy, of course, but we can be sure of this: some very big changes would come to our neighbor, and the event would provide one big celestial object lesson about what could happen to us once the comet with our name on it finally comes calling. Maybe the sight of it would shock us into a heightened awareness of how wondrous and precious and fragile our own planet is. Perhaps we’d be moved to change the trajectory of our lives here and stop ourselves from poisoning our own nest. At the very least, it might persuade us to work on our defenses against a similar cataclysm. The destruction of Mars, then, might help save the earth, and that would be a good thing.

In the end, though, I don’t want any of this to happen. I want comet C/2013 A1 to sail safely past Mars, crack the whip around Sol, and head back to the Oort cloud. I want Earth to plod on without needing an object lesson and simply do the right thing because it makes sense. I want the music of the spheres to play sweetly on, uninterrupted by the awful cacophony of violent, wrenching change. I want to be left alone and to live in peace.

The universe, I know, has other ideas. It has comets with my name on them, and asteroids, and earthquakes, and tornadoes, and Land Rovers driven by texting teens. If it isn’t one thing, it’s a whole bunch of things. No matter what happens to Mars, I’m sticking with the same game plan: keep my head down, my eyes open, and try not to do anything stupid.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon