by Pastor Doug Kings
“What’s going to happen to us?” That’s the question pondered by New York Times science reporter, Dennis Overbye, in his recent essay, “Who Will Have the Last Word on the Universe?” His musings were prompted by a line he heard in the new Netflix documentary “A Trip to Infinity.” After about 100 billion years, cosmologist Janna Levin says, “There will be a last sentient being, there will be a last thought.” Overbye says,
When I heard that statement … it broke my heart. It was the saddest, loneliest idea I had ever contemplated. I thought I was aware and knowledgeable about our shared cosmic predicament — namely, that if what we think we know about physics and cosmology is true, life and intelligence are doomed. I thought I had made some kind of intellectual peace with that.
But this was an angle that I hadn’t thought of before. At some point in the future there will be somewhere in the universe where there will be a last sentient being. And a last thought. And that last word, no matter how profound or mundane, will vanish into silence along with the memory of Einstein and Elvis, Jesus, Buddha, Aretha and Eve, while the remaining bits of the physical universe go on sailing apart for billions upon billions upon billions of lonely, silent years.
I hope you’re not reading this in bed in the morning because, with that sentiment lodged in your head, you may not want to get up!
Most of Overbye’s essay is a fascinating report on physics’ developing understanding of the nature of the universe, including how it got started and how it’s going to end. It all began roughly 14 billion years ago with the outrush of energy known as the Big Bang. For a while scientists thought the universe might behave like an accordion: rushing out and then rushing back in what was called the “big crunch”—and then do it all again.
As Overbye makes clear, the scientific consensus now is that there will be no crunch but rather endless expansion, powered by “dark energy.” Eventually, galaxies will be too far apart to be visible; stars will burn out and not be replaced. Matter itself will cease to exist. Overbye describes this gloomy destiny.
Because thinking takes energy, eventually there will not be enough energy in the universe to hold a thought. In the end there will only be subatomic particles dancing intergalactic distances away from each other in a dark silence, trillions upon trillions of years after there was any light or life in the universe. And then, more uncountable trillions of eons to come, until there is finally no way to count the years.
“Trillions of eons”? I guess I can plan on keeping my appointments for next week. But Overbye is writing all this with a wink. He says in conclusion,
No matter what happens in the endless eons to come, at least we were here for the party, for the brief shining sliver of eternity when the universe teemed with life and light.
And with a nod to Rick/Humphrey Bogart, “We’ll always have the Milky Way.”
Just before this, Overbye acknowledges that the whole time/beginning/end question may be a red herring. He says that many scientists he has spoken with are relieved that the universe’s end is finally settled. “The death of the future frees them to concentrate on the magic of the moment.”
And here, science connects with a teaching found in all the world’s religions. Past and future are distractions from the present, which is what is most important and only genuinely real. In the words of the mystics, life only occurs in the “eternal now,” or what Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” As Overbye reports,
The late, great astrophysicist, philosopher and black hole evangelist John Archibald Wheeler, of Princeton, used to say that the past and the future are fiction, that they only exist in the artifacts and the imaginations of the present.
As far as past and future are concerned, it’s all in your head. Reality is all around you, right here, right now.
While studied for over a century, the implications of quantum mechanics are still only just being understood. For most people, scientists and laity alike, quantum entanglement has seemed too bizarre to take seriously. Yet it now may be revealing a dimension of reality science hadn’t recognized before, but which had been intuited by mystics and philosophers centuries ago.
Philosophers call this notion monism and the mystics pointed to it saying things like “all is one.” Science and philosophy have usually dismissed the idea. When it has been taught by Christian theological it almost always resulting their being excommunicated or even burned at the stake. Yet, according to theoretical physicist, Heinrich Päs, we are on the verge of understanding that reality actually is fundamentally “one”, everything is “entangled.”
The 3,000-year-old concept of monism may actually help modern physicists in their struggle to find a theory of quantum gravity and make sense out of black holes, the Higgs boson, and the early Universe. Chances are high that we witness the beginning of a new era where science is informed by monism and the Universe is perceived as a unified whole.
And from another essay by Päs, try wrapping your head around this.
A common thread now seems to be that space and time are not considered fundamental anymore. Contemporary physics doesn’t start with space and time to continue with things placed in this preexisting background. Instead, space and time themselves are considered products of a more fundamental projector reality. Nathan Seiberg, a leading string theorist, … is not alone in his sentiment when he states, “I’m almost certain that space and time are illusions. These are primitive notions that will be replaced by something more sophisticated.”
Mind bending, yet it may be the pin that pops Overbye’s nightmarish balloon of a universe expanding infinitely in time and space, into complete nothingness.
Scientists from multiple fields are joining with spiritualities ancient and modern in saying that reality, if not in our head, is in our mind, or better, our consciousness, or even better yet, in Consciousness. People like the Brazilian-Dutch computer scientist and philosopher Bernardo Kastrup, cognitive psychologist Donald Hoffman, and pathologist and complexity theorist Neil Theise, are coming from different directions to the same conclusion: consciousness is fundamental to and prior to material reality.
As Theise highlights in a recent SAND (Science and Nonduality) conference presentation, this was the conclusion over a century ago of the founder of quantum theory, Max Plank. In 1914, the German Nobel Prize winner declared,
“I regard consciousness as fundamental. I regard matter as derivative from consciousness. We cannot get behind consciousness. Everything that we talk about, everything that we regard as existing, postulates consciousness.”
Many ancient religious traditions have taught that reality exists within a “dream”, or the mind, of God. To say we and the universe are what God is “thinking” certainly comports with the creation story in Genesis 1 where God “speaks” the world into existence. Similarly, John 1 says everything that is made is done through the logos/thought/word of God.
Our personal ongoing experience of this is our consciousness, our awareness, which mystics have identified as our fundamental and True Self. As Max Plank says above, “we cannot get behind consciousness.” It is where our being and all being begins. In this Sunday’s reading from Acts, Paul tries to connect with the pagan Athenians by declaring, “In God we live and move and have our being.” They might have responded, “Now you’re talking language we understand.”
Science will continue to unwind the fascinating mystery of the cosmos. But the meaning of it all is much closer than we realize: in our most fundamental self which precedes our artificially created ego, the consciousness in which all our knowing and experience occurs. As Jesus’ parables repeatedly imply, God’s kingdom/presence is hiding in plain sight.
Mystics have long said that consciousness, or spirit, is our “interface” with God, “the ground of Being”, a favorite term of Hindus, medieval theologian Meister Eckhart, and modern theologian Paul Tillich. Today, increasingly, scientists are saying, “That may not be our language, but we can go along with it.” And to experience that interface, all we have to do is close the door, Jesus says. Close our eyes and ears and listen to the silence of Consciousness. Or as the Psalmist says, “Be still and know that I am God.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.