Category Archives: Faith and Reason

Ride That Photon

At the speed of light, propagation of TIME stops. So, a photon does not travel forever because our concept of time does not hold true for it. Photons do not experience passage of time. Victor Mazmanian, retired Associate Professor of Physics, U.S. Air Force Academy quoted from an answer to a Quora question, “How can light travel forever?” 

I confess that I am a Quora stalker, mostly science, history and philosophy. Never have I posed or answered a question. Perhaps I will work up my courage to do so. When I read the for the most part well informed questions and answers, for now, I am content to learn and to wonder. I follow a few of the contributors like my friend Bob Cormack[i] from Colorado. Mostly though I am eclectic and follow my curiosity. That probably qualifies me as a geek in its current definition.[ii]

The Quora article I linked above is clear and simple without being simplistic about complex subjects like the quantum packets of energy called photons that are always either in motion at the speed of light or non-existent when they stop moving. For photons, time does not exist because at their velocity, time does not pass, a “trip” of twenty light years is a flash without so much as a nanosecond transpiring from their perspective.  The math of the quantum physics and relativity will remain well beyond this humble blogger’s aptitude, but the concepts and inspiration to the imagination are mine to play with.[iii]

If we were able to transform and hitch a ride on a photon, a form of time travel would be possible. Astronomers recently discovered a rocky planet circling Proxima Centauri, a mere twelve light years away. With current technology, this would be a journey of about 544 centuries at fifty two thousand miles an hour, which was what the New Horizon Pluto probe attained. It took New Horizon about nine and half years to get to Pluto. Even at the speed of light, should we be able to travel that fast, a round trip to Proxima Centauri would take a couple of dozen years. Upon our return, we would have not aged a day or perceived any passage of time, but our friends and families would be decades older. Or not here at all.

Please dont make fun when I tell you something true.  Across the River and into the Trees, Ernest Hemingway

John Archibald Wheeler, theoretical physicist and doctoral advisor to many, including Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman, proposed that as we learn more and more about the universe, we will see that it is informational, more like a computer than a machine. Or more like a mind. Wheeler revived the study of general relativity after World War II, invented the terms “black hole” and “wormhole” and was involved with Feynman and others in the development of quantum mechanics. Many current physicists now subscribe to this “informational” understanding of the universe and believe it is the path to eventually uncovering a unified theory of physics, resolving the paradoxes of relativity and quantum theory. Wheeler said this during a eulogy of mathematician Hermann Weyl in 1986, “Time, among all concepts in the world of physics, puts up the greatest resistance to being dethroned from ideal continuum to the world of the discrete, of information, of bits… Of all obstacles to a thoroughly penetrating account of existence, none looms up more dismayingly than ‘time.’ Explain time? Not without explaining existence. Explain existence? Not without explaining time. To uncover the deep and hidden connection between time and existence….is a task for the future.” [iv]

The essence of knowledge does not consist in the effort for which it calls, but in grasping existing things and in unveiling reality. Moreover, just as the highest form of virtue knows nothing of difficulty, so too the highest form of knowledge comes to man like a gift—the sudden illumination, a stroke of genius, true contemplation: it comes effortlessly and without trouble.  Dr. Josef Pieper, Leisure, the Basis of Culture English translation, Random House, 1963

For God, time is not linear, rather more like a photon perceives it than like we perceive it. All of time is seen at once, as now, beyond humans to even conceive of His gaze. How this is understood in terms of free will and pre-destination, I’ll leave to the theologians. For this post, I’d like to consider where humans may find some common ground with this view of the cosmos.

The ancients and medieval philosophers taught that human knowledge is gained in two ways, which they named ratio and intellectus. Ratio was what we would now call a left brain activity, rational, discursive, leading to conclusions and requiring lots of work or study. Intellectus is more right brain, wholeness, intuitive, contemplative and receptive. The difference might be perceived in coming upon a vista like the Grand Canyon. Our left brain is curious and studies the mile-deep cliffs of the Grand Canyon dropping to the Colorado River: geological eras with their names and characteristics, rising and receding seas, the crushing together and uplift of tectonic plates and layer upon layer of aggregated stones and fossils. This is learning with ratio.

Intellectus is content to take it all in, to be silent, to think long thoughts or no thoughts at all, to grasp the canyon as beautiful in and of itself: objectively valuable, not just subjectively satisfying[v]. Ratio has to do with the temporal, with the investment of our precious time and work. Intellectus has to do with the eternal, outside of time.  Like for the photon, time stops, or rather there is no time that matters.

Gazing in wonder and gratitude at beauty changes the beholder. Contemplation, absorbed in the beauty with mind emptying peace, but filled with instantaneous knowledge and understanding, is of the soul, as well as the will and mind. I believe it is in this that we can imperfectly understand the concept of human uniqueness. We are made in Imago Dei, in the Image of God. When we perceive, however minutely, as God perceives, outside of time, we participate in our limited fashion in the Divine.  Captivated by the beauty when we visited the Grand Canyon a few winters ago, my inner voice echoed an ancient voice, “I am Beauty itself, gratuitous and without limit. Rest in Me. Trust in Me. Do not be afraid.”

Can we ever expect to understand existence? Clues we have, and work to do, to make headway on this issue. Surely someday, we can believe, we will grasp the central idea of it all as so simple, so beautiful, so compelling that we will all say to each other, Oh, how could it have been otherwise! How could we have been so blind so long? John Archibald Wheeler in his famous it for bit talk.

[i] I introduced readers of this blog to Bob Cormack six years ago. Acrophobia: Tale of Two Bobs.

[ii] Originally “geek” denoted a carnival freak who entertained by biting the heads off live chickens. To date, I have not indulged in that fowl slaughter.

[iii] , Before any physics geniuses complain that I am not qualified to remark on the details of the science, I agree completely. But the minutiae are not the point of the post.

[iv] Wheeler, John Archibald, 1986 “Hermann Weyl and the Unity of Knowledge.” American Scientist, 74:366-375

[v] See Dietrich von Hildebrand’s view of truth and beauty with the distinction of the “subjectively satisfying” from the “objectively valuable” as explained briefly by Bishop Robert Barron. Von Hildebrand, a Catholic moral theologian, was once called by Adolph Hitler his number one enemy and had to flee for his life when the Third Reich annexed Austria. Dietrich von Hildebrand and Our Relativistic Age, Robert Barron, Word on Fire website.

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Filed under Background Perspective, Faith and Reason

Maine Tales IV – The Road Not Taken

For all its idyllic vistas and community spirit, rural Maine can be harsh, isolating and lonely, most especially in the winter.  Maine winters hold a stark beauty that shines an unforgiving light on the soul.  We soon found ourselves unable to escape our own frailty and foibles. At the end of our third winter, a singularly snowy and cold one, Rita and I were succumbing to a confluence of secularism, bad advice and the detritus of the Cultural Revolution by which we all are still afflicted. Our young, bright love was threadbare; ten years into our marriage, we were ready to move on.  Virtually all of our friends were counseling a fresh start.  “Time to hang it up,” we were told.  “Why hold on to a dead thing?”  “There are plenty of other opportunities,” and indeed there were for us both.

Rita and the kids

I  fought a separation for the whole long winter, but by spring had hardened myself to leave behind nine lovely years and one difficult, complicated one.  Not much anger, not even a lot of bitterness: after a few brief, generally desultory skirmishes about who got the Bob Dylan albums and other prosaic living arrangement matters, we settled on a Saturday in early May for move out day.  Two separate incidents led us to the other fork in the road.

The first was a coffee Rita shared with our friend, Pam, during the week prior to moving day.  Pam, a gifted artist and painter, lived a rough life; her ne’er do well husband had deserted her a dozen years before with six children.  An earth mother type, Pam soldiered on, tolerating occasional visits from her husband – no divorce and rare support.  She was much liked and admired in town, especially by Rita.  Pam took a chance and defied the common “wisdom” amongst our circle of friends; Pam told Rita that we were a good match wading through some confusion and pain, but that separating was a mistake – a big mistake.

When I came home from work on Friday, Rita asked if we could give it one more effort.  My resolve was hard earned, and my initial internal reaction was “hell, no!”  With my game face on, I looked at our two young children, the vulnerable hope on Rita’s beautiful face and could not, would not smash our one last attempt.  Although I held meager expectations, I thought perhaps, just perhaps, we could raise our children together and restore a semblance of the friendship that had always come so easily and that would allow us to do the right thing.  This was my best hope, but far short of what we would become. I agreed to try again – all in.  I quit my job with all its traveling and worked part time pruning and taking down trees to spend more time on our marriage.  We lived frugally and got by.  But there was no miracle cure.

The next few weeks in retrospect we likened to living in a bombed out, post apocalyptic city among sterile ruins.  There was no healing, no fighting, no feeling, no animus, no forgiveness, not much of anything.  I remember vividly one striking mid spring day of bright sun and burgeoning green, we drove up to the Orono campus of the University of Maine about an hour and a half north.  I had been invited to join the board of a state wide non-profit and thought it would be good to be together for the day.  On the silent ride home, the juxtaposition of vernal splendor, new life and our hollowed out spirits almost brought me to tears.

 The second incident that permanently altered our lives for the good occurred a week or so later.  Rita found an old set of rosary beads given to her by her late aunt, Rose, and awkwardly prayed with no confidence Anyone was listening, a desperation move if ever there was one.  On Saturday, she asked me if we could go to Mass.  Cradle Catholics, we hadn’t set foot in a church for a decade; I wouldn’t have been more surprised if she suggested we move to Zambia.

Rita has always acted as the emotional and spiritual catalyst in our marriage; I tend to be the implementer, who thinks through the how and the why.  It is our defining character and the personality of our relationship.  I didn’t fight the suggestion, but told her that if God existed, if we found any truth in our attendance at Mass, our lives would change profoundly: our activities, our friendships, how we spent our time.  She cautioned me not to get all “cosmic” on her, that she merely sought the solace of a childhood faith for a Sunday morning.  “We’ll see,” I said.

We looked up Catholic Churches in the Yellow Pages (an anachronism now).  Mount Vernon was at the center of a fifty mile circle roughly encompassing Augusta, Waterville and Farmington.  Rita worked part time as an RN in Augusta, but Farmington for some reason attracted us.  I called St. Joseph’s Church in Farmington; a friendly voice picked up with a lively, “St. Joe’s!”  Father Joe McKenna answered his own phone calls and was nearly perfect for hurting children of the sixties — an admixture of intellectual, poet, faith filled priest and wonderfully warm and funny human being with holes in the elbows of his sweaters. We entered the little, wood framed church on a side street, far smaller than the Baptist, Episcopalian and Congregationalist stone and brick edifices on Main Street.  It was Pentecost Sunday, no happenstance, and Father Joe was alive with the Spirit.

St. Paul on the road to Damascus – Caravaggio

We began an utterly surprising and unexpected faith journey that fills our lives and has never disappointed.  The human mind is immured by limitations of intellect, knowledge and imagination; the soul is unencumbered.  We asked and continue to deepen our understanding of three questions, perhaps the three questions, trinitarian in nature, an inexhaustible wellspring.  To me, no person addresses our existential human loneliness without asking them.

Saint Bede on his deathbed in 735 is known to have said, “If it so please my Maker, it is time for me to return to Him Who created me and formed me out of nothing when I did not exist.”  From whence do we come? Why?

Reinhold Niebuhr, American theologian and commentator, said, “Christian faith stands or falls on the proposition that a character named Jesus, in a particular place at a particular time in history, is more than a man in history, but is a revelation of the mystery of self and of the ultimate mystery of existence.” Is there a bridge to the eternal, a gateway?  If so, Who?

Saint Cyril of Jerusalem wrote, “Water comes down from heaven as rain, and although it is always the same in itself, it produces many different effects… It does not come down now as one thing, now as another, but while remaining essentially the same, it adapts itself to the needs of every creature… In the same way the Holy Spirit, whose nature is always the same, simple and indivisible, apportions grace to each..  Like a dry tree which puts forth shoots when watered, the soul bears the fruit of holiness when repentance has made it worthy of receiving the Holy Spirit.” If the gap is so bridged, where do we go from here?  How?

Nearly two millennia ago on Pentecost, the Church was born with a visitation of the Holy Spirit; thirty five years ago on Pentecost this weekend, our marriage, our faith, our lives and our souls were reborn.  Happy Anniversary, sweetheart.

“Only the Christian thinker is compelled to examine all his premises, and try to start from the fundamental terms and propositions.”  T.S. Eliot

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Filed under Faith and Reason, Maine Tales