We had a trendy young chaplain in our school for a while. I found myself thinking about him the other day. It was the 1970s, and he wore a beard, jeans, sandals and woolly jumpers. His name was Mr Gorringe, and he liked to be called Tim. He was perhaps a little too keen on ‘getting down with the kids’ (hard not to be, I guess, when you’re not so very much older than the kids yourself) but he was an interesting teacher. What came into my mind was an essay he once set us entitled ‘Why is there anything at all? Why is there not just nothing?’
I suppose everyone has tried it, probably first when they were still a little child: imagining the absolute absence of anything at all. Not just the absence of matter – anyone can imagine a space with nothing in it – but the absence of space itself, and time, and your own mind doing the imagining. It’s impossible to imagine, and of course it’s also impossible as a matter of fact, because, while we may well be completely mistaken as to the nature of what exists, it’s indisputable that something does.
Well, cosmologists may be able to calculate what happened a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, but they can’t say why it occurred, or what it emerged from, so that, at the end of a long journey, the science bus simply stops. (‘That’s as far as we go, people, thanks for your company and don’t forget to show your appreciation to the driver.’)
At this point, the religious tour companies rush excitedly forward, claiming to be able to take you further with their notion of a being that existed before all of this. But when someone asks how the creator got there, it turns out that this bus stops as well, for the answer is that he’s just always been there. (‘Thanks for choosing God Tours everyone. Mind the step on the way out.’)
Science tends to present the world as a machine, with the scientist standing outside, studying it and explaining it to the rest of us. It is an external view. Subjectivity is not denied, but it is looked in at from the wide end of the telescope.
But religion is also an external view. It presents the world’s mystery as a story written long ago, in which we must be instructed by those who’ve been taught to understand it correctly. I was very amused by Ken MacLeod’s account here of a strange childhood experience, involving a mysterious sense of ‘presence’ in a rocky glen. He is a minister’s son who went through the entire Bible every year as a child, but here he writes that he ‘had not even the most childish spirituality. I believed what I was told, but as far I was concerned it was all facts about some reality of which I had no personal experience, like Australia.’ So he had what most people would describe as a spiritual or mystical experience, and yet it didn’t even occur to him for a moment to relate it to what he had read and been taught, even though every year he would have rehearsed all those stories about encounters with God on mountaintops!
I sort of wonder whether it’s this external view, this sense of being an outsider, a bystander, that makes ‘why is there not just nothing’ into a question that even requires an answer. I say this because, whatever that something is that just can’t help but exist, it isn’t separate from us. It’s not some inanimate stuff out there or some remote person-like being. It’s what looks out of our eyes. And perhaps the nearest thing to an answer isn’t to be found either in an old book, or by interrogating the fabric of the material universe, but simply by trying to imagine ‘just nothing’, without time or space or anything doing the imagining, realising it can’t be done, and noticing what is in fact there.
* * *
Schoolboy metaphysics, I know, but it was these thoughts that made me create the character Jeff Redlantern in Dark Eden, who likes to remind himself from time to time that ‘We are here. We really are here.’
In the sequel, Mother of Eden, Jeff Redlantern is long dead, but followers of his in a little island community still remind themselves every day (or rather every waking, this being sunless Eden) that they are really here. My protagonist, Starlight, is surprised to discover other cultures that don’t do this, and actively discourage or forbid this way of thinking. They are more dynamic than her own, and she recognises this, but they have built into them a kind of loneliness and alienation. They cut people off from their essential selves.