The brilliance fades quickly, Because I’ll be on to something else, And those two lines, They won’t make any sense. But maybe they will again tomorrow, I’ll remember what I wanted say, And by the end of the week, The month, The year, I’ll have written some poetry, Something that will blow a soul away, And you’d never tell, That I didn’t just sit down and write it, All in one gasping breath of inspiration, The exaltation that moves me so much, That I can only write two lines, Without getting lost in the music, Without getting thirsty, Without needing sleep.
When Atlas has to set the world down, There shall be a revelation in two lines.
How do I absorb you
A precipice below me
A chasm before me
And there you are unreachable
But I hear your words
They drive like daggers
They drench like warm rain
They taste sweet like sugar
They embrace like satin
Each molecule gains purpose
And finds the next one
They echo into silence broken,
I hang on every word that’s spoken,
Dashing through my circuitry,
Electrically charged syllables,
Dripping with potential,
And new life, blurred at the edges
Unfurls amid quantum fluctuations
Speak faster to build me a bridge
It’s precisely what I need
Take me, entice me
Fragile like porcelain
I pray to angels on high
That they save you from breaking
The lines are slanting
Are you leaning toward me
I lean too, and we learn
Unfolding while we yearn
Blossoming in each other’s garden
Plucked into pretty bouquet
Add water and trim stem
Fragrance for another day
And we waft towards each other
Circling floral perfume
I shall not presume
But I thank you for sharing
When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer by Walt Whitman
When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.
A friend of mine and I had a wonderful discussion about magic and perfection the other day. It got me thinking about what it means to appreciate the magic something. For her it was about the pure and the simple. On a wonderful little gift she gave me, the tag on the gift had the line from the following Walt Whitman poem above “from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars”. When I looked up the entire poem and read the words (as I had never read it before) I found it funny how much the meaning of the poem had to do with what I was sorting through in my mind (by the way this friend was a student in my Introduction to Earth Science class and wonder if there isn’t more of a message in there for me lol). The words from the poem she shared with me are good advice. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I could no longer follow such advice. Have I lost something? Have I lost the appreciation for magic? Am I unable to enjoy things in perfect silence? My mind singular on the beauty I behold? Not too long ago another blogger I follow who writes poetry that I always connect with wrote a poem about missing when life was simple called Old Happy Stars. I do long for that. I think we all do to a certain degree. I also know that you can’t go back and making things feel so simple an amazing is very hard for me.
This discussion about magic came up because we were discussing Santa Claus. She was a firm believer in Santa Claus until the 4th grade, and is raising her daughter, like many people, to see all the magic that is Santa Claus. I am someone who never once believed in Santa Claus, and thus even I were to want to give my son Santa Claus at Christmas there would be no level where I could really fake it. I have no memories of any magic associated with Santa. She said it’s important for children to have those magical things. And I have to say I agree with her. After the conversation I started to ponder what the magic was in my childhood. I remember looking at lightning in thunderstorms and feel that it was absolutely magical. Thunder seemed magical, the smell of rain seemed magical. For me there was a lot of magic in the sky and I am certain I had some moments of perfect silence, even if it wasn’t actually silent. I think sometimes in such moments we feel perfect silence because we are in perfect solitude, shutting out the rest of the world while we are singular in our focus. When I came home I started watching my son and how amazed he is by things, whether it’s trains or the planes up in the sky. It seems to me that even they begin to learn what these things are and what their purpose might be, they have no idea how they work. Something that seems to moving but has no muscles, no animal-like locomotion, no feathers for flying must seem like absolute magic. If I wasn’t forming a lot of long term memories, and I saw this metal object flying in the sky I would be pointing up every single time too in excitement. I think, at least I hope, kids always see things as magical, even if you don’t give them Santa. For them, every object that they’ve dropped or thrown up in the air comes down. That plane up in the sky has to be some pretty crazy stuff to them, and what other choice do they have but to take it on faith that it will not fall down from the sky.
That thought made me happy, but I started to get a little bit sad, because I am not sure that I could just gaze at the stars in perfect silence. Because in that poem I am the Learn’d Astronomer, and if I was a student in that class I would be enthralled by the equations, the figures, and the charts. When I look at the stars I can’t help but think what the humidity might be that is impacting their twinkle. I would think about how far away those stars are, and how trigonometry gives us a way of telling how far away they are through stellar parallax. I would think about how the stars are like a portal back in time, knowing that I am seeing what a star looked like 10,000 years ago, and how at that time human civilization was just dawning. If you can’t tell already, it’s hard to quiet my mind. I look at everything like that. Sometimes I am wondering and questioning, maybe coming up with some hypothesis to explain what I’m seeing. Perhaps I would make an analogy. Or perhaps I would simply think about all the forces at work, or the history of the object, the big picture, the detailed picture, related pictures. Sometimes I contemplate all the connections that one thing has to others. All that comes to me in a flood and I feel overwhelmed by how amazing this universe is. And then I started to smile, because maybe it’s not magic, but it’s still amazing. It’s still beautiful. I t still leaves me in awe and wonder even if I know exactly how it works and think about every variable in the equation. And maybe for every person that walks out on the Learn’d Astronomer and enjoys that perfect silence at the stars, there is a student who stays and listens and just takes it all in and the amount of seemingly simultaneous thoughts grow like the branches of a tree. And I’m not making a comment about level of intelligence because my friend is extremely intelligent and I feel like she experiences those moments of perfect silence frequently, perhaps even at will when she needs to. But maybe it’s just really a different way of approaching the same beauty in life. There are truly times when I wish I could experience such moments that Whitman describes, and so I envy her. But maybe the beauty I see is just as enviable.
So as I began to smile I thought back to just that morning and how when I drove in to work just sliver of the crescent moon was visible as the moon waned. Often, at about an hour before sunrise, there is enough reflection of the Earth back to the moon and you can see the rest of the lunar sphere, even though it’s featureless. Then I thought in my mind about the geometry of all 3 objects and had this model in my head. And I decided to write a poem. The one I just posted a few days ago. And like magic I took all those thoughts and imagined almost like a love affair between the Earth and the moon. So even if I stare at the moon and explain its beauty while also appreciating it, such thoughts can still inspire, still create, and still bring me a great deal of wonder that I think can be considered a type of magic. And maybe that Learn’d Astronomer is just as lost in his world of equations and charts as the star gazer is lost in his moment of perfect silence. Maybe it’s not so important how you experience magic in the world, but that you do experience it and never lose that ability to get lost in wonder and awe at beauty.
In Part I, I hoped to get you into a relaxed frame of mind as you consider the possibility about the existence of free will. That perhaps our subscribing to free will is more trouble than it’s worth and that life can be no less wonderful without it. So here is the way that I like to look at our ability to make choices.
In a previous blog post I talked about the fortunes of life perhaps depending on the choice between Pepsi and Coke, so let’s stick with soda (or pop if you
prefer) to start our little thought experiment. Let’s say you live in a world in which there is only one beverage you know about, and that beverage is Coke. When you are thirsty and you need something to drink, there is no decision to make it is going to be Coke. Free will does not enter into the decision.
Now this is not particularly realistic. So let’s add a choice like Pepsi into the mix. They taste different, but both can quench your thirst. Which one do you choose? Well let’s see what might go into making a decision. You are at the store that sells the only two beverages that are available and which one do you choose? Likely your choice will come down to statistical probability. If you absolutely had no preference, your decision would simply be random. Over the course of your life you would probably have picked Coke 50% of the time and Pepsi 50% of the time, provided you had a choice. Nothing in your life that you have learned has caused you to lean one way or another, there are only two choices, and thus your choice is limited and can be simply equated to flipping a coin.
You might say at this point, wait, I can choose to pick Coke or Pepsi more often. Okay then, but why would you? What particular reason would you have for choosing one over the other? This question is particularly devilish so I’ll get back to it later. As for now, you have no reason to choose one more than another, and so quite simply you wouldn’t; it’s a flip of the coin, which isn’t free will. Generally people don’t do anything without a reason.
Now let’s throw in a reason. Your mother who you revere and think is wonderful always brought you a special souvenir coke when she’d go away somewhere, and so drinking Coke sometimes reminds of that warm feeling. This is an influence that impacts your decision making. All of a sudden your preference for Coke perhaps goes to 60% (40% Pepsi) because when you’re thinking about your mom you’re in a mood for Coke, taking away from it always being a completely random decision. Now since Coke is a little less sweet, perhaps your blood doesn’t react well to too much sugar, a genetic trait running in your family, and you can’t tolerate Pepsi as often and all of a sudden you’re at 75% Coke, 25% Pepsi. Then you find that the makers of Coke are a little more efficient at running their business and are able to have more sales on their product. As someone who is money conscious all of sudden you are buying Coke 85% of the time, Pepsi 15%. A really hot girl or guy is in the Coke commercial – 90%/10%. Finally your Dad is a mean person who beat you as a child and he always drank Pepsi. All of a sudden you are only drinking Coke again. Your choices are a function of the things that influence you.
For every answer there is a question. You’re money conscious, but where does that come from? Perhaps your father despite being abusive was very disciplined with money and so you gained that skill from him. What if you decide that you aren’t going to let your father’s action impact your decisions and
get a Pepsi out of spite. Great, but what would cause you to be so defiant and rebellious. Perhaps your mother showed that trait. Perhaps you were inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. that you learned about in school. Perhaps you were inspired by the movie Braveheart. There may be many possible influences, the point is that you believe that defiance is a positive way of dealing with such childhood trauma and that idea had to come from somewhere. Many people do not have such boldness. Perhaps that is not a weakness, perhaps they just feel the best way to cope is for them to completely dissociate themselves with their Pepsi drinking dad as way of staying stress free and peaceful. They learned this from a self-help book that they read on letting go of the past.
Now going back to an earlier question, what prevents you from just preferring one drink over another for no reason? People seem to do things for no reason all the time, and I would have to agree. But doing something for the hell of it is also a trait. There are people who will never be like that all their lives. Some people say, I’m just going to be a Coke drinker even though I like both of them well enough, because hey why not, I’m a wild and crazy guy, and I just want to be on team Coke. Where does this spontaneous side come from? An aunt you love and revere whose always taking chances and is a thrill seeker? A friend you went to college with who just loved to be spontaneous? But if your spontaneous next year you might just be on Team Pepsi.
The reasons for our decisions are so varied and complex that such a breakdown for why we make the decision we do is not always clear, but it is clear that we are conditioned by multiple influences over different scales of time to reach those decisions. Your choice of beverage might really be something like this:
Coke 70% – Tastes better, grew up with it, family drank Coke
Trying something new 10% – Your mom always encouraged you to try new things and that variety is important so you aren’t afraid to take a chance when something catches your eye
Dr. Pepper 10% – You also like the taste and it reminds you of your years in grad school when you and your friends used to always take a break from studies and get a Dr. Pepper
RC Cola 5% – They were out of Coke, you wanted a cola and you hate Pepsi
Tolerable Beverages 5% – when your favorite choices aren’t available you can tolerate maybe an Orange Crush, Fanta, or Root Beer because it’s better than any of the other choices you’ve been given.
And then finally you might have a special category of beverage you’d hate and never choose unless you had been in the desert a real long time and had no other choice.
In our minds we think about all the things we have drank and see them all as choices and feel like we are consciously making the choice with our free will, but the truth is that we are conditioned into those choices and if we really thought about it, we usually do get a Coke, and the other beverages are choices but low probability ones.
Can our lives really be predicted so easily? Our decisions already pre-determined? The answer, of course, is “no”, because life is full of unexpected events. Even if everything that occurs is deterministic you are an incredibly small part of everything and cannot follow the chain of events. And perhaps your penchant for trying new things leads you to a beverage you love more than Coke. Perhaps you fall in love with a girl who loves Dr. Pepper and that becomes your preferred drink since you both like it and it’s something you can share.
Life is full of events that we don’t know are coming and it is those intersections that throw us out of our comfort zones and give us new experiences that shift the probabilities and possibilities of choices we can make in any given situation. Whether you are open or closed to new situations also depends on the various things that can influence us as human beings. We are animals born with a unique mixture of genes, in a part of the world we had no choice in, raised by people who we had no choice over, while our senses feed us information every day we exist to a brain that has been conditioned over millions of years to process all that information amazingly well and do its best to help us survive. Yet most things we will never know or understand fully, closing off an entire range of possibilities that we might choose from. And so what if we are not consciously making our choices? We are a complex mixture of nature and nurture and in such a symphony who wants to pick out a single note from a single instrument. Just sit back and enjoy the music.