A favorite mountain pass opened for the season this past weekend and I was able again to access one of my favorite camp sites, by a small lake at the edge of a high spruce and fir forest. Looking into the heavens on a dark night is a humbling and magical experience. For me, it is also a time to ponder big questions, to contemplate life’s mysteries, and to form ideas and opinions. It is surprising sometimes to trace a thread of thoughts from humble beginnings to astounding realizations.
It all started with the recalling of an argument I had with someone about the value of learning, and particularly the learning of art history. Art, he posited, should always be intuitive and gains nothing from knowledge of history. Moreover, photography, he claimed, should not be concerned with the goings-on in other artistic pursuits. To round up his argument, he claimed that knowledge eliminates mystery, resulting in a loss of awe and reverence that are essential to good art. On their face, it’s hard to disagree with such statements completely, but I still believe that he was wrong on all counts.
Einstein would not have come up with the Theory of Relativity if he was not versed in the findings of Newton. Newton, in turn, built on the knowledge of Copernicus and Galileo. The knowledge of history may not directly factor into art, but it allows artists at a point in time to start where their predecessors left off, rather than rely on primitive intuition to rediscover what is already moot.
Similarly, the ability to consider art in the abstract, independent of medium, can lead to great revelations. Art is about sensory experiences created by artists for the enrichment of others. Different media can be used to create different experiences, but an artist is not made by virtue of using a specific medium. Rather, it is one who sees value in creating such experiences. The fact that so many photographers are stuck in notions of Romanticism, when painters, writers and musicians have already moved past Postmodernism is not about any kind of rivalry. It’s also not about the arbitrary academic terminology we assign to such ideas. We all stand to gain from knowing the philosophical underpinnings of art, not so we can comply with any one of them, but so that we can venture into experiences not heretofore known or even possible, in any media.
It is surprising how many questions, both scientific and other, are settled with “Einstein was right.” I’m not talking about physics, specifically. I’m talking about the simple statement that “the most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” Knowledge does not eliminate mystery. Knowledge is the boundary of mystery. The farther you set it, the grander and more spectacular mystery becomes.
It’s one thing to know about the tides, but another to know that they are caused by the gravity of the moon. And when you know about gravity and the moon, you learn about other celestial bodies and about general relativity and the mysteries of time. Before you know it, you realize that even the mighty sun is but one of many billions of stars in the Milky Way, many with their own array of planets – other worlds vastly different than our own, each magnificent in their own way. And when you learn about the Milky Way, you learn that it is one of several hundred billion other galaxies, each with billions of stars and billions of planets, and other phenomena too strange to imagine – trillions upon trillions of places and things and phenomena, and most of it far grander than our own Earth.
And you continue to realize how vast the universe is and that it may well be just one of many universes, some with laws of physics different than the ones governing our own existence. We know little about these, and nothing at all about what makes more than 90% of it, resorting to terms like “dark matter” and “dark energy” to express the spectacular gap in our understanding of what and where we are.
Similarly, you may learn about qualities of light in a photograph, and if you are curious enough you may inquire about the photons that make that light and their wave/particle duality, and their bizarre behavior in double slit experiments that challenge the nature of what we perceive reality to be. You may then proceed to investigate what our illustrious scientists know about such phenomena only to learn that the only way to reconcile the math and experimental evidence we have, and that explains almost everything we know, requires the existence of eleven dimensions, and even then we still don’t know such basic things as why time only seems to move in one direction or what precipitated the Big Bang.
With knowledge, the mysteries become vast and border on the spiritual. Spirituality is that which lies between the unknown and the unknowable. It may seem that the more we know, the smaller the gap will become, but knowledge, like photons, does not behave as our limited human brain expects. The more we know, the more we learn about how much more there is to know, and how inadequate we are in the face of the immensity of existence; and the spiritual gap widens and deepens.
It is one thing to treat such things as mere interesting factoids, but that would be a very poor way of treating them. They all have implications, some so profound as to have direct bearing on such lofty things as what to believe, how to live, and what it all may or may not mean. The quest for knowledge also correlates with the increased realization of how small and insignificant we are. The hardest thing about such knowledge is not to make sense of it, but to accept its implications.
Yet, the most complex thing we know of is the human brain – the miraculous device we each possess and that makes consciousness and contemplations such as this possible; a device capable of grasping its own insignificance and yet find significance in the blink of its own existence. Being capable of such empirical understanding is one thing; transcending hubris to allow it to affect our priorities and beliefs is another.
Our greatest political issues, our most dramatic stories, our wars and struggles and arts and deepest beliefs are all confined to an astoundingly tiny blip in space and time. We are the momentary masters of a spec of dust, tiny critters scurrying over bumping plates of rock floating on a small drop of magma. We will do well to consider ourselves in such perspective and to fully appreciate the greatest gift any of us will ever be given: our short time as conscious beings on this little planet.
We assign significance to things we pretend will stand the test of time, knowing they won’t. This volcanic plateau will erode to nothing. The sandstone wonderland below it will be washed away, too. Continental plates will continue to drift and collide and morph, sink and float. Ocean currents will change, climate will change. The sun will run out of hydrogen and expand until it scorches this chunk of dust to a crisp and then scatter its remains into the cold expanses of space. Nothing we can do will spare this fate.
Significance to a momentary being cannot transcend such boundaries. Significance is only in these moments of existence as conscious beings, fleeting as they are. This moment, right now, light originating ninety million miles away, from our perfectly ordinary star, is filtering through the atmosphere, scatters in what my eyes perceive as a rich lavender glow over the horizon. The moon is rising. The sound of water quietly lapping at the basalt rocks along the lakeshore soothes the mind as the world is engulfed in velvety darkness and peaceful silence. This moment is significant. This moment, right now, is so, so, beautiful. Somewhere out there, twin suns may glow in the sky of an alien world over shimmering lakes of liquid methane and countless other scenes every bit as beautiful and mysterious unfold beyond the limits of my imagination. The knowledge of it makes me smile. It’s not a bad existence being this little critter on this spec of dust in this moment. Einstein was right.