Saturday, 29 August 2015
Forces of Nature
Who wants to live forever? Well, not me, that's for sure. I have never been seduced by the idea of a life that never ends. A life that stops? Now that is much more attractive. Its true that there was a time, in my formative years, when I was seduced by the dark side, by Christian voices speaking of an "eternal life" in "heaven" where all the "believers" went to. But the problem with that was that the older I got, and the more I thought about it, the more it seemed to be a childish fairy tale. It is now many years since I gave it any thought at all as a serious proposition. A current version of this belief, in new, technological guise, is held by some transhumanists who hope to build machines we can become and therefore expand our lives into the far future.
Another problem with this "eternal" talk (and there are problems with it, to be sure) is our growing knowledge of the universe. It would take only basic scientific knowledge (such as I have) to know that in the last five centuries or so our knowledge of what is out there beyond our planet has increased enormously (in relative, if not actual, terms). Five hundred years ago you could have pointed up into the sky and said that that is where God lives (whichever one you happened to believe in). Its a bit harder to do that these days and believers in gods have had to modify and make slightly more sophisticated what they say they believe in. For when we look beyond our planet's borders now, as we are increasingly able to do, we just see the endless soup of space, a billion planets in a solar system here, a billion more there. And that pattern seems to be repeated everywhere that we can see, minus an anomaly or too.
It remains true, of course, that we humans have pathetically tiny perspectives on things. That same interest in our universe informs us that we live on an insignificant planet that orbits a nothing star. We have gone from being the centre of God's creation to being just another planet in only a few short centuries. What's more, rather than a feeling of permanence that we often have about our lives, we know that this star we orbit will not last forever. Our sun is burning itself up and one day (in about 5 billion years) the fuel will have run out. At that point the sun will have expanded to such size that life on Earth will have ended long ago and our planet itself will be destroyed. So we humans are here on an extended holiday and we can't stay because the planet itself is scheduled for destruction by the universe.
My new album is called Forces of Nature. In making it I was thinking about those things that seem somewhat more basic, more fundamental, more eternal, if you will, than all the others. Most things around us, our (lack of) insight into them notwithstanding, are very temporary. Indeed, in a world obsessed with things material (and not least scientists, who hold materialism as a tenet of their scientific faith) it is brought home to us very strongly that physical things are things that are not meant to last. To be sure, by our counting some things last a long time. But human eyes and human time spans are as nothing. A mountain range may last 50-100 million years before it is no more. That is age upon age to us. But in terms of the universe it isn't that much. The mountain seems permanent as we climb it but it is going away as surely, if more slowly, as we are. It shows us that how you see informs what you see. Leave anything on our planet lying around for long enough and it will crumble to dust.
So what things did I think of as those basic forces of nature? I started very scientifically with the four actual primary forces (or interactions) of nature that scientists cannot, as yet, break down into any smaller or constituent processes. These forces are gravity, electromagnetic, weak nuclear and strong nuclear. These four are the interactions in physical systems that don't appear to be reducible to more basic interactions. But then things became interesting for me. I wanted to add some things to the list, things not quite so.... material such as our materialist scientist friends might add. Could I think of four non-material things to add to the list, things which, as far as we might be able to conjecture, were equally as basic to the universe, equally as prevalent, equally as universal? What I came up with will surely be controversial but is none the worse for that. As a thought experiment alone my exercise was worthwhile. The four items I came up with were as follows:
We can quibble over many things regarding my four items and I hope you will think about them as "universals". The four are, at least, ideas. I will also concede that at least three of them are connected to physical things. "Decay", for example, is a process that happens to all physical things (even if it happens so slowly that we humans, here today and gone tomorrow, can't see it). "Time" is the name we give to the fact that we can order things as events, some before others and some after. "Life" is the name we give to certain processes that seem to indicate an organism. "Consciousness" is what we have called a sense of awareness.
But these things, attached to a world of physicality such as we inhabit, are also somewhat more mysterious (as perhaps all things are). They also point us in a direction which says something about us too. For all these things are our universe as seen through human eyes. The universe knows nothing of time or consciousness (unless it is itself conscious - an intriguing thought!). The universe decays daily and knows nothing of it nor cares. Life, in the terms of the universe, is just another energy process, the universe being understood in its entirety as merely the history of certain forms of energy and their processes. There are no more or less important things in our universe. But there are to us and, in that sense, these things become ideas which are important to people and to the ways they understand things. And so they become constituent parts in the tales we tell us about ourselves, where we live and who we are. They become part of the myth-making we humans have needed to inform ourselves since we could first string words together. In other words, these fundamental forces of nature are part of a human story.
And so Forces of Nature, an electronic, instrumental album made with synthesizers and drum machines, turns out to be a story about the universe and our place in it. In that story there are fundamental, primeval forces at work, inscrutable forces, forces we can neither grasp nor understand. They could be seen from one angle as mechanical processes and from another as the properties of things. I conceive of them, in some ways, as fields of vision on our universe which unite scientific, physicalist points of view with ones more spiritual. In my story all things are mysterious. Human beings are tiny beings stretching out their puny hands to know more but lost in the void of all time and space, not realizing just how BIG and beyond them everything really is.
My myth of the universe is of a universe unknown, barely grasped, sometimes intuited. It is a universe of physical conditions and as yet unknown possibilities. It is a universe that contains life and consciousness, both things we don't understand, things more than the merely physical. But it is also a myth of a universe with an end. Decay is a constant, on-going process and it occurs daily in the form of change. I have tried to add these ideas to my myth in the form of two bonus tracks to my album, The Void and Heat Death. The Void acts in my myth as the context of everything. The universe is described as a big, dark, meaningless place. There is no logic to this place, no order. There are no rules for how it works. It just is. Make of it what you will. Or can. But then there is Heat Death. Heat Death is our event horizon. It is the terminal limit of this universe of my myth. Scientists tell us that the universe is cooling and in some trillions of years it will effectively become completely dead as it goes cold.
So these forces of nature of mine are a part of my myth of the universe. It is the universe we live in and my way of trying to explain it to myself and situate myself within it. It is, unlike religious myths, not a story of how I may or may not please implacable gods. It is not a story of how they are ultimately in charge of things. It is a story of a universe shaped by forces and processes. To be sure, this seems a lot less secure than it might. But who said that the universe is a place of safety? And it surely does not care what happens to anything. In my universe things just happen. Sometimes in the change and decay beautiful moments occur and sometimes these things can be beautiful destruction. Imagine, for example, a star exploding. My myth does, I think, help us to recognise just something of our place in the order of things. We are not at all important. But we do get to play the tiniest part in the history of all things.
And that should be enough.
Forces of Nature is available now at MY BANDCAMP.