Marks and Remarks
Food for the Mind and Eye

No. 0150, December 15, 2017


  What? How? And Why?

     The Lomographic Project, Item No. 002:
    "The Elephant in the Room"

Copyright 2017 by S.W. Paul Wyszkowski

     What are "things"?

     Most people think of the world as made up of "things" that interact with one another. Things appear to be discrete objects, each one different from all the others. At the very least they differ in their location in space-time because no two things can occupy the same space at the same time. Things cluster, connect and organize to make up larger, more complex things such as, for example, people, the most complex organization of things observed so far. There is some confusion about the nature of the simplest, smallest things such as quarks, electrons, neutrinos, etc. In any case, the objects we perceive raise the question of their significance. So we classify them by their properties (deduced from observing their interactions) and we name and catalog them in hope of finding significant patterns.

     How is the world happening?

     These days, physicists prefer to think of the world as made up of dynamic processes (constantly ongoing changes) rather than static objects. Instead of asking what the world is they ask how is the world changing and how can we describe its changing in some consistent and precise language such as mathematics. The region of space-time in which the changing is observed is called a "field". Multiple fields can overlap in the same region of space-time. Looking at the world as a complex of processes rather than a collection of things does not require that we understand what it is that is happening or why. It is sufficient to know how it is happening. Armed with this knowledge we can make predictions about how the world is likely to continue to change. In this view, "things" are merely our superficial perceptions of ongoing processes. In fact, their apparent individuality and discreteness are constantly and inevitably changing. The question "what are the smallest things?" becomes "how small can the smallest observed change be?", a question that actually has a coherent answer in quantum physics.

     Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing?

     Or as a physicist might put it, "why is the world happening?". But, of course, a physicist would not ask such a question. A physicist qua physicist is not interested in "why?" because it is an unanswerable question. A semanticist, however, would have no problem with "why is there something rather than nothing?". She would simply answer "because there can not be nothing" ("nothing" does not exist, by definition). But this is not a very useful answer to all of us who wonder why are we here-now?

     Actually, "why?" is the most important question of all. It lies at the root of every decision we make. We cannot proceed without coming up with an answer. Without a purpose, any process, even as complex and intricate as a human life, is meaningless. There may be some immediate reasons for choosing to act in a particular way, but each of those reasons is in turn itself subject to "why?" in an infinite regression like that of a child questioning why we do things the way we do them.

     There is no rational answer to "why?" yet we absolutely need an answer to go on. Ultimately, we must answer it for ourselves, consciously or unconsciously, and how we answer it defines who we become.

     "So what is your answer?" Prickles, our resident existentialist and veritable hedgehog, wants to know. I postulate a transcendental universal Desire for conscious experience of joy. It drives, sustains and is the being/becoming of the world. "That sounds impressivet," says Prickles, "but looking at the world hereabouts, joy seems to be in short supply. How do you explain that?" It's a process. The failures are as important as the successes. They are both necessary and unavoidable aspects of the process. But that's a whole nother story. "Good," she says and exits stage right.