Fly in the Bottle
Originally published in the February 1977 issue of Senior Edition newspaper
What is going on here?
We are voyagers in a cosmic bottle hurtling through a mysterious, beautiful and haunting universe. We live lives that are individually boundless – historically rooted within memory, interrelated in uncounted ways with our fellow creatures, and transcendent in our yearning for and experience of love.
Yet we are creatures of finitude. Death stalks us. Of our origin we know little. Our destiny is uncertain. Memory reaches back no further than the womb. Hope reaches beyond the grave, but certainty is of this life alone.
We are creatures locked in paradox. There are limits beyond which human understanding cannot reach. We have defined matter into particles so small they elude either detection or measurement. Yet, when properly divided, they create energy potentially so devastating as to threaten the very civilization which only recently imagined their existence. Yet the question of their origin is no less baffling than the question of our own.
Time and space present problems of equal magnitude. These two factors, which so clearly define our understanding, themselves defy understanding
The period of man’s recorded history is so brief in relation to what scientists have deduced about the longevity of the universe that one might compare it to a blink of an eye in a lifetime. The distance from the earth to the sun (93 million miles as I recall it – a distance itself unfathomable), is minute in relation to what scientists have deduced is the distance from the earth to the most distant star.
About time and space our perceptions are such that we can only postulate an eternal before and an unending beyond. We cannot imagine any point in time about which we could not ask: “What came before?” We cannot imagine any point in space about which we could not ask: “What lies beyond?”
Thus we derive our notion of the infinite. A universe in which as some point in time there was no before and in which at some point in space there was no beyond would be a universe so radically different from the one we are accustomed to experiencing as to be meaningless.
The nature of our predicament is akin to that of a fly in a bottle. The fly’s existence is defined by the contours of the bottle no less than our lives are defined by the contours of time and space. The fly can experience the limits of the bottle, but he cannot get out of the bottle. (Unless, of course, someone releases the cork.)
While our perceptual logic leads us to notions of eternity and infinity, experience provides us with notions of a different sort altogether. Trapped in a life made dear to us by its apparent finitude and mysterious by the unknowability of its origins, it is difficult to accept that what is always was and always will be.
The paradox of our understanding (or lack of it) may be simply stated: We can no more accept a universe without origins than we can accept time without eternity or space without infinity. And there is no middle ground.
Someday, I hope, God will uncork this bottle and we can all get a better notion of what is going on here.
(Some of you probably think I drank too much out of the bottle before I got stuck in it.)