Infinity

January 31, 2011

The concept of infinity is very frightening for some people and intensely fascinating for others. If you're sane, you probably should have a foot in both camps.

Infinity is frightening because if there's no end to anything, then you don't know where you are. It's worse than that that; in infinity the concept of being anywhere definable becomes absurd. You're just a speck in a vastness so vast even to try to speak of it is silly. You're lost.

I don't know why that should frighten us but it does. I guess it's because in our ordinary ways of thinking, to know your own boundaries is to provide yourself a kind of safety, or, at least, an illusion of safety.

On the other hand, infinity is fascinating because in infinity nothing is outside the realm of possibility. Every wild thought, every dream, every fleeting hope will be real at some point. Of course, you probably can't get to that point but the truth of its possibility offers a form of imaginative solace.

When you get to thinking about infinity, you can wander on forever, or at least for as long as you can do anything. I don't mind wandering a bit but I don't want to use all of whatever I have that way.

I've muddled through this introduction simply to reach my thesis, which is that the way people respond to the concept of infinity is going to have major practical consequences in the coming decades. It's also going to be the source of intense conflict.  If you think the so-called culture wars have been hot recently, you haven't yet faced the kind of heat there can be. I don't know how we're going to handle that heat, but I worry about it.

The problem is that people are widely divided in their evaluation of imagination. In the past, that division was kept somewhat under wraps because most of us had to give most of our attention to the simple problems of biological existence. But now, there are new techniques and more time for ranging beyond where we have gone before.

I read this morning that some conservatives are worried about the slippery slope created by same sex marriage because they think it might lead to marriage with frogs or toads. Leaving aside for the moment the issue of what marriage to a frog might be, how are people who don't mind that prospect going to interact with those who think that human/frog marriage is merely one of the innumerable schemes advanced by Satan. I don't see much chance of civil discourse between them.

In infinity, you see, any kind of absurd argument is possible. Not only is it possible, we haven't begun to think about how to manage it.

President Obama says that all of us are really one. Guess what, Mr. President, you're way off base there. Making that argument indicates a profound lack of imagination, which may, indeed, be the surprise the Obama administration is presenting to us.

Michael Wolraich recently published a book titled Blowing Smoke, which attempts to explain the whack-job fantasies which rise continuously from the extreme right. His thesis is that simple-minded people need simple stories to help them make sense of the world. The simplest story of all is the tale of black/white conflict. According to it, the only thing going on in the universe is the struggle between good and evil, with us, of course, constituting the good. In simplistic stories there's always the ultimate threat -- Communism, homosexuality, Muslims, sharia law, God knows what.

I don't think that people given to narratives of this sort, who find their whole meaning in them, are likely to cooperate easily with those who are aspiring to range through string-theory multiverses. Furthermore, the gap between these two varieties of psyche shows signs only of widening. When we move from finitude to infinity, all things get farther apart.

The problem is that what we have called the actual, physical world we inhabit is not expanding. And with the growth of population people are bumping up against one another far more than they used to.  It's one thing for like-minded people to bounce off one another; it's strikingly different when the people in your way impress you as being insane.

I don't know how it's all going to turn out. It seems fairly clear that multiverse thinking will not go away. We used to think that people who live in the simple mythologies of the past would fade out. But they are showing astounding staying power. And as they stay they get more and more angry at those who find them pathetic.

What would happen if Bill Maher and Pat Robertson took a long car trip together? Maybe they would get to be buddies. But I doubt it.

When I was young I thought the world was moving towards placidity, which was all right with me. I didn't take infinity into account. That's why I was so completely wrong.



©John R. Turner

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