Chapter 2 [Part 2]

Not just time, but infinite time; though to speak properly time qua time does not of course exist: all that exists are atoms and void. It is the motion and interaction of the atoms in the void that creates change, the appearance of time. Eternal atoms uncreated and never destroyed in constant motion in an infinite universe. Our poet knows nothing of particle physics or radio astronomy, of Big Bangs or bubble universes; but he does know that the universe – the cosmos rather, the totality of all things – must be infinite. Simple logic tells him so. Anything that has a boundary must have something outside that boundary: his garden wall, the hills and mountains around the bay, the greater Roman world, the observable universe. A border cannot be a border unless it is itself bounded by something else. The cosmos cannot have a border, for that would require the existence of something beyond it. Ergo, there must be infinite space. Quod erat demonstrandum.

   And where there is infinite time and infinite matter and infinite space, where matter constantly congregates and coalesces to form complex entities – galaxies, suns, planets, rivers, mountains, sheep, shepherds – so there must be other places in the universe just like this. It is not a question of destiny, of teleology, for nothing is designed, nothing exists for a purpose in a universe of random atomic collisions. It is just an inevitable affirmation of the consequent, modus ponens. This earth and this sky are not, cannot be unique. Elsewhere in the infinity of the cosmos must be other earths, formed by the same entirely contingent processes that formed this one. And where there are other earths, must there also not be other creatures, other intelligences even? He has never attempted to compute the variables in the Drake Equation, and certainly would not know what to do with an infinite number of monkeys, but nonetheless our philosophic poet would certainly agree that we are not alone.

   He would not, however, concur if you were to assert with any confidence (over coffee and cake perhaps, or, as evening draws in, a light beer or two and a salted snack of some description – pretzels, peanuts, possibly pork scratchings if your tastes lean that way) that contact with extra-terrestrials was likely, imminent even. It is one thing to contemplate the theoretical, logical existence of other beings in the universe, quite something else to argue that, the massively contingent nature of our existence notwithstanding, there really are such beings in our cosmic neighbourhood only waiting for us to get in touch. Idle fantasies of that sort get short shrift from our philosopher, for he is only interested in demonstrable facts. As Epicurus warned, speculative endeavours – among which exo-biology and exo-sociology are most definitely included – that have no immediate practical application cannot contribute to one’s well-being; conversely, they cause unnecessary anxiety – what if the aliens are hostile, what if we cannot decode their messages, what if we search but never find them? – which on principle ought to be avoided. Equilibrium is the desirable state; that which disturbs it is to be shunned.

   As if to demonstrate this very thesis, at that very moment a honey bee, its back legs laden with vivid yellow pollen, descended in lazy spirals from the pergola to land on his napkin-covered nose, where it rested for a moment. A good time to clean those tentacles before returning to the hive. Involuntarily his cheek muscles twitched at the gentle pressure, loud in his ears he heard the whir of the little animal’s wings as it tried to steady itself on this curious white rock. He stifled an incipient sneeze, the napkin started to slide sideways towards the flagstones. The bee, a creature wiser than its stature might suggest, decided to have no truck with such an unstable perch; weary though it was, it lifted its burdened body again and hummed off across the garden searching (however vainly) for stability in an uncertain world.

   Our poet flicked away the slippery napkin with an ever-so-slightly irritable gesture – mental equilibrium momentarily disturbed – and squinted at the sunlight through the leaves above. His thoughts returned to the immediately present propositions of his environment. A definite thing, this sun, an immediately present object if ever there was one; but of what kind he could not be sure. He did know that the correct Epicurean response was to trust one’s senses. He perceived the sun as a flat, hot, bright yellow disc in the sky; so it was not an unnatural assumption that it was in fact a flat, hot, bright yellow disc. He also knew that the further one goes from a source of heat the more sensibly the sensation of heat is diminished. So, as the sun feels very hot, its heat cannot be greatly diminished by distance. It therefore seems reasonable to infer that it is quite close to the earth – as close, indeed, as it appears to the eye, hanging there in the vault of heaven. But not so close that anyone or anything (a thrown spear, say, or a mountain peak) could actually touch it, not even the highest flying birds – though Icarus got rather too close.

   A logical argument, of course, is only as good as its premises; and this time our wondering poet’s premises are hopelessly misguided. Hardly his fault. His only conceptual framework is earthly fire – hearths, bread ovens, the blacksmith’s furnace – and he is not able even to conceive of anything remotely analogous to a hydrogen fusion reactor, nor can he imagine its true magnitude or its actual distance from this planet (side note: he has no real grasp of the modern concept of a planet either). But the truth must be known: that is his creed above all others. He has given his whole poetical and philosophical existence to the revelation of Nature. Error and ignorance, dogma and dishonesty, these are the obstacles; an ever greater understanding of the natural world, an openness to new empirical discoveries, these lead inevitably to ever greater tranquility and at last to the blessed attainment of Equilibrium itself. The classification of the bright yellow orb as a G-type main sequence star would probably have astonished him, certainly delighted him, but perhaps not entirely surprised him; for he knows that everything, even the inconceivably big and far away, must be composed of the same atoms that constitute our familiar world, that constitute us indeed. Atoms and void. The sum total of the universe; everything composed of the same basic elemental particles. ‘We are star stuff’ simply a modern consequence of his ancient premises. We have expanded the physical boundaries of his universe, but not materially added to it.

   He breathed in slowly, counted to ten and breathed out. The pain in his head, along his spine, at last began to abate. After a while he rolled himself over on to one elbow, gingerly at first, a little stiffly – not getting any younger, eh? – then brought his knees forward and, grasping the arm of the garden bench, pulled himself back up – panting and puffing as he did so – to resume at length his lunchtime seat. Too much red wine, too much bright sunlight, not enough exercise. But as he brushed the dust from his elbows and knees he was already beginning the gentle process of happiness recovery: his garden, his flowers, his house, his view, scenery, landscape; and yes, his satisfying lunch. Perhaps a little something sweet and strong by way of a digestivo was now in order – just to restore true Equilibrium you understand.

*        *        *

[Go to Chapter 3, Part 1]


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