“Because science shows us how to better understand the world, but it also reveals to us just how vast is the extent of what is still not known.”
—Carlo Rovelli, Seven Brief Lessons in Physics
“I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”
—Shug, in The Color Purple by Alice Walker
I live in a hundred-year-old house along the ridgeline of one of the many hills that sprout throughout the city of Seattle. The old cherry tree in our backyard, thick and cracking, grows in a twist around some invisible center. From the trunk, three branches reach up, each branching into smaller branches. Himalayan blackberries promulgate themselves up, over, and along the limbs, growing out of a hidden opening high up in the tree itself. Behind the tree the earth drops off into valley. The sky fills in behind it, seems to hold it up.
The family who used to live here—who dug out by hand the basement I now sleep in, who relaxed on the bench built around the tree, who planted the ancestors of most of the flowers I now see—said that this tree existed before the house got here. Some of us have guessed at the age of this matriarch of a tree, but no one knows for sure because none of us were alive before she was.
We learned about the house and the tree when we received a letter from the daughter of the family who used to live here. She asked to bury her father’s ashes under the tree where, summer evenings, he sat on the bench he’d built to follow its curve and let himself settle down as the sun did. Her father, like the sun, had spent the day working his fingers into the earth for the sake of these flowers and, now, he’d rest.
I wasn’t there when the daughter arrived with ashes in her hands. My roommate showed her around her own former house, walked her to the tree, then left her. When my roommate tells me this, after I get home from work, she’s leaning against the kitchen sink that now runs with water, her hand closed on her chest.
I walk into the living room and from the table next to the couch I grab the book I’ve been reading: Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. I step back into the kitchen and read aloud to my roommate:
“Look again at that dot. […] That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of…. [E]very hunter and forager, […] mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
The kitchen has never been insulated, the windows single-pane. I stand in the little patch of warmth where the sun spreads across the linoleum. When I finish reading and look up, my roommate’s hand opens flat on her chest.
When I was twenty, I worked at a Bed and Breakfast in Alaska. I felt particularly small working that job. Our boss treated us like adolescents and acted like a teenager. He told me to tuck in my shirt and reprimanded us for taking issues to his superiors. One guest, when he saw my female coworker sweeping, said, “You’re good at that, honey, why don’t you come to my house and sweep my floors.” I don’t know what I would have said if the man had told me that. Probably nothing. It is not the worst thing that was said to us.
One day a group of scientists showed up from SETI, the Study for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Late in the morning I was cleaning up and noticed one of the scientists still sitting at the dining table, drinking coffee and looking at his computer. I didn’t want to interrupt the important scientist man, but while I swept near the feet of his chair, he looked up and smiled. I thought it safe to ask what it was they were doing here.
“This doesn’t seem a likely place to find aliens,” I said.
“There’s an equation,” he explained, turning his computer away, “that lays out the likelihood that intelligent life exists on other planets. There are a whole lot of factors.”
Of the factors he listed, I remember only a few: how many planets exist, how many planets with the building blocks of life exist, and how many planets with non-intelligent life exist. And one factor I never would have thought of, at least not in relation to aliens: How many intelligent life-forms exist on our planet?
“That’s the one we’re working on,” he said. “How many intelligent life-forms on earth. That’s our part of the equation. That’s why we’re here, at the entrance to Glacier Bay National Park: to listen to whales.”
What an awesome job, I thought. I remembered one weekend off when we’d kayaked across the inlet to an island known for its whale-watching. I’ll never forget tucking myself into a sleeping bag atop a rock jutting into the bay, more white in the sky than I’d ever seen, closing my eyes and still seeing it, falling into sleep with the sound of the waves splashing at the rock beneath me, the whales breathing at my feet.
I had stopped sweeping and was leaning on the broom. As the scientist grinned, the folds in his face lifted. His eyes were big; they made him look young. Emboldened, I leaned the broom against the wall.
“But how do you know if they’re intelligent or not?” I asked, meaning potential extra-terrestrial life forms. “They could be way smarter than us, but we can’t even perceive them. Or maybe we can see them, but can’t understand their intelligence.”
“Good point,” he said; and I knew for sure that I liked this man. “Basically,” he went on, and he was standing now, “we are looking for something, for life, intelligent life, for the kind of intelligent life that can say ‘Hey’ to us.”
In The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, Steven Pinker writes of an organ used to eat, drink, and communicate; flexible yet strong; sensitive and precise; a complex organ possessed by a single species alone in all the history of the world.
Elephants, Pinker notes, “communicate through their trunks by trumpeting, humming, roaring, piping, purring, rumbling, and making a crumpling-metal sound by rapping the trunk against the ground.” Their trunks can twist, suck, spit—even paint. Elephant trunks are so sensitive that they can “ascertain the shape and texture of objects” while blindfolded.
And, unlike human organs, the elephant trunk is “lined with chemoreceptors that allow the elephant to smell python hidden in the grass […] a mile away.” Entirely unique in the kingdom of animals. If elephants could talk to us, and if we could understand, they might tell us that an intelligent species is gauged not by language—as we talking humans sometimes claim—but by these miraculous, nearly-impossible elephantic qualities.
When I was eight, I stayed home sick one day and, in the afternoon, rode with my dad to pick up my brother from school. In those days, my dad and I waxed philosophical. Or rather, he waxed, I listened. Time travel, the miracle of pregnancy (“A human made inside another human, can you believe it?”), the impossible beauty in those great granite faces of Yosemite. I was old enough to understand these things, but not old enough to talk back much.
We arrived to the school early and parked the minivan facing a short brick wall at the end of a cul-de-sac. It was southern California. The sun pressed against the windows like an angry Greek God. A few skinny trees grew out of holes made in the concrete sidewalk. The trees made the sidewalk lift and shift and crack like tectonic plates. I took off my shoes and tucked my feet up under my legs to wait.
“That brick wall,” my dad said, nodding his chin at the wall, “what are the chances that all those bricks would fall like that?”
“Impossible,” I said. When he didn’t immediately respond, I quickly added, “I mean, not impossible impossible. Not totally impossible, not quite impossible, but almost impossible, I would say.”
“Right,” he continued. “And this universe, what are the chances we would be alive and breathe this air and these trees would help us and the sun doesn’t burn us to death and just enough water and a carbon ratio just so…?”
I stretched out my legs.
“The same chance,” he began, answering his own question, “that bricks would rain out of the sky and land in the shape of this brick wall.”
I looked at the wall and thought hard about that.
While I was out of town recently, our yard and those surrounding it and the entire city, it seemed, had exploded into spring. Upon my return I notice, in our backyard, a black pot filled with soil in which my roommate has stuck a cherry twig, hoping to graft it. I look from the stick in the dirt to the great tree at the precipice of our small plot. What are the chances? I shake my head in awe. I think of my dad: How can there not be a designer behind such glory?
I go inside, plop on the couch, and pick up Pale Blue Dot again. Sagan seems to be responding to my father when he writes: “[I]t looks as if our planet was made, and survived, by mere lucky chance….” I lay the book on my chest and spread my toes. I look out the window at the backyard and wait for the clouds to return the sun. “Our world does not seem to have been sculpted by a master craftsman…” Sagan continues, writing of the time since the Big Bang, “there is no hint of a Universe made for us.”
Yet, Sagan himself acknowledges the infinitesimal chance we have of being alive, spinning on this sphere of rock and metal in outer space, lit by a light in a lake of darkness. Our existence is like betting on a horse with million-to-one odds—and winning.
Over the years, I’ve thought about my dad’s brick wall question. I’ve thought about how he asked about the brick wall after the fact of its existence. Which I guess is sort of like betting on a horse with million-to-one odds—except that instead of placing a bet before the race begins, it is as if I rush to the bookie only after the race is won and say, “Out of all the horses? This one, this one! Can you believe it! What are the chances? A million-to-one and this horse, my horse, won!”
“Actually, Miss,” the bookie in my imagination says to me, slowly, “the chances that the horse would win the race it just won are now one hundred percent.”
The same as the chances that humans exist and breathe air and have language and are not burned up by the sun. The elephant might ask who designed the world so that, out of all the possible smells, the python gives off that particular smell which the elephant can detect a full mile away.
Miraculous as we may feel, miraculous as we may very well be, we cannot look at the world, at the chances that have already won, and work backwards to prove it was destined, designed, miraculous. If there are million-to-one odds that any given cherry seed will produce a cherry tree, then every cherry tree is a miracle. And not one of those one-in-a-million cherry trees is proof of design.
Lack of proof, however, does not prove lack of design. Neither does lack of order prove the absence of a Creator. I am hesitant to argue with a man such as Sagan, but although I don’t disagree about the structure of the Universe, I can’t help but wonder how the laws of chance offer evidence against a Creator. The idea that a Creator would make something that appeared to us to have come into existence in an orderly way instead of “by mere lucky chance,” is neither logical nor scientific, but presumptuous. It is a presumption based, perhaps, on the way we humans create things, such as brick walls, with what we humans think of as order. But a Creator need not use the language of human design.
My parents were Baptist, strong and strict. Spare the rod, spoil the child. We had bible study in the living room and the church leaders mediated our family conflicts. One fall day my parents forgot to set their clocks back and when they arrived to church to find it empty, they believed the rapture had come. Their church taught, and we believed, that evolution and God were incompatible. God made Adam and Eve, not apes who then became Adam and Eve; we were made in the image of God, not gorillas. Gravity, however, was totally a thing. At least in our church, at least by the time I asked my mom to explain it to me.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “We can’t just be upside down.”
We were standing in the living room, just outside the kitchen. I was old enough to talk back by then. My mom tried to explain it to me, but I was still puzzled. My older sister padded into the living room in her socks, her bangs curled high on her forehead (it was still the eighties). She got a cup of water from the cooler and was pulled into our impromptu lesson. She tried explaining gravity to me using new and teenaged words. I still didn’t get it.
Finally, mom reached into the kitchen, grabbed an apple from the counter and a toothpick from the drawer. She stuck the toothpick in the apple and turned it upside down.
“Like that,” she said, satisfied at her breakthrough.
“Mom. Our feet are not stuck in the earth.” I thought she knew how gravity worked, but wouldn’t tell me. “Why don’t we fall off?” I pleaded, angry at her for withholding the truth.
“I give up.” she said. “I don’t know how I can explain it to you.” And she walked off.
What I was searching for, without realizing it, was an admission from my mother that it didn’t really make sense to her either. I wanted her to say, look, there’s this force we cannot see and cannot fully grasp that keeps us held fast to this rock that’s bigger than we can imagine floating in the cosmos like a dot smaller than we can comprehend. It seems like we should fall off it, but we don’t, Chris. We just don’t.
When Newton said a force named gravity is what moves the planets, there were those who called him heretic. It was God, not so-called gravity, that had the power to move celestial bodies. We’ve learned, of course, that gravity does nothing to disprove (or to prove) God, regardless of what is said by men who read, write, and interpret texts.
To say that evolution exists no more contradicts the idea of God than saying gravity exists. The Big Bang Theory no more contradicts the idea of a cosmic designer than does male-pattern baldness, elephants’ chemoreceptors, or cherry trees. To say a cherry tree grows by seed is not to say that it grows by seed instead of God. For the believer, to say the seed grows the tree is to say that God put the grow into a seed.
For the believer whose hands have worked the soil or held the ashes of a loved one, the physical, natural law is another language that God speaks. We are perhaps not the most intelligent forms of life, but we can listen, as best we can, with the gifts we’ve been given. We can listen, like the scientists at Glacier Bay, to the world around us. We can bring all our childish curiosity and all our grown-up gadgets all of the time. Because it may just be that all of it—DNA, evolution, gravity, the Big Bang—all of this blessed blooming, is God just saying, “Oh, hey.”
I do not remember how old I was the night when, on a camping trip, my father let me stay up with him until the fire went out. My mother and siblings were asleep in the tent. The light of our fire, which flushed our cheeks, did not dim the thick smear of stars above. As the fire died down, my father walked to the tree a few feet away to turn on the lantern. I don’t remember what we had been talking about before that, maybe nothing. Just as the light from the lantern shone, my father said, “It takes time for the light to travel to your eyes. If you could see this light at the exact moment it began, you would be time traveling.”
“Awesome,” I said. Then I could know the truth, I thought. I looked up: a black wall bound by points of light.
And I thought then, and I think now, that some things are just hard to grasp. I looked up at the sky, I look up at the sky, in the dark, and think: the universe must end somewhere, it can’t just go on forever. Then I think: the universe can’t end, there must be something beyond it. And this is, for me, a sacred moment. Like the song of the Humpback. Like running my open palm along the trunk of the great elephant or touching the heartwood of a cherry tree. Like looking into the deep-set, dark-brown eyes of my father, seeing the lines that draw outward from them, how they’ve branched and deepened over the years, though I never saw it happening.
In contemplating the infinity/finiteness of the universe, I glimpse the limits of my own human consciousness. In this moment, I know just enough to know that there is some crucial truth I cannot know. I am able, finally, to comprehend that we cannot comprehend everything. And in this mystery, I rest.
Chris Shorne holds an MFA from Antioch University, Los Angeles and has recently published with Utne Reader (online), Portland Review, and The Manifest Station.