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Is and Ought, Being and Meaning, or Why Do Neutron Stars Collide?

Is and Ought, Being and Meaning, or Why Do Neutron Stars Collide?


Astronomical research recently confirmed that the gold in your wedding band formed billions of years ago, most likely in a collision of neutron stars, which are unimaginably dense objects somewhat heavier than the sun yet no larger than your ordinary space rock. It is a very romantic image—no astronomer will get married anytime soon without hearing about this in the best man speech. While I wear no wedding band, I recently received a gold crowns on two of my molars (I had asked for the fancier ceramic ones, but my dentist objected, on account of my grinding my teeth—there’s another good opening).

What we know about the far distant past of things can hardly be denied. What does it mean, though, that my being able to chew again was made possible by an event so far removed from all I could ever experience? Divine providence? Or is this just one of these weird things only scientists care about?

The reasons why I keep returning to the work of Robert Spaemann is that this is where I learned to see the unity between ontology, or the knowledge of what we encounter in life, and ethics, or the knowledge of how to live with it all. This approach seems very Franciscan, and it also offers insights into faith and science. This takes some effort to show, though, which is why this blog post is a bit longer than usual. This is the goal: a view of nature that combines the immediacy of human experience with the world as understood by physics and cosmology.

For Spaemann (and, of course, many others), understanding begins in recognizing another person—someone else, just like me, but not me. When we recognize another person, we recognize more than a fact: we also establish an ethical relationship of rights and duties. By recognizing the fact of another person’s existence, we affirm meaning by recognizing him as a person.

A lot can be learned from this approach to the world. When ethical obligations are discovered through the encounter with other persons, it is natural to see that the resulting obligations form an ordered structure. Those close to us have stronger rights to our help than those remote from us. Anybody who suddenly collapses while out for a walk ought to find help, but only the person who walks on the same path that I have chosen for my own walk has a right to my help, should I come across him lying unconscious on my path. This is not because the person on my path is more important than the others, but because my obligations to both are ordered by closeness and distance. My obligations to those who are far from me is of a different kind: they may require indirect support, such as support for political structures that provide help for all, wherever they are. But you can see right away: such political advocacy is no substitute for helping the one who is right in front of me. His rights to my aid must remain my first priority. Leaving him behind on account of being late for the meeting of my political party is no excuse. Indeed, such an action would be monstrous.

Together with closeness and distance, similarity and disparity further structure ethical obligations. Those who, just as me, are subjects of meaning as living persons are a greater source of obligations than those who only share life with me. I may also have obligations towards a hurt animal, and I ought not even carelessly damage the mosses growing on my path, lest I needlessly disturb their lives. But, these obligations are of a considerable lesser order than the obligations towards another person. In this way, all my obligations create an order within which they can be understood together, as we naturally do when we seek the best way to live. Within this order, ethical acting is akin to an artist expressing himself using the tools of his craft. Just as the artist tries to create beauty in art, ethical acting creates beauty in life.

Thus far, a philosopher of antiquity would have had no difficulties following my argument. Neutron stars, however, would have made little sense to him, and calling on them to explain why gold is to be found here on earth would have seemed like an excessively fanciful creation myth. It is a fact, though, that our understanding of observations today, even of events far removed from us in space and time, are all explained together by the mathematical formalism of modern physics. No matter how far we go in the testing of our theories, no matter how far removed from the humble beginnings of experimental physics in the work of Galileo, all fits into a mathematical framework embracing the whole cosmos. There have been changes in our theories from Galileo over Newton to Einstein, and there remain loose ends, but one thing has remained the same: the process of abstraction and generalization from our life’s experience reveals a mathematical framework as the underpinnings of the world.

Does this mean that the grandeur of this mathematical universe reveals the world as it truly is, and that the formation of gold in neutron stars means absolutely nothing at all, being just a process prescribed by this mathematical framework, without meaning in itself even if it happens to have produced the gold we use today?

No, it does not. The mathematical framework is an abstraction of our life experience. In the process of abstraction, we learned about the part of reality that is the most remote from us—what is the least personal, the least like living beings, and the least local as it embraces all irrespective of closeness or distance. At this ultimate level of distance and disparity, there is indeed no meaning in the events that we single out. But then—how could there be, considering that the process of singling out an event is contrary to the mathematics of the universe? When we single out events, we break up what is in itself a perfect unity. It is only the human observer who structures the events that are, in physical theory itself, all interconnected whole without independent parts.

By itself, there could only be meaning in the whole, and there is. There is the fact that nothing is simply there for no reason whatsoever. In our use of non-living matter, meaning is bestowed on specific parts only in our use of them. Non-living matter is, indeed, just a resource. However, even all of this exists within a framework—only a logical framework, rather than an order of love, but a framework nevertheless. It is not just a collection of brute facts, but an ordered whole. Order is indicative of purpose and meaning: it is meant to be understandable and reveal to us the rationality of our existence. The grandeur of it all, so far beyond our needs as human person, is what draws us into speculations of what is behind it, into metaphysical speculations, and it invites us to contemplate the source of this unity. It reveals the question, but not the answer. The answer can only be found in the personal encounter.

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction” Pope Benedict XVI: Deus Caritas Est.