“Before I die I want to ______.”
How would you fill in the blank?
It’s a haunting question, one that challenges everyone who passes by one of the hundreds of walls from Beijing to Brooklyn emblazoned with that hanging statement.
Artist Candy Chang created the first wall in 2011 after the loss of a loved one. Following an extended period of grief, Chang stenciled a grid with the words “Before I die I want to ____” on the side of an abandoned building (with the owner’s permission) in her neighborhood. Her hope was that the wall would help her to reflect on what is important and cause others to pause and share what matters most to them.
And share they have.
In four years, thousands of people have jotted their “bucket list” items on over 500 walls in 30 languages and 70 countries. Photos of the walls are posted on Chang’s website, where many of the entries can be read.
As one might expect, the want-tos range from the frivolous (“get a tattoo”) to the fanciful (“end poverty”); from the prankish (“punch a clown”) to the profound (“invent something”); from the horrific (“witness a murder”) to the heartrending (“forget what it feels like to take a life”); and from the puerile (“not be a virgin”) to the poignant (“reconnect with my dad”).
Most express a desire for experiences and accomplishments, like “meet Justin Bieber,” “go to Fiji,” “learn French,” or “skydive” (numerous entries). Others, many others, express the longing to be happy or find love or to become a star, millionaire, or professional athlete. On a wall at a church in my hometown, entries include “buy a boat,” “marry my partner,” and “be cured” (of?).
Few betray the desire for a change in behavior or character, as does this refreshing example: “love and serve my wife unconditionally.”
A curious visitor
That said, there is nothing wrong with most of these things. Many are decent and well-intentioned, some admirable and praiseworthy, and most, I suspect—even the “buy a boat” variety—reflect a deep existential yearning.
Yet an extraterrestrial happening upon these walls might easily conclude that earthlings have no higher aspirations than to accumulate stuff, have experiences, and achieve emotional satisfaction during their fourscore existence.
If our E.T. were prompted to observe how we actually live, I fear his impression would be largely unaffected. And if he were further prompted to delve into our past, he would learn how little we’ve changed over the course of history. He might even come across the autobiography of a king whose catalog of achievements exceeded the ambitions of all but the most outlandish bucket lists scrawled on those 500-plus walls. Continue reading here.
We shouldn’t be here. And, if any one of dozens of parameters had been different by a smidgen, we wouldn’t be.
For instance, the formation of stars, planets, and matter itself hinges on the relative masses of the proton, neutron, and electron, and on the relative strengths of the electromagnetic and gravitational forces. The habitability of Earth depends on precise values for the sun’s size, mass, and intensity; the Earth’s size, tilt, orbit, and rotation; and the distances from the sun to the Earth and Earth to the moon, as well as the size and number of Earth moons. The viability of a biological gene—the smallest thing nature can “select” in the Darwinian struggle for survival—is determined by hundreds to hundreds of thousands of base molecules arranged in a particular sequence. And that’s just for starters.
The chance of all these properties coming together in the “just-right” proportions for our arrival is, objectively speaking, against all odds. As physicist Steven Weinberg puts it, “This is the one fine-tuning that seems to be extreme, far beyond what you could imagine just having to accept as a mere accident.”
Indeed, it could lead the rationally inclined person to reasonably conclude that the whole thing is staged, something of a set-up job. But not so fast.
Making the improbable, inevitable
Turning rationality on its head, the philosophical naturalist starts with a bit of Sherlockian logic: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” Then, after defining the “impossible” as anything supra-natural, he concludes that life is not improbable, it’s inevitable—our existence is Exhibit “A.” Clever.
His favored explanation as to how is the “multiverse,” a supercosmos consisting of an infinite number of universes where anything can and does happen, somewhere. As he spins it:
Out of the pre-cosmic nothingness, a blast of energy suddenly appeared, setting off an explosion of cosmic “bubbles” (think what happens when you pop the top on a dropped bottle of soda). By a singular event called “inflation” (think anti-gravity), each bubble ballooned at a rate faster than the speed of light into a separate universe with its own unique physics.
In short, our Big Bang was one of many “bangs” produced from nothing by nothing, resulting in a multiplication of universes guaranteeing the actualization of every imaginable and unimaginable outcome, including the appearance of beings who can dream all this stuff up.
The tale has undeniable flair, but with problems aplenty, not the least of which is an air of contrivance that oozes desperation.
Technically speaking, the theory includes exceptions to thermodynamics (mass-energy conservation) and special relativity (the inviolability of light speed); phenomena (inflation and other universes) that have never been observed or replicated; and untestability, such that if another world did exist with its own unique set of physical parameters, it would be undetectable with instruments constrained by the distinctive parameters of our universe.
Collectively, these novel devices and exceptions violate Occam’s Razor, a cardinal principle of science that holds that when various solutions are offered to a problem, the simplest is the preferred. What’s more, for a scientific theory, the multiverse makes no predictions, has no technological cash value, and holds no promise for the betterment of man or the planet.
But what should raise even the least skeptical eyebrow is that... Continue reading here.
That’s the question that occurred to me after viewing the trailer for “Seventh-Gay Adventists,” a documentary about homosexuals in the church. The answer I gave on the BreakPoint Blog and a Facebook page promoting the film was as follows:
“The same way they should have been [receiving] heterosexual individuals and couples whose lifestyles are at odds with Scripture and church teaching: For non-members, enthusiastically welcome them and invite/include them in all programs, events, and services the church has to offer (Matt. 11:29); for those seeking membership, call them to repentance (Acts 2:38); for those who are already members, invoke church discipline for the purpose of restoring them into the fellowship (Matt. 18, Gal. 6:1); and for those who willfully remain in unbiblical lifestyles, disfellowship (1 Cor. 5)."
I also shared my suspicion, given the endorsement of gay advocacy groups and statements made by the filmmakers, that the purpose of the documentary is to convince Christians “to ‘get over’ their fetish with biblical teaching and ‘get on’ with the full integration of non-celibate homosexuals in all aspects of church life, including leadership, lay and ordained.”
In retrospect, I could have worded that more delicately. One of the filmmakers who read my comments took me to task for rushing to judgment on her work without seeing it. She offered to send me a complimentary DVD, which I accepted and recently viewed.
“Seventh-Gay Adventists” chronicles the lives of Marcos, Sheri, David, and their respective same-sex partners as they yearn to find their place in the church. It is a raw depiction of the hopes, fears, and struggles of real homosexuals, with an emotional tug sure to convince many Christians wondering “What Would Jesus Do” that anything less than full, unconditional acceptance of non-celibate homosexuals into the church is un-Christlike. Continue fading here.
In 1977 George Lucas struck box-office gold with the epic adventure “Star Wars.” Mystic luminaries, anthropomorphic androids, light sabers, and computerized special effects captured the imaginations of young and old alike. But perhaps the most lasting impression was left by Obi-wan Kenobi’s Delphic disclosure: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. . . . It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together."
An invisible source of staggering energy, permeating the cosmos that common folk could summon for noble or ignoble ends, was the perfect hook for audiences brought up in the dawning age of high technology and Western mysticism. At the height of the film’s popularity I was playing on a community soccer team named “The Force”; we co-opted the film tagline, “May the Force be with you,” for our game whoop.
That tagline may have contained more truth than Lucas and Co. realized.
A startling discovery
Over 20 years after the first “Star Wars” film, the astrophysics community stumbled on an extraordinary revelation.
Although the outward expansion of the universe had been a well-established fact since 1929 when Edwin Hubble detected redshifts in light emitted from distant stars, measurements from supernovae in the late 1990s revealed that galaxies and stars are receding from each other at an ever-increasing rate. In other words, the universe is not only expanding, but accelerating.* Physicists, scrambling to identify the source of this phenomenon, dubbed it “dark energy,” because of its mysterious, hidden nature.
Subsequent measurements revealed that this invisible force, suffusing the cosmos, accounts for an amazing 70 percent of all the stuff in the universe. If you add to that, all of the dark matter in the universe—matter that is not visible—then dark “stuff” makes up 95 percent of the known cosmos.
The unexpected appearance of dark energy, and its implications for understanding the universe, has led prominent physicists to call it the biggest question in all of physics. As University of Chicago physicist Michael Turner put it, “Dark energy holds the key to understanding our destiny . . . [and] could well be the number one problem in all of physics and astronomy.” It is a mystery they are obsessed with unraveling.
As a starting point, I suggest that they ponder an insight from antiquity: “The universe was formed at God's command, so that what is seen was not made out of what was visible.” (Somehow, I doubt they’ll take me up on that.) Continue reading here.