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God, Dog and Spark: An Essay

My poetry is increasingly being inspired by certain metaphors with a rich philosophical, mathematical, and physical basis. For example, Flickers is a new poem that just came to me while I was lying with Sam (my youngest son) one fine morning.

Although short, it explores the usual fundamental (and unanswerable) questions - I'm starting to see the whole Universe as being rather insubstantial; nothing but a fog of mathematical constructs, or better a fog of mappings of mathematical constructs (Berkeley vs Hume vs Descartes once again). In once sense, the Universe consists of nothing but a (large) set of coordinates, a collection of information.

This is wholly inadequate to explain the phenomena of self-awareness, our perception of the Now. It seems to me that the nubbin of consciousness is the point where the feedback loop of perception is closed - we see the world, and hence the world (or rather, an image of the world, but who can tell the dancer from the dance?) is created in our minds by our system of perception. The light of the world exists only because it is seen, but we see only a crude, incomplete projection of a mapping of a negligible fraction of a trivial subset of all the coordinates and our perception is neither a map nor the coordinates themselves!

At night we dream, and whole worlds pass in review that are "created" by the same nubbin, the same cusp of consciousness. They are distinct only in that we only pass them by and don't stop in for a lifetime. The same process occurs when we read a book or (to a lesser and imperfect extent) when we watch a movie - the best of books create a succession of images that take on a peculiar character of reality. That which exists in the forefront of our awareness is real even though the informational mappings and coordinates from which it is created are not those that we ordinarily associate with ``external reality''. Somehow it is the process of reviewing the informational encoding in a certain way that is our awareness, not the information itself.

This metaphor is also explored in a new poem, Musings on the Thread of Time, and of course in a lot of my older work as well.

In all cases the light exists within our minds - the metaphor of the human spirit as being a luminous thing is ancient and persistent. This leaves open the question (which becomes the poem): Are our lives a finite, bounded experience, literally a flicker of awareness of terribly short duration against the infinity of unconscious reality, all of the infinity of years past of creation and all of the infinity of years future (from before the "beginning" of this universe to past its ultimate demise or cycling or whatever its destiny might be)?

Are we all fundamentally separate, giving reality to each other and ourselves by our perceptions, but never able to merge with and know all the lives that came before or will come after? Or is there a jewel at the heart of the lotus, an atman, a Godhead of all existence where the mathematical mappings of consciousness are unified into a single mapping, an awareness that gives reality to all that is and that radiates all the fleeting sparks of quotidian awareness of reality as a projection into a particular experential dimension of the one central awareness and reality.

Ooooo, big words, strange concepts, neither more nor less nonsense than any metaphysical speculation, yet perhaps ... stirring?

The problem, of course, is with time. We humans are so stuck in the flow of time that even physicists find it hard to "believe" what they intellectually know - that time is just another dimension. It is difficult to accept that at this instant in time, while seeking grants, raising a family, struggling with life bound to the wheel, one is part of a being that stretches from birth on the one end to death on the other already, with the grants obtained or not obtained, the pain and the joy already written into the fabric of reality just as surely as the end of the movie written onto a disk or tape.

In a meta-sense, I could be "playing on thousands of screens" one level of existence up, and my belief in the reality of the outside universe could be as foolish as the belief of an actor in the reality of their set or, worse, the belief of Buzz Lightyear in Infinity and Beyond. As Jessica Rabbit says (and deep philosophy it is) ``I'm not bad; I'm just drawn that way.'' I could equally well be replaying, again and again, sometimes from the beginning, sometimes just the best scenes, the highlights. How could I tell? The cusp of the moment, where the scene is played, comes complete with my ``memory'' of all scenes past, and is filled with the portents of all scenes future, as my Self plays out the recording marks in time.

There are further problems with infinity. We see our four basic dimensions (not deigning to discuss whether there are four, or ten, or even more in the physical universe we immediately live in, as I've heard in at least one supposedly serious talk, 4096 or even 8192 proposed, as if God thinks in binary) and think ``well, this is it''. The fact that spacetime is apparently infinite (even if the infinity is the semi-sham of periodic boundary conditions and a cyclicity, the usual question - if it had a boundary, what would be on the other side, suffices) indicates that creation is not comfortably bounded by our ability to perceive.

The manifold galaxies were there before we could see them, indeed before we existed TO see them, within our event horizon. Although the event horizon of any point in spacetime represents a fundamental perceptual boundary of sorts, there is no reason to believe that it is anything more than a perceptual boundary and that the Universe continues beyond forever in an analytic continuation. After all, your event horizon and my event horizon do not coincide, but truly believing that mine represents the boundaries of creation is a particularly insidious and treacherous form of solipsism.

What bounds the number of Universes, or the complexity of the space in which our paltry spacetime might be embedded, with all its carefully organized dynamics being nothing but a projection of a vastly more complex physics and mathematics on a vastly higher, probably infinite scale? Nothing that I can see.

God, should It exist, cannot exist only IN space and time, bounded by physical law. Physical law itself is but a set of mappings between elements of an abstract geometry. What gives our space its rules? Why these rules out of the infinity of rulesets? Why just one space? Ultimately, the question is: Is there a fully objective reality outside of our perceptions, or do our perceptions give the space some sort of transient meta-reality, that vanishes as the cusp of our awareness inexorably grinds on down the groove of our existence.

Only in God can the answers be Yes. What are ``dreams'' to us are the form and function of the All - the infinite number of universes are the infinite dreams of the ultimate being. The dreams of this being form our reality if and only if our perception is a dream within a dream, sent out from and drawn back to the wellspring, so that before our birth and after our death the thread of our life is drawn back into (and indeed, never was truly separated from) the tapestry made from all the threads of existence, which forms the Mind of God.

The spark has a heart indeed.

In Musings a metaphor is developed, fairly carefully, between physical reality and an old fashioned vinyl record (or if you prefer and are more modern, the musical information encoding mechanism of your choice and the translation agent that converts that information into ``music'').

This poem was inspired at least in part by the recent (recent in my now, even though by the time you read this it will likely no longer be recent in my time then, and if these words have force and stand at least a modest test of time, you might be reading them in a now in which my nows have ended, strange thought) death of my dog, Mojo. Curious indeed, the way time and information content work - we can bridge the gap of death and time with mere words...

Death (of another, which is all I can write about here) is an odd thing to experience. One day Mojo was vibrant, full of energy and doggy-joy and totally integrated with my life, with his needs and my own entertwined in a daily ritual of small things. The Awakening (bounding onto my bed, to see if it was time to Eat yet, settling down next to me for a snooze if it was not). The Rising (time to eat? time to eat?). The Feeding of the Dog (hooray!). Petting Time (nearly anytime, a caress here, a warm head pressed upon by leg there). Walkies (filled with sniffs, peeing on anything that would hold still, lusting to chase and fully ``know'' every passing beast and squirrel). Naptime (nearly anytime, being petted or not). My life twisted around and through this, getting boys ready for school, working, reading, doing all the quotidian things.

The next day, Mojo got out, was struck by a car in the rain at night, and was dead. Gone. All this life, all these points of contact suddenly gone from the rhythms of the day.

How odd, to feel so sad, to miss him so terribly! After all, the days of his puppyhood were narrowly past (he was still something of a puppy at only two years of age) but I didn't miss the puppy he was. Every day that passed I didn't long for the day before, or the day before that. Those days were both gone for good (somehow, in some strange way) and yet they were also laid down and eternal. After all, the day of Mojo's death in the future was just as written on the day of his birth as the day of his birth is now written in the past, here on this day after he has died.

It is this, perhaps, that separates Man from God, even at the cusp of awareness, the spark, the Atman where they are united. God sees the whole, the moment of birth, the moment of death, and all that is in between, as a single object from the outside. God can put the whole Universe from its beginning until its end (if beginning and end can have any meaning in the infinite) into a metaphorical pocket and walk around with it. The Universe to God is just another CD, record, video tape, book, from an infinite library of books.

Yet a book on the shelf is meaningless. A record unplayed is but a lump of strangely encoded information that does not move us to tears or make us laugh or create within us the experience of the music.

The aptly named record has no more meaning even while it is being played. It is static (temporally), but that which it conveys is dynamic and experential. The music lives at the moving point where the information ceases to be static (in all senses) and become music.

This produces the strangest of insights into death and the human experience. Even as I long for Mojo to be alive again and sharing my Now, Mojo is alive still, in my past. The thread of my perception could play the joyous parts of our life together over and over, but I'd never know as in each of those playings we trace the thread of that time, and never remember all the previous tracings, any more than Steed ever can turn to Emma Peal in an old Avengers episode and say in his cultured and refined voice ``I say, Mrs. Peel, we've done this ending of this show a thousand times now, and we've never visibly slept together. Why don't we just not save the world this time and go back to my place...'' and she replies ``Jolly good idea, Steed. Pass me some of that champagne''.

My sadness takes on an odd cast (for all that it remains real). I don't long for Mojo to be a puppy again, I don't miss any particular walk, and have no interest in reliving the four-hundred-thirty-eighth time I petted him this year. I want Mojo to be alive again, in my now - why? It couldn't just be any dog, it isn't the petting and feeding and care (which were as likely to be ``chores'' and annoying or impatiently brushed aside as blessings, as they occurred), and I'm not quite ready for the fabric of the Universe to be strained by having his corpse erupt from his grave under the new peach tree and reanimate, even if all his parts got back into the right place and he were ``good as new'' (appealing as that idea is, in an outré sort of way).

What I really long for is that the entire sequence of key events in the path that led to his death, notably his escape and/or being struck by the vehicle, never happened and he just returned home that night, possible even chastened by a near-miss or glancing blow that left him alive but wiser. In which case I wouldn't be writing this, you wouldn't be reading this, and everything would be different! Ahh, the problems, the problems, with rewriting the past...

First of all, it might be different, in the global sense of time and being. There could be many books on God's shelf, and in one (the one where the Moving Finger is writing this line) Mojo could be dead as the proverbial door-knob while in another (the one where the Moving Finger is doing something else entirely) Mojo could be quietly waiting at home, chewing the fleece lining out of my slippers again to while away the hours until the boys and I return. I can no more say it isn't so than I can say that you who read this exist at all - your spark and mine are distinct, they each trace their own line of music, and yet your spark and mine may be the same, ultimately united as both being the enternal traces of the only being that Sees.

Even weirder, if you who read this are born after I write it, then you aren't. Yet. Maybe. Or are you, if the future is as inevitable as the past and nothing changes in these books on God's shelf? Hmmm, where were you before you were born, and who asked for your consent... (sorry, line from ``In Defense of a Natural Religion'', in Who Shall Sing When Man is Gone).

The great paradox of awareness - we are the cusp of only one thread of music, where our needle traces this record, yet secretly suspect that somehow an infinity of such cusps exist, all different, all eternal, all one.

Second, how can I begin to judge the myriad of trajectories that spring from the moment where the past might have been different to determine which is better, which worse, which happier, sadder, more filled with love or misery. Perhaps Mojo would have bitten one of my children and had to be put down by my own hand. Perhaps Mojo would have bitten a neighbor's child on one of his illicit sojourns (however unlikely that might be, given that Mojo was a fully socialized Labrador and had never been even remotely abused and loved kids) so that we were sued and he had to be put down. Perhaps while trying to get him into the car I would have been struck and killed instantly, or one of my sons stuck and killed instantly. Much as I loved Mojo, I wouldn't trade the life of one of my boys for his, and bless the unknown Future that keeps me from ever having to make such a choice.

But then, in our ignorance of the future of this cusp on this groove of this tune (however fixed or infinitely replicated with variations it might be) we live with a sort of cautious optimism, don't we. Perhaps, just perhaps, Life would have just meandered along, each day pretty much like the past, with many more morning greetings, evening walks, quite hours spent Petting the Dog, all entertwined with the rest of my generally mundane existence. Quiet hours, yet so filled with joy. We think wistfully of the love, of the moments our souls somehow touch, and miss that touch. This is the source of my wistfullness - all the days that might have been (saddest days of tongue or pen, after all).

Is this not a part of our longing for God? Is it not a doggish foolishness in our own souls, that we do not often recognize our blessings, and the joy that should absolutely permeate our mundane existence, and spend more time longing to replay our past, like a record that skips back, over and over again, or trying to reach our future, to skip forward closer to the ultimate end where the song, however long and lovely, finally stops. What might have been. What was and can never be again (at least not so it matters). What could yet be. Never the now.

This is the tragedy that Zen addresses, however imperfectly and however incomplete its perception of the All. All that we have is the Now, but if you live it it is enough.

It is in God that I now look for Mojo, in that timeless moment where the music is playing now, complete with all of the themes of the past, portents of the future, the moment where the cusp of my living needle traces the markings on the groove of my life cut through this Universe, whoever and whatever ``I'' am, whereever it sits on God's shelf, senseless and inanimate traces that timelessly encode an entire personal experience and yet are not that experience. Somewhere, in that elusive and ephemeral Spark, lies the Being that listens to the music, the ultimate Needle tracing the groove, the final Closure to the loop of awareness, self watching self watching self, and in that Being Mojo and I are united again in all the infinite ways and possibilities, good and bad, for an eternity in which time itself has no meaning.

In that Spark we will attain perfect knowledge and compassion. I can forgive Mojo for running away yet again, this time to the death that is always the companion of freedom, and for all the pain his death caused me, caused the boys, caused my wife. So, too, can Mojo forgive me for trying to confine his doggie spirit when every smell, every rustle in the undergrowth, called him away to run and explore, serene in his knowledge that he could always return, always be fed, always know once again my gentle kiss on his soft cheek and fingers carressing his shiny brow.

I take a sort of comfort knowing that it is so, that somewhere, beyond the bounds of space and time as we now perceive them, Mojo and I will spend a timeless moment of the infinite and eternal Now sitting together and just Being, united at last in the (strictly metaphorical) hands and the mind of God, which is not metaphorical at all, rather the ultimate reality, the theater where the music of my being plays and is appreciated with perfect awareness.

He won't even have to wait for me, as the nature of Everything is so constructed that no time will have passed; all times are one and the same to the Timeless.

next up previous contents
Next: Flickers Up: God, Dog and Spark Previous: God, Dog and Spark   Contents
Robert G. Brown 2009-08-31