Why is there not just nothing? (Laurel Sommerfeld)

  (07 February 10)

Why is there not just nothing?




Laurel Sommerfeld explores one of the big questions.




Why is there not just nothing? A foray into the unknown that, I often conclude in despair, is likely to be unknowable. Still with new language to explore the unknown perhaps new horizons will open up.


I, probably along with most people around my age, can remember clearly where I was when President Kennedy was assassinated. He and that day still exist in our collective memory, apart from the frequent documentaries we could watch on TV. I thought for a time that holding a person in memory might mean that there was “not just nothing” after death. Very clear in my mind too, is the day I bought a Scientific American and read about the Nobel Prize awarded for the seminal work of discovering the double helix of human DNA that carries our genetic information. This riveting information opened a new horizon for thinking about the big questions of life and formulating a few more: why is there not just nothing? Don Cupitt had won a lifelong admirer with his Creation out of Nothing. I learned that with this new vocabulary of molecular biology, I could express the something that I longed for through my Christian background but was so firmly disconcerted about through my reason.


My early years were spent in a Christian household –one thankfully, where talking about the big questions of religion and life (‘it ain’t necessarily so’, style) was encouraged and eventually I thought of becoming a Deaconess or a Brown Sister in the Lutheran Church – women could not aim for much more in studies in Theology. Clearly too, I remember the day when the National News announced the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Judean Caves. My parents talked excitedly about a chance of learning more about the beginnings of Christianity and I developed high hopes that this would throw light on a few big questions so I followed the scholarship avidly throughout my life, in my fifties learning Hebrew and Greek to pursue my own translations.


However, in the end the maximum impact on my big question thinking had to be that of the human genome, DNA. It is composed of approximately 3 billion base pairs making a total of almost a meter-long stretch of DNA in every cell of our body, that was surely awesome when we had previously only grappled with learning about the X and Y chromosomes and genetics in our basic science course to prepare us to be teachers.


Let’s face it here was something that could trace our existence way back in time and yet identify us as individuals in the present time. What about the future? Well……at least there has to be continuity. With something like this surely here was the victory over death. If we have the good fortune to reproduce then our DNA is embedded in the cells of the next generation and the next…ad infinitum. If it is our lot to play our part in nurturing the next generation then we could feel confidence in the fact that these little individuals carried DNA not greatly dissimilar to our own. After all, I’d argue, huge numbers of the 3 billion base pairs must be part of our common ancestry. I thought that I had been given the keys of the Kingdom.


Sure, there was a dying: hopefully when the days of our lives far surpass their Biblically allotted span and we wear out, glad to depart this mortal coil. However, I think that whatever the time or cause of my demise, my being will be part of a great continuity in the generations that are to come and that our world might continue to support into the unknown future (dramatic climate change could make things look a little bleak) and that is enough for me.. It seems to me that this is evidence of something – not just nothing! We only need to look at nature to see that there is continuity in animal and vegetable life and occasionally a species becomes extinct, but (hallelujah!) now it seems we might resurrect a species through its DNA. Is there to be no peace after death? As Professor Julius Sumner Millar would say: “Is that not truly amazing?”


I concluded that the great Religions, according to the knowledge available at the time, had made a fair fist of teaching that a life did not become nothing - a pity about the Heaven and Hell concepts and the restrictions on the numbers to be saved though! Physics added that matter cannot be created or destroyed. So we, in all likelihood, will be part of a continuation of life; maybe capable of being resurrected, part of something. Just don’t ask me what!




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