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Tuesday, March 18, 2014

LANGUAGE creates reality.

This basic philosophical axiom which was the subject of many undergrad drinking sessions came back to me as I sat there transfixed watching the cosmos swirl on my TV screen. Overtime, we have seen the changing discourses on the meaning of space and time afforded by new discoveries in astrophysics and these new metaphors cut against the grain of our understanding of where we are and in what point in time we are in relative to the cosmos.

It was particularly interesting when the narrator revealed that in terms of geologic time, our tenure on this earth as humans was fairly recent. Imagine that if our existence were to be compressed in a single annual calendar, our appearance as a species did not take place until the last milliseconds. While we assume that the universe has cooled down after the primordial explosion that started life, scientists have been able to determine that the inertia of the universe continues towards sustained expansion.


This mind-blowing information is something afforded to us by the emergent vocabulary provided by astrophysics and other allied sciences. With new words such as dark energy, dark matter, multiverse as opposed to universe, we have begun to mark anew our spot in the cosmos. And what a diminutive inconsequential spot that is.

From the anthropomorphic and religious view that the earth is at the center of the universe, the vocabulary of science from Copernicus to Bruno, to Einstein and Hawking, has placed our world as a lonely planet floating in a sea of billions of possible planetary systems each with their own star.

These musings brought me to recall another philosophical point that launched an equal number of drinking sessions in my youth as well. According to one philosopher, the world does not speak, only we do. Language creates reality but in distinctly human ways. The peculiar habit to name phenomena around us in order to make sense of things is something that we, humans do, and may have nothing to do with the world as it is.

Whether the universe is expanding or collapsing or whether time flows slower or faster than how we humans regard it are not examples of how science has brought us closer to the Truth, but rather revelations in the changing vocabularies of how we imagine our place in the cosmos. For instance, our notions of space and time have always been limited by our temporal imagination given the average life-expectancy and limits of recorded human history. With astrophysics, all of these assumptions are expanded with even the conflation of space and time in a multiverse context. It is indeed a brave new world that we are living in mapped out by this brave new vocabulary.

But what drives the creation of these new vocabularies I suspect, however, are the same age-old dispositions that seek to answer the big questions of human existence - Are we alone in this universe? Is there a God? What is the meaning of life?

I am reminded of the movie Contact based from the novel of renowned scientist Carl Sagan, champion of the search for extraterrestrial life in space. In the film, sentient beings from the star system Vega made contact after the receiving our first television broadcast from the 1936 Olympics curiously beamed from Nazi Germany. The film proceeded to dissect the issue of what our faith will come to mean given such expanded vista of the cosmos.

The oft-quoted line from the film declares that if we are the only sentient beings in this universe, then what a terrible waste of space. Confirming the existence of extraterrestrial life but short of bringing down angels from the heavens, the film presented an ambivalent answer to the question of the existence of god. Apparently, the Vegans are equally confused about the origins and destination of existence both human and extraterrestrial. We are not alone but the common denomination for all existence is the quest for who was it that created us and why.

The creation of new vocabularies provides us new ways of seeing and as a consequence managing the world in distinctly human ways. Science has been at the forefront of crafting these new ways of naming the world and its success has brought the world to great advancement. But what science and its precursor religion have in common is the same drive to answer the big questions of human existence. Who is our creator and why were we created?

Like orphans floating in the big black sea of the cosmos in search for answers, we gaze up and invent our vocabularies of loss. The answers apparently still lie hidden at the stars.


(Arnold P. Alamon is an Assistant Professor IV, Sociology Department, Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology.)

Published in the Sun.Star Cagayan de Oro newspaper on March 18, 2014.


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