Editor’s Note: You never get anything without giving up something else. Any decision that seems like a good idea that will benefit you is also likely to turn around and bite you on the ass at the same time. That was the theme of a little speech Spencer Tracy delivered in one of my favorite movies, the film version of Jerome Lawrence’s play about the Scopes Trial, “Inherit the Wind.” I would highly recommend that movie to anyone with an open mind.


Give and Take

 

Although it’s often incomprehensible (I can’t do the math), I always enjoy reading about physics. It describes the architecture of the universe, while providing the foundation for the other sciences and offering thought-provoking analogies for everyday life.

In 1687, history’s greatest scientist, Isaac Newton, wrote, “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” Combined with the laws of conservation of matter and energy, this forms a basic tenet of existence: Life is a zero-sum game in which you rarely get something without giving up something else.

For example, the decision to have children has a lengthy ledger of profit and loss. I can’t speak to the joys or vicissitudes of parenthood, but I have decades of experience with not having kids. On the upside, my life has been less stressful, my finances less strained, and I’ve never met an orthodontist or rushed home to pay a babysitter. No 16-year-olds have ever asked to drive my car, and the last time I shared my home with a teenager I was teenager myself.

At the same time, I never got to take my son out for a beer on his 21st birthday, and I never saw, nor will ever see, his first touchdown, my daughter’s first date or either’s college graduation. And I’ve had to listen to years of snide commentary from people outraged by a decision that’s none of their business. No one calls parents with seven children “narcissists,” but if you choose not to have any, you’ll be called “selfish” and “un-American,” as if the country suffers from a shortage of people.

Flouting the divine command to “be fruitful and multiply” has inspired those holier than I to call me a “godless heathen.” I’m pretty sure this epithet is meant to be shaming, but being a godless heathen has turned out to be just one more lifestyle, with advantages and drawbacks in about the same proportion as choosing not to procreate.

In the classic courtroom drama, “Inherit the Wind,” Spencer Tracy delivers an eloquent soliloquy on the trade-offs involved with supplanting religion with science and modernity. Although his character has consciously opted for knowledge and rationalism, he recognizes that progress seldom comes without loss. By way of comparison, he aptly applies a poetic metaphor on the downside of the advent of flight: “You may conquer the air. But the birds will lose their wonder, and the clouds will smell of gasoline.”

My memory of being “saved” is dim, but I’ve had a lifetime of experience with the ups and downs of being “unsaved.” On the plus side, I can spend my 10% tithe on myself, rather than on smarmy televangelists who already have more than enough. I get to sleep in on Sundays, and I never miss the kickoffs of the NFL early games. I don’t have to reject science in favor of sectarian superstitions, myths and legends. And, most importantly, I’m not asked to feel guilty about doing harmless things that primitive holy men catalogued as “sins” back in the Bronze Age.  

On the other hand, along with losing the comforting concept of heaven, we unbelievers are denied the use of the satisfying fiction of hell. While the religious right can and does condemn us to perdition for everything from premarital sex and belief in evolution to voting for Democrats, and is positively giddy about our upcoming damnation, we agnostics can’t even speculate which circles of hell the various members of the Trump administration will inevitably be consigned to.  

Similar skepticism about the eternal soul prevents us from calling conservatives like Steve Bannon, Alex Jones or Stephen Miller “soul-less,” even though it’s obvious. We also have no deity we can blame for the world’s ills, and can’t even take solace in “thoughts and prayers.” The faithful ask, “How can you look at a rose and not believe in god,” but the agnostic’s depressing response is, “How can you walk through a pediatric cancer ward and still believe in god?”  

Einstein’s iconic equation E = mc2 defines energy and matter as two states of the same substance: One can be converted to the other, but neither can be created or destroyed. Some see this byproduct of his general theory of relativity as a metaphor for mankind’s soul — formed from an indestructible energy, or life force, that makes it immortal.

Einstein was instrumental in the development of quantum theory, but his distaste for the weirdness of the Heisenberg uncertainty principle caused him to argue that, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.” His distinguished colleague Niels Bohr’s bemused reply was that Einstein should “stop telling god what to do.” And physicist Stephen Hawking took it a step further: “God not only plays dice. He also sometimes throws them where they can’t be seen.”  

Scientists have identified virtual particles that emerge from a vacuum and disappear back into empty space, in seeming contradiction of the conservation of matter and energy. Cosmologists speculate that the Big Bang may have been a large-scale manifestation of such an event, as the universe expanded from a subatomic black hole. Some godless heathens see this as a metaphor for how an individual human consciousness emerges from billions of years of nonexistence, endures a short, finite lifetime, then subsides back into the void.

This view is incompatible with a traditional afterlife, so one belief needs to be abandoned to accept the other. But which one? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has said that, “The good thing about science is that it’s true, whether you believe in it or not.” But that doesn’t help most of us all that much, because we still can’t do the math.


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