Drenched in Mystery

The universe is a very strange place. The more we learn about it, the more clearly we see that strangeness is woven so deeply into its fabric as to be … well, transcendent.

The invention of the microscope led to the discovery of a whole world of one-celled life that was too small for us to see. We still know very little about how one-celled creatures do what they do. The invention of the telescope led to the discovery of whole galaxies, and we don’t understand how galaxies are organized either. We do know that the outer rims of galaxies are spinning too fast, which means there’s a basic force at work that we have not a clue about. It seems vanishingly unlikely that we (meaning, the human race as a whole) will ever know what’s going on here.

But I want to talk about mysteries that are closer to home. I’m an atheist, which means that I have yet to see any convincing evidence that a conscious, all-powerful, benign entity (which we might call “God”) even exists, much less is responsible for creating the universe and pays a speck of attention to human affairs.

And yet, there are moments when I notice that the universe seems to exhibit a slight preference for meaningful order. Meaningful in specifically human terms, and slight in that it isn’t reliable; stuff that defies rational explanation just sort of happens once in a while.

You can explain a lot of these coincidences, if you like, as due to the fact that our brains like to perceive patterns, even when we have to make up the pattern because it isn’t really there. I call this the “rabbits in the wallpaper effect.” If you stare long enough at a sheet of wallpaper decorated with entirely random blotches of paint, you may start to see a rabbit, or a clown with his head bent over, or a three-legged buffalo — even a leering face with horns. We evolved in a world where noticing a well-camouflaged python on a tree branch based on tenuous variations in blotches of color was a dandy survival skill, so it’s no surprise that our brains do this trick.

But the rabbits-in-the-wallpaper effect isn’t a completely convincing explanation of the drift toward order and meaning that the universe seems occasionally to exhibit, because meaningful events seem to happen, more often than one would expect due to random chance, at the moments of deepest emotional significance in human lives.

Here are a couple of stories.

Many years ago, when I was being somewhat paranoid about the future of civilization and had a small niece living nearby, it occurred to me that I ought to own a gun. If you ever need a gun due to a complete breakdown of the economy and half-starved mobs rampaging in the streets, that’s the time when getting your hands on a gun will be the most difficult, so being prepared in advance is smart. I did some research on types of guns, bought a .357 magnum revolver, and took it out to the range a couple of times to learn to shoot it.

A few weeks later, a friend asked casually if I kept the revolver loaded in the house. I said, no, I didn’t, but the question weighed on my mind. I thought, why not keep it loaded? What’s the difference? So one night I loaded it, put it on the shelf in the closet, and went to bed.

Ten minutes later the phone rang. I answered, and heard the incoherent ravings of a lunatic. I couldn’t even understand what the guy was saying, but he was clearly having a major attitude about something. I hung up on him and went back to bed. Two minutes later the phone rang again, and it was the same guy, still raving.

At this point, I had enough sense to notice that, if there is such a thing as attracting events to you through psychic channels — and we don’t know whether there is or not, because, as already noted, the universe is a mysterious place — if there is such a thing, I was being given a clear indication of the sort of psychic energy I was drawing to myself by having a loaded revolver in the house.

I unloaded the revolver, put it on the shelf, and went back to bed. I never heard from the raving lunatic again.

Was that just a rabbit in the wallpaper? Or was I glimpsing something about an orderliness in the universe that science knows absolutely nothing about?

On another occasion, a few years later but in the same apartment, I had invited a young lady over, and we were … well, we were in bed. Together. It wasn’t a terrific relationship to begin with, and it never went anywhere. We broke up shortly afterward. Truth be told, I’m not well suited to intimate relationships, for reasons that I don’t propose to go into here. As it turned out, that was the very last time I’ve been in bed with anybody, a fact that is very sad if I dwell on it. I seldom dwell on it, because I don’t enjoy being sad.

Be that as it may. On this particular occasion we were serenaded. The weather was warm, the window was open, and my apartment was part of a large complex. From the building next to mine, in the wee hours around midnight, wafted the strains of a violin playing, or rather attempting, the opening phrases of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. That’s German for “a little night music,” in case you don’t know. It’s one of Mozart’s best known pieces.

To say that the violinist was bad would be to understate the case. The playing was sadly halting and inept. I had never heard violin playing of any kind from that apartment building before, and I never heard any again.

It seemed to me at the time, and it still seems to me today, that the universe was making a clear comment on my halting and inept attempts at intimacy — a comment, moreover, that only a musician would understand. The ironic comment would only have been meaningful at that highly significant moment in my life, so the theory that this was truly a random occurrence is difficult to swallow.

I could tell you other stories, but those two will do. In spite of how quotidian our lives usually are, once in a while we can’t help but notice that the universe is a very mysterious place.

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