I’ve spent much of my adult life trying to quell my metaphysical leanings by training my mind to observe and deduce. Shining the light of reason into the darkest corners of my mind and soul, I’ve chased away ambiguities and replaced them with facts. I think it was Hegel who said that if you look at the world rationally, the world will look rationally back at you. I desperately want to live in a rational world: one composed entirely of black and white. Because it’s the gray where I get into trouble. Gray is the color of lone existential wandering – of mystery, uncertainty and fear.
“Mystery is not something negative that has to be eliminated. On the contrary, it is one of the constitutive elements of being.” There, in black and white, a rational defense of gray. It was an article about an esteemed physicist, Dr. Bernard d’Espagnat, who’d just been awarded the controversial Templeton prize, a $1.42 million accolade for work toward the reconciliation of spirituality and science. D’Espagnat, an 87-year-old professor at the University of Paris-Sud, certainly didn’t set out aiming to balance the two. Much of his career has been devoted to quantum mechanics, specifically work on Bell’s theorem: a groundbreaking theory that runs counter to the commonsense notion of locality. Locality states that an event happening in one place has no instantaneous effect anywhere else. If a star explodes, we find out only when the flash gets here.
Much of d’Espagnat’s work focuses on the theory of entanglement: a strange and troublesome idea that hasn’t been able to gain much traction in mainstream physics. According to the theory, once two particles have interacted, they remain bound in a powerful yet inexplicable way. If something happens to one particle, the other instantly feels the effects of that event. They may spin to opposite corners of the universe, but their connection is independent of distance. The particles are forever entangled, each one’s existence bound to that of the other.
D’Espagnat doesn’t regard our inability to explain entanglement as a reason to suspect a flaw in the theory. He regards the mystery of entanglement as evidence of a veiled reality, one that exists beneath what we perceive as space, time and matter. Science, he claims, can never hope to fully explain the nature of being. It can only offer us a partial window to reality – one through which we can steal fleeting glances at what lies beyond. The human mind, which d’Espagnat believes to be capable of perceiving deep realities, must turn to other methods – such as art or the belief in a greater cosmic force – to gain a greater, more complete understanding of the world.
Reading about d’Espagnat, I found myself taking comfort in the idea of an entangled reality beneath the veil. To live in a world of empirical fact is to believe only what we can observe to be true. But strive though I might to be a faithful empiricist, so much of what I want to believe requires far more faith than fact. I would like to believe that when I die I will somehow persist. Maybe not as a being but as a spirit, a consciousness or an energy. I’d like to believe that all I’ve touched is still out there, somehow affected by my movements and thoughts, bearing my imprint in some mysterious way. And I’d like to believe that I, in turn, carry the touch of all that I’ve experienced: all that I’ve loved and all that has wounded or moved me. I’d like to believe I am forever entangled with my existence and my existence with me. The idea of indelibility – of a mark that cannot be erased by space or time – makes the gray area seem less lonely, less frightening. I’m willing to step beyond the bounds of black and white for that kind of comfort.