On a Communicating Universe

There’s an old joke in which a man is stuck on the roof of his house during a flood.  Being a man of faith, he implores his god to save him.  Various rescue efforts are made – by a man in a rowboat, a team in a motorboat, a group of hi-viz jackets in a helicopter – all of which the man declines, explaining that he is a man of faith and is waiting for god to save him.  Eventually the man drowns and, upon meeting god, he complains: I had faith, but you did not save me!

I sent a row boat, a motor boat, a helicopter – what more did you want? god replies.

This is funny for several reasons, none of which concern me here.  What concerns me is the question: if some form of transcendental Mind were indeed attempting to communicate with you, how would you know?

The question came to me during one of those episodes where – depending on your point of view – one of the following occurred:

  • the pattern-recognition system in my skull (my ‘semantic engine’) imposed order (which was essentially subjective) on a series of unconnected incidents, thereby deriving ‘meaning’
  • the universe and/or a transcendental Mind had something to say and said it

The episode in question took place over the course of a few minutes one sunny Friday a few months ago.  I had just visited Fairbourne, a small community on the Welsh coast, situated at the estuary of the river Mawddach.  The river flows through the magnificence of Snowdonia, meeting the Irish Sea forty-odd miles north of Aberystwyth.  It is a truly beautiful location, as these photos attest:

I was visiting for ‘research purposes’: Fairbourne is a community threatened by ‘managed retreat’, and I am considering formally exploring what lessons Fairbourne might have for the rest of us as the reality of climate change squeezes ever-more-tightly in the years and decades ahead.  At one level, I was therefore alert to the kinds of material considerations that might be relevant to such a research exercise – the physical geography, the settlement pattern, the existence or otherwise of shops, pubs, community facilities and so on.

At another level – and, on this occasion, the important level – I was very much in ‘open’ mode.  How could I possibly know ex ante what it would actually feel like in Fairbourne?  What might my intuition, or the wind, or an unforeseen conjunction of art and humour tell me?  It was important, I felt, to be as open as possible to anything that might present itself.  I had no hypotheses, no assumptions, no guide book.  I wanted to be available to notice – well, anything.

After spending as long as seemed necessary wandering around, I returned to my car.  The radio came on as soon as I started the engine.  Philip Pullman was talking.  As part of his promotional work for his new novel ‘The Book of Dust’ he was (I discovered) giving a series of five fifteen minute lectures on themes that had shaped his writing.  In today’s lecture, the last and possibly most personal in the series, he is talking about the poetry that first expanded his mind into the realms he now inhabits:

This poetry – Songs of Innocence and Experience by William Blake – came his way (he explained) when he discovered a reference to Blake’s work in the poem Howl, by Allen Ginsberg.  He had encountered Howl, in turn, in a volume of collected poetry that he had acquired as a teenager from the mobile library.  He had visited that mobile library in his home town – of Barmouth.

I raised my head.  There, across the bay from where I sat, was Barmouth.

I succumbed to goose bumps.

They became more acute.

Howl, by Ginsberg, was my entrée to the world of not merely the Beat generation but City Lights, the publishing house established by the (incredibly) still-living Laurence Ferlinghetti.  I bought a copy of Howl in the City Lights ‘Pocket Poets’ series more than 30 years ago.  Then I saw another ‘Pocket Poets’ Ginsberg (Plutonian Ode, I think) and then another.

Thirty years later my ‘Pocket Poets’ collection – forty plus volumes, excluding dupes - is pretty much my only material indulgence and the collection is certainly among my most cherished ‘belongings’.  (Once upon a time I even had the opportunity to help Michael Horowitz - who knew Ginsberg and helped run the Poetry Olympics in 1965, the year I was born – by storing some of his stuff…) (In exchange, he gave me a painting.)

Meanwhile, Pullman is zeroing in on the particular feature of Blake’s work that was so pivotal for him namely, ‘motes of dust’.  Blake intimated, and Pullman believes, that consciousness is – or, at the very least, may be – an attribute of matter.  All matter.  (In the jargon, this is called ‘pan-psychism’.)

I am reeling.  The universe sends me a message (via Barmouth) and then, to reinforce it, includes in the message reference to the very phenomenon by which it might send me a message.

(My mind – poor, inadequate soup that it is, reaches out desperately and finds Lila, a Vedic idea that refers to the playful way in which god hides from himself by being everything there is…)

I try frantically to stabilise: surely, nothing has actually happened.  It’s all just… coincidence.  Or, if not that, then a tractable sequence: there is a set of knowable probabilities here.  Pullman is a man of a certain age who grew up in a particular culture at a particular time: he is bound to have read some things; and I, as a man only a little younger but from the same culture, am bound to have to have read some of those things too.  Pullman had to have grown up somewhere; and I am bound to listen to radio 4 on a Friday lunchtime in late October. And so forth. Multiply all the odds together and – hey presto! – that’s how things are.

Pullman tells the sub-anecdote of going to the W H Smith in Barmouth to look for work by William Blake and being disappointed; and I laugh loudly, because that’s exactly how it was for me in W H Smith (the only bookshop) in Maldon (also an estuary town) where I grew up.

I begin the long drive back to London.  It is going to take several hours, so I have planned a route that provides a couple of opportunities for rest.  The first of these is Shrewsbury, a place about which I know little and which (forgive me) I have never visited.

Ha! It is, apparently, the birthplace of Darwin!  (They tell you on the signs as you enter the town.)  That’s more reassuring.  Darwin, archetypical scientist, arch proponent – surely – of the logically deduced.  I can remind myself that the spooky stuff is just probabilities, that any event, no matter how unlikely, is simply the outcome – like evolution – of big numbers, and time, and chance, and selection.

Except that, as I maplessly meander my way towards what I hope is the middle of the town, my glance haps upon a small and simple sign: Darwin’s Garden.  And I am lost.  I have just finished reading ‘Darwin’s Gardener’, a novel originally in Finnish that explores the nature of the relationship between not just ‘science’ and ‘faith’ but the relationship between three possible ways of accounting for the subjective experience:

  • Is it just coincidence, with any meaning entirely subjectively appended?
  • Is it the word of god, or the universe, or the Great Wheel, or the One, or whatever?
  • Or is it an inevitable outcome of the nature of reality, an as-yet-unexplained aspect of being presently beyond the realms of our physics?

I park my car and dutifully acknowledge that a helicopter has landed close by.  It contains the message:


This weirdness spirals endlessly: during the research for this piece, and whilst checking my recollection of the origin of ‘acausal linkage’ I performed a three-word Google search that produced a single result (itself deeply fucking weird) which, in its opening paragraph, referenced William Blake, and in its title referenced my long-standing companion the I Ching...

I can almost hear the tone in the message left by the helicopter: I said YES!


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