Wednesday, July 13, 2011

CWAS Excerpt Number Four

The Beginning

This excerpt is from the fourth chapter of Conversations with a Stranger by Larry Tate

On Thursday morning I was able to reclaim my regular table. Apparently the conference or whatever it was that came to town was over. I didn’t bother trying to hide from the stranger this time. I was beginning to learn that he would find me no matter where I seated myself. About the time I got comfortable in my chair, I heard the familiar greeting, “Hello, friend.” I didn’t even have to turn my head to see who it was.

His hands were full. In addition to a coffee cup filled to the brim, he was carrying two saucers, one with a bagel and the other with a doughnut. Inevitably, he spilled part of his coffee on the table. By instinct, I immediately reacted by jumping out of my seat before any of the hot coffee could land in my lap. In short order, we were able to clean up the mess and sit back down at the table. With a silly grin on his face he said, “I sure made a mess didn’t I?”

“Well, sir, it happens to all of us.”

“It sure does. How are you doing on this beautiful day?”

“I’m fine, sir.”

He began buttering his bagel, drinking his coffee, and chatting incessantly.

I just let him continue on, occasionally giving him an “oh,” or a “yes,” or a “hmm.” It seemed as though this guy just enjoyed listening to himself talk.

Eventually he had to stop and catch his breath. After a moment he asked, “Friend, what were we talking about yesterday?”

Grateful for a change of topic I said, “Well, you suggested that there had to be a first mover, and you determined that the first mover must be an unmoved mover. You went so far as to say that the unmoved mover could only be God. Then we began discussing the beginning of the universe.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “You must be keeping notes. But don’t forget, friend, we came up with those conclusions together.”

“The last conclusion was yours, sir.”

“Perhaps, my friend, but it does bear consideration, does it not?”

“I will keep my mind open, sir.”

“That’s good enough for me, friend. Well now, what do you think about the beginning of the universe?”

“Sir, I haven’t burned up many of my brain cells dwelling on the beginning of time, but I’ve heard a couple of theories. One is that the beginning goes back to infinity. Another is that the universe had a definite beginning. As far as my opinion goes, I tend to lean toward the theory that the universe is infinitely old.”

“Okay,” he said. “That is as good a starting point as any. Let’s just explore some known facts and see if we can agree on a logical conclusion.”

“Sir, do you really think that two regular guys like us can figure out the beginning of time right here in this coffee shop while sitting at this table?”

Chuckling, he replied, “You don’t appreciate the brain power you have, my friend. But who knows what we can accomplish until we try.”

“Okay,” I sighed. “Let’s get started.”

“Perhaps we should first agree on the meaning of the term infinity,” he said.

“That’s an easy one for me,” I said. “Infinity is an unlimited and unending extent of time or quantity.”

“Unlimited and unending…” he pondered. “Okay, so if the universe is infinitely old, then the beginning must extend backwards toward the past, down an unlimited and unending extent of time prior to today. Is that right?”

“It sounds like we are off to a good start,” I said.

“Okay. To help us understand an infinite amount of time in the past, let’s talk about something simpler first. Let’s talk about numbers in general.”

“You’re the teacher, sir.”

“Friend, I would like to think that we are doing this together. I pose a question, and you answer. You pose a problem, and together we will work out that problem.”

“If you say so, sir.”

“Now back to numbers…if it is possible to count forwards for a certain number of units, wouldn’t you agree that we must also be able to count backwards to the point of beginning?”

“Sure enough,” I replied. With my background, math was an easy subject.

“And likewise, if it is possible to count backwards for a certain number of units, wouldn’t you also be able to count forwards back to the point of beginning?”

“I don’t see any problem with that assumption either,” I said.

“Friend, pick a number.”

“Pick any number?”

“Yes, any number is fine.”

“Okay, my number is 823.”

“823? How did you pick that number?”

“I don’t know, sir. It just came in my mind. Is there a problem with that number?”

“Any number is fine. I was just curious about where that number came from. It’s a bit strange, but we can work with it.”

I thought, Why is he calling me and my thoughts strange? He makes himself at home at my table, talking about all kinds of weird stuff, and he thinks I’m strange?

Continuing, he said, “Okay, we’ll start with the number 823. Now, if we were to count forwards for another hundred numbers, we would get to 923. Is that right?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now that we are at the number 923, is there any problem with counting backwards until we get back to our original number of 823?”

“No problem, sir. If it is possible to count forwards to some certain number, it is certainly possible to count backwards to the point of beginning, whatever number the beginning happens to be.”

“All right, friend, if instead of counting forwards from 823 to 923, what if we were to try counting backwards from 823 to 723?”

“Sir, there wouldn’t be a problem doing that either. We can count back to the number 723 and then count forwards back to the original number of 823.”

“Great, friend. You are helping me immensely. Now, what if we were to try counting backwards from the number 823 all of the way to zero? Could that be done also?”

“No problem, sir.”

He looked toward the ceiling as if he was counting the ceiling tiles. Then he said, “Let’s consider the first moment of the universe. Is it conceivable to imagine the first moment of the universe?”

“Well, that would be a long ways back there, but I suppose a person could imagine the first moment.”

“But, friend, you said that the universe may be infinitely old, and that infinity is an unlimited and unending extent of time. If the beginning is infinitely in the past, then the very first moment must always be farther and farther back in the past, beyond any moment previously identified as the first moment. So how could the very first moment ever be identified?”

“Hmm…sir, you have a point there. Now that you put it in that kind of light, I doubt that the very first moment could ever be identified.”

He tapped his fingers on the table, considering his next words. “Okay, so you say that the first moment in an infinite past cannot be identified because by the time you could get to what could be conceivably identified as the first moment, you would just find that the actual first moment would still be farther in the past. Am I right?”

“I believe so, sir.”

“Consequently, the definition of an infinite past simply does not allow for a first moment.”

“That looks to be the case, sir.”

“Help me out, friend. Wouldn’t the beginning of time be considered as moment number zero?”

“Well, sir, technically the first moment would be moment number one, not moment number zero. But, I understand your point. Just before moment number one should be moment zero.”

“Okay then, Mr. Know-It-All. Let’s call the first moment, moment number one.”

For just a brief moment, I wondered if his last remark was some sort of an insult. But his big, crooked smile easily disarmed my negative notions regarding his intentions. I relaxed a bit and said, “Okay, sir.”

“Friend, if the first moment is always farther and farther in the past, then it appears that there may be a problem in assigning the number one to the first moment.”

“We may be on to something, sir.”

“We’ve already determined that it is possible to count from any given number back to the number zero. But if the first moment is elusively farther and farther back in the past, I don’t see how it would be possible to count back from this present moment to the very first moment in an infinite past. As a matter of fact, it is quite impossible to count back to the first moment if the beginning is infinitely far in the past.”

“I don’t have any problem with that assumption,” I said.

“Okay, we’ve determined that we can’t identify the first moment. Consequently we can’t attach the number one to the first moment. So…since we can’t identify the first moment, perhaps we could identify the second moment. Do you think it would be possible to identify the moment that occurs after the first moment?”

I thought for a little bit and said, “When considering a series of moments, it seems logical to me that the second moment should be identifiable, but if the first moment can’t be identified, then I don’t believe that the second moment would be identifiable either.”

“So,” said the stranger, “it sounds to me like you are saying that if the first moment can never be identified due to it being infinitely far in the past, then by default, the second moment would also be infinitely far in the past. Okay then, let’s go farther up the ladder. What about the third moment?”

“Well, sir, if there is no identifiable second moment, it doesn’t look to me that there could be an identifiable third moment.”

“Let me get this straight,” mused the stranger. “If you can’t count back from today to the first moment and if you can’t count back to the second or third moments, it would appear to me that you also could not count back to the fourth, fifth, or sixth moments. Is that right?”

“We are talking about infinity, sir.”

Continuing on he said, “If you can’t count back to the moment after the first moment, then you also can’t count back to the next moment after that or the next moment after that or the tenth moment or the thousandth moment or even the millionth moment. This hard thinking is about to singe the hair on my head.”

“Yes, sir, mine too.”

“Now, friend, if I had ten beans in a row, one of those beans would be the tenth, one would be the ninth, one would be the eighth, and so on, right down to the first bean. We can count back to the first bean because the beans had a beginning. But, in the case of an infinite past, there aren’t any first, second, third, fourth, fifth, or sixth moments. Likewise, there can’t be any tenth, hundredth, thousandth, millionth, or billionth moments. Am I right?”

“I can’t fault your logic, sir.”

Without saying a word, the stranger got out of his seat and started walking around the room, looking at the other coffee shop patrons. He went to the window and gazed outside for several minutes. I had given up on understanding this stranger, so I just sat there drinking my coffee and eating my bagel. After a long while, he came back and sat down. Without saying a word, he gave himself a vicious pinch on the arm. “Oweee,” he yelled out.

Embarrassed, I looked around to see if he was disturbing other patrons around us. Fortunately, everyone seemed to ignore him. “What are you doing, sir?” I whispered.

Ignoring my question he asked, “Friend, would you pinch yourself too?”

I was getting a little exasperated with him. I was accustomed to sitting in a corner and being somewhat invisible. This guy’s antics were compounding the risk that unwanted attention would be drawn to me. “No, I will not pinch myself until you tell me what is going on.”

“I’m right here!” he exclaimed. “I’m here…and this coffee shop is full of other people who are here. I am right here…in the now and the present, along with a room full of people. I just wanted to find out if you’re here too.”

Indignantly I retorted, “I don’t have to pinch myself in order to know that I’m here. What is your point, sir?”

“Well, friend, it looks like we just proved there’s no such thing as an infinite past.”

“What?” I exclaimed in a startled voice. “What does pinching ourselves have to do with proving that there is no infinite past?”

With a look of triumph, the stranger smiled at me and said, “If time past goes back to infinity, then we and our universe could not and would not exist. The present time can exist only if it is a step in the future from an immediate step in the past. But, if time past goes back to infinity then step number two has not yet been reached. If step number two has not yet been reached, then steps three, four, five, and six have not been reached. If step six has not been reached, then the tenth, hundredth, thousandth, millionth, and billionth steps have not yet been reached. So whatever step we are in, here in the present, could have never been reached. As a matter of fact, if the beginning of the universe goes back to infinity, then the beginning has not yet occurred. If time past goes back to infinity, then there actually is no such thing as time. Consequently, this current moment right here in this coffee shop can never be reached. If time past goes to infinity, then you and I would not be sitting here right now, pinching ourselves and acting silly.”

Still feeling the burning in my face from being embarrassed by his recent outburst, I replied, “Respectfully, sir, only one of us is acting silly…and it isn’t me.”

Still smiling he said, “Maybe I’m getting a little too excited about what we just discovered.”

He then leaned across the table and pinched me on the arm before I had time to pull back. I flinched and sat up straight, looking at him with evil eyes. My arm was stinging, and a red spot was beginning to form. Still smiling he continued, “If time past goes to infinity, we would not be sitting here right now. But, the fact is…we are sitting here right now; we are pinching ourselves. The only logical conclusion left is that time and our universe definitely did have a beginning.”

I was stunned and speechless. I didn’t know if I was more shocked at his conclusions or the fact that he had taken the liberty to reach across the table and pinch me. I had never thought of time like that, but it certainly did made sense. This stranger seemed to be able to solve one of the mysteries of the universe right there in the coffee shop, while sitting at the table.

After a little bit I said, “You may be right. It appears that the universe did begin at a specific time.”

“It’s not just me, my friend. We did it together.”

With foggy eyes, I looked around the room and out into the parking lot. After recomposing myself, I glanced back to the stranger. He was busily munching on his bagel. Here we were, struggling with the mysteries of the universe, and this stranger was just gobbling up bagels and slurping coffee as if he didn’t have a care in the world.

After an uncomfortable silence he said, “What a relief to know there is no such thing as an infinitely old universe. If it was, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy our coffee today. And this bagel is just too good to miss out on. Isn’t it fun solving age-old mysteries of the universe?” With his mouth half full of bagel he cheerfully said, “You know, friend, life is just about the greatest thing there is.” Then with a chuckle he uttered the old cliché, “It certainly beats the alternative. What do you think?”

Sometimes, this guy seemed to be so far out in left field that he should be institutionalized. Then at other times, he seemed to be able to look straight into the heart of a very complicated matter. I sat back in my chair and just stared at him with a puzzled look on my face. I just didn’t know what to make of the guy sitting across the table from me.

After downing his coffee, he said, “Friend, we went off on a tangent discussing the beginning of time. I believe we can get to the bottom of several other proofs that God exists. I’ve got plenty of time if you do. Are you ready to get back on track and discuss another proof?”

I couldn’t make up my mind if I enjoyed having discussions with him, or if I hated them. In one way, I was aggravated at the way he had elbowed his way into my life, but at the same time it was rather intriguing to follow his arguments to their conclusion. I looked at my watch and was surprised at how fast time was passing by. “Oh my, look at the time. I’ve got to run, sir. Maybe I should take a rain check on that offer.”

Without the slightest hesitation, he said, “No problem, my friend. The next time we meet, we can talk about the first cause.”

I didn’t have a clue what he meant by the first cause, but I was confident that he would have some profound explanation for it. I was already late for work so I said good-bye and excused myself. As I was walking out the door, I turned around and saw him go up to the counter and order another cup of coffee, along with the biggest bagel they had. Shaking my head, I headed off to work.

The above excerpt is from the copyrighted book Conversations with a Stranger by Larry Tate

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