What would we do with the answers if we had them? That question increasingly occurs to me as I realize the answers probably won't be available in my lifetime.
Which answers you ask? The answers. The big answers to the big questions. What are we? Where are we? Is there really a Big Dodger in the Sky and if so what on Earth induced Him/Her to invent something as preposterously beautiful as the peacock? And so on.
I felt compelled to put the question to a few people I thought might have interesting responses. First I asked my old friend Bernie, because he generally talks about this stuff without prompting: What would humanity do if it had the answers to the big questions?
"The answer is," said Bernie, "there are no answers. This is the answer. It's inherent in the experience. Samsara is the mahamudra. "
" Samsara (in Sanskrit) means world of illusion and mahamudra means great symbol. This is it. It defies reason. The secret is there are no secrets. "
I thanked him, wondering what Groucho Marx might have to say about that. Or master illusionist David Copperfield.
Then I called Dr. Timothy Leary. What would we do, I started to ask, when Dr. Leary burst into laughter.
"Wait a minute," he said. "I have a crusade going about the predatory pronoun. When you say 'we,' leave me out, OK?"
Right. Presumptuous of me. OK, what would humanity do if . . .
"The human mind at the present time is a very inadequate instrument to deal with the question that you're posing," he said. "In the last 100 years, with quantum mechanics, physics, Einstein--there's a lot of new data which is helping us operate our brains, understand how our brains work. . . . This is analogous to when we first discovered fire and got this notion that hey, we can burn, we can temper, we can meld two material objects. For the first time, we're able to address these issues of the ultimate nature of the cosmos, the universe, reality, how a reality is invented, designed.
"Quantum physics," he continued, "has produced a very powerful philosophy that allows us to at least understand our ignorance, and the steps we might take. It's absolutely impertinent and primitive to think that primates like us are speculating about God and nature. It's a joke ."
I couldn't argue. The question, he persuades, is absurd. Still, it was good to be reminded that we are primates. Super intelligent apes, more or less, with cars and earrings and nuclear missiles.
I phoned another friend, a primate named Joe, who spends a lot of time writing about sophisticated electronics, and playing guitar. I thought he would have special insight because he owns a goldfish born without eyes. He is fond of pointing out that the fish, Little Red, "doesn't know what he is or where he is--just like us!" I popped the question.
"What would we do with the answers if we had them?" mused Joe. "Very short sentence-- Lose them. In other words, since humans don't seem to be able to learn anything from their experience, either in fact or in apocrypha, they would simply lose them."
Some might call Joe's response a bit cynical. Joe would call it realistic.
Searching for a more poetic comment, I phoned a . . . poet. A guy who's been living and breathing poetry for at least 20 years.
"Oh, the big answers," said Scott Wannberg. "OK, got the tape rolling? I'm ready to go. If humanity had the big answers, it would probably stop scratching under its underwear and actually take time out to smell the nice coffee breeze going by in that unilateral moment of music that we are all made of. Because people are just too hung up on not listening to the music that actually is there. If they had the answers to the big questions, they could follow the music to the dance hall that never closes."
Like I said, I wanted a poetic response. I also wanted to put the question to a vastly imaginative novelist. Isaac Asimov is dead, Ray Bradbury was busy. But I did get through to Harlan Ellison, a premier science fiction and fantasy author.
"What would humanity do if it had the answers?" repeated Ellison, between bites of egg foo yung. "Well, the first thing it would do would be to find a way to discount them. We have most of the answers. For instance, we understand much more about the universe than, say, pre-Ptolemaic scholars did, and yet one out of every five Americans doesn't doesn't think the Holocaust happened! High school teachers still believe that creationism is true! More people believe in astrology than believe in quantum physics! We would find some way to take the answers and mystify them, as opposed to demystify them. We would shy away."
Maybe. But heck, we could always phone some "psychic friends" to get everything straightened out. Or Bill Moyers.
I put the question to singer-songwriter Victoria Williams, because I think her songs indicate an extraordinarily keen appreciation of life. (Besides, I pretty much like anybody who writes songs about the moon.)
"That's a really difficult question considering that I believe that, in this stage that we're in, we're incapable of seeing," she said. "I feel like we don't have a clue, really. I believe in God, and believe in this heaven that they talk about, and the future. I believe what it says in the Bible, when it says: Now I see through the glass dimly, later I will see it all. It's impossible for us to see the whole picture now. But I do believe that at a later point, it will all be revealed to us. We probably won't have to do anything at that point. Nothing that won't be a joy to do. It would be a whole different state. I believe we have hints of that when we see goodness, and when we see small acts of kindness, or beauty in a small child. There's so many ways we get glimpses of it, like just through a hummingbird floating near a flower. We have glimpses of the uncorruptedness. Obviously, I guess we wouldn't be destroying."
Minus the religious context, her answer had much in common with the last person I phoned. So what would we do, I asked Frank Zappa, if we had all the answers?
"Um. Who's we?" said Zappa. "Give me the answer to that, and maybe I can say something."
Whoops. There was Leary's "predatory pronoun" again. I mean humanity , Frank.
"Well, first of all," said Zappa, "if humanity knew the answers, there wouldn't be any problems, so what's to solve?"
Zappa and Williams came closest to answering the question the way I might, if I had enough sleep and was feeling particularly upbeat. But I'm more like my friend Joe--cynical, er, that is, realistic . Unlike Joe, though, I don't think we'd lose the Big Answers.
I think we'd more than likely turn them into a sitcom. Undoubtedly starring Roseanne Arnold.