Existence: What the Meaning of the Word “is” is

There are any number of unanswerable, uncomfortable questions a person can ask, but the first one, the question from which all other questions are descended, is “Why is there an ‘is’?” Why is there existence in the first place? In our fascination with life’s origin and evolution, we bypass this most fundamental of conundrums. Does the very fact of existence in itself provide proof that some metaphysical non-thing. perhaps even the Godly, some undefined whatever-it-is, produced the physical by transcending it?

If we consider the finite aspects of the world we see around us, the limited nature of the time, space and matter from which we are constructed, the answer is certainly yes. Some non-thing, above or outside of the physical, must have preceded our universe or has our universe imbedded in it.

But what is the material world, that which frames the puzzle of our existence? Why even bother with the existence of empty space, or even time? The basic enigma is not whether we evolved from apes or not, but why is there “being” in the first place? The very existence of existence is mind boggling. Yet we are so much a part of existence that we take it for granted, it’s a “given,” to use a scientific term. But step back from the subjectivity and think about it. What caused the Big Bang? What caused existence? What is existence?

In his introduction to The Guide For The Perplexed, Moses Maimonides, the great 12th-century Jewish philosopher and codifier, laid the basis for probing these questions:

We must form a conception of the existence of the Creator according to our capacities; that is, we must have a knowledge of metaphysics (the science of God), which can only be acquired after the study of physics; for the science of physics is closely connected with metaphysics and must even precede it in the course of studies. Therefore, the Almighty commenced the Bible with the description of the creation, that is, with physical science.

One might conceive of a science without religion, but it is an oxymoron to conceive of religion without science. Revelation and nature are the two aspects of one creation. Yet in Maimonides’ time, the idea that science might have something to add to our understanding of spirituality was so anathema to the religious establishments that his book was burned by Jews and Christians alike.

Some 250 years ago, a great Jewish saint and mystic, the Gaon of Vilna, taught that when the light of Torah came into the world it split into two parts. Only one part was revealed directly, the prophetic experience The other part was hidden in the wisdoms of nature and the time will come, he said, when those hidden wisdoms will be discovered. revealing aspects of the Torah never before understood. That time has come. The hidden wisdoms of nature and science are being discovered. At the turn of the century, a physics professor would have lost tenure on the spot if caught teaching the concept that matter in all its forms of solids, liquids and gases was actually condensed energy. What hokum it would have seemed! Then came Einstein, relativity and E = mc^2, the theory that matter, m. intrinsically represents a specific amount of energy, E. And the type of matter was immaterial. As bizarre as it seems, a gram of rose petals and a gram of uranium contain identical amounts of energy. The constant in the equation, c^2 is the speed of light squared or multiplied by itself. It is a massive value, telling us that even a tiny amount of matter contains a huge quantity of latent energy. Having personally witnessed the detonation of six nuclear weapons. I suggest that we pray for peace. The fractions of a gram of matter converted into energy during those tests turned the mountain on which I stood into a quivering Jello-like substance.

In 1923, almost a decade after Einstein published his general relativity theory (no longer a theory, of course: now it is a law), the French physicist Louis de Broglie introduced an idea that was even more bizarre in its assertions than Einstein’s claim that matter really was a form of energy.

De Broglie claimed that all matter has related to it a wave length and a frequency of that wave, a certain number of wave cycles per second. Not only had humanity learned that matter was not matter, we now had to believe that everything is a wave. Everything you and I concluded. Seventy years of experiments have sustained both Einstein’s and de Broglie’s preposterous, counterintuitive claims.

The floor upon which you stand and the bedrock that supports a skyscraper are 99.999% empty space. What we perceive as solid matter is actually de Broglie’s waves separated by open space, made impermeable by invisible, immaterial fields of force that somehow pervade the space. The world simply is not as it seems. A superficial reading of nature finds differentiation and disparate entities – stars and stones and bottled water and even life and death. Reading that same nature at a deeper level reveals that it’s all a manifestation of a single underlying unity. I’m on our balcony. The afternoon Jerusalem sun is filtering through the yellow-green finger leaves of a eucalyptus tree planted a century ago to mark the property line. De Broglie tells me the leaves and the light are one. Not poetically, though that also, but physically, they are one.

It took humanity millennia before an Einstein discovered that, as bizarre as it may seem, matter is actually condensed energy. It may take a while longer for us to discover that there is some non-thing even more fundamental than energy that forms the basis of energy. In the words of John Archibald Wheeler, the renowned former president of the American Physical Society, recipient of the Einstein Award and Princeton professor of physics, underlying all existence is an idea, the “bit” of information that gives rise to the “it” of matter.

The substructure of all existence, we suddenly realize, is totally ethereal, an idea, wisdom. Or in Hebrew – emet – an all encompassing reality. Emet is the ultimate building block from which all we see and feel is constructed. Just as the secondary substructure of all matter is something as ethereal as energy, as per Einstein’s fantastic insight, so, the primary substructure of energy is still more elusive. Existence is the expression of an idea, an eternal consciousness made tangible. We are the idea of God.

If we can discover that idea, we will have ascertained not only the basis for the unity that underlies all existence, but most important, the source of that unity. “We will have encountered the soul of God.”