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Personally Speaking/The Immutable Laws of Togetherness

It doesn’t take long upon arrival at St. Norbert to realize that this communio thing is a big deal. I, like many, have found it an essential and lovely part of the college culture. I’m a physicist and, the more I think about both physics and communio, the more I think the one can help us understand the other. 

If you ask any physicist what physics is about they will say something like “explaining a large variety of physical phenomena with a single common principle.” Our goal is to explain how a large number of seemingly different things work in terms of the fewest possible laws. We all know the story of Newton and the famous falling apple. The important thing wasn’t that Newton was hit on the head and became smarter somehow, or that no one realized before this point that things fell downward. This was a story about investigating two different problems: how things fall, and why the moon circles the Earth. Before Newton, people thought these were two separate questions. Classical physics began when Newton thought, “Maybe these aren’t unrelated things, but maybe they have a common underlying principle.” That principle, of course, turned out to be gravity. Since then, physics continues its search for the unifying principle that relates diverse phenomena. 

Now, I’m going to make a somewhat dangerous analogy between people’s ideas or experiences on the one hand, and physical data on the other. Communio emphasizes that we treat other people with equal esteem and trust. In physics, it is important to look at all experiments and all data similarly. Just because something looks like a silly result, or an experiment doesn’t seem as if it would apply in another field, we can’t ignore it or minimize its implications. In fact, it is when we do take the work of others seriously that we make the most progress.  

Isolating ourselves doesn’t lead to the best understandings, either in science or community. In physics, it is accepted that more data is always good; that eventually we’ll figure out how things work together, and find a unified truth.

Similarly, great Catholic thinkers have contended that all truth is fundamentally unified, with Thomas Aquinas among the foremost in asserting that “all truth is God’s truth.” In physics, access to more data should lead us closer and closer to an underlying truth. In all areas of life, access to more people, with more thoughts and more experiences, should lead us closer and closer to an underlying unity of truth. 

Now sometimes, both in physics and in life, what other people share may just plain frustrate us. Take light, for instance. For 100 years, physicists debated about whether light was a wave or a particle, until Young’s two-slit experiment seemed to close the case. For the next 100 years, everyone was very convinced that light was a wave. So, understandably, not many people wanted to listen to data coming forth in the early 1900s, that suggested that light was, in fact, a particle. There were two options: Dismiss as crazy and irrelevant those experiments, or decide to seriously consider what they meant. Of course the right thing to do is obvious: We should take the data seriously, even if it makes us angry, confused or just plain wrong. 

Similarly, there is always value in understanding other people. Even if we might disagree with them about what they draw from their experiences, their experiences are still important for us to understand. Communio encourages us to do something we otherwise wouldn’t: Listen. If we don’t have respect and trust for each other, we aren’t likely to consider all that we should. With a spirit of communio, our experiences should allow us to draw closer toward that unifying truth. There is only one truth, and we can find it better together.

In another risky move for a physicist, let me attempt a venture into theology. The issue of God’s goodness and the suffering of good people is a tough one, some people seeing so much blessing and goodness around them, others seeing good people suffering terribly. Faith asks us to take seriously both the goodness and beauty of the world and the reality of suffering – all the while trusting that there is some truth behind all these experiences, and searching for it even if it is beyond our full understanding.

Oftentimes truth is more elusive and confusing than we might wish. Let us never forget that things that seem strange, frustrating and unrelated can really be part of the same truth we ourselves are seeking. Other people have the same goals we do: to uncover truth, and to understand better the world and our place in it. If we value each other, and learn from each other, our progress will be much faster. 


Oct. 31, 2015