What are we to make of this feast? There could hardly be any doctrine more likely to arouse the contemptuous mirth of atheists than the idea of Our Lady not dying but falling asleep and being transported directly into heaven, doubtless on a golden divan bed hoisted by angels with trumpets as in the depictions of so many baroque artists. But if not that then what?
A first idea. According to brain science the brain does not take pictures of the world but translates the agitations of tissue that are sense impressions into codes. It gives us not a photograph but a coded representation of the world. Do we never see the world as it is, then, but only a virtual representation of the world, that may be as different from the real thing as words are from what they describe?
A second idea. Consider codes. In analogue coding, as the term suggests, there is something analogous in the symbols of the code to what they symbolize. In an LP there is a relationship between the wavy track that the stylus follows and the ups and downs of the music. But digital coding is quite different. Here the information in the whole message is broken down into a sequence of separate bits, and an intelligence at the encoding end arbitrarily decides what symbols will stand for what bits (it could be anything, numbers, letters, squiggles) and an intelligence at the decoding end who knows what the symbols stand for re-assembles the meaning of the whole message. A musical score is both an analogue and a digital code. You can get some idea of the movement of the music simply from looking at the shape of the score. But crotchets and quavers are completely arbitrary symbols for sounds. The decoder has to know what they stand for. The important thing here is that the decoded message is not just a sequence of bits, one damn note after another. The composer’s overall and indivisible idea invests each separate note that transmits his composition to us, even though to make that transmission possible there has to be a sequence of notes. Music is dependent on but not made up of parts.
A third idea. DNA is a digital code. Science has paid a lot of attention to the bits that make things up, but it has not considered at all seriously how those bits become parts of wholes. In my view this is because wholes are not material things, whereas science, very properly, is only concerned with what is material. Because you cannot see, but you can comprehend, wholes, science doesn’t see them. It is because science has been so staggeringly successful in revealing what the parts that make things up are, that so many scientists think wholes don’t exist. But because its methods only detects parts, there is nothing in science that tells us whether or not there are aspects of things of which science cannot tell us. But art does. Art, contrariwise to science, is not concerned with parts, even though it has to use parts to transmit its meanings, but with wholes.
A fourth idea. Confronted with the question where the DNA transmitted by the nucleotides, the A G C and T of the helically organized code, comes from, most scientists would say ‘a meaningless question, like saying what lies north of the north pole’. I don’t think it’s meaningless at all. I think it’s makes far more sense to think that there is a cosmic intelligence in the depths of the universe that encodes its meanings into the differing sequences of the parts that make matter up, the protons, neutrons and electrons, in order to transmit them to other intelligences with brains big enough to comprehend the message they encode, just as an analogue code does. In fact, the structures of matter are an analogue code. The sequences of protons and electrons are no more what a rose is than the pits in a CD are what a Beethoven symphony is. The structures of the rose are material. The rosiness, the ‘yes that’s a rose’ of our experience of the rose, is not. It is a beautiful message from the cosmic intelligence underlying the universe. I don’t think our brains give us a virtual picture of the world. I think they holistically comprehend the messages in the agitations of tissue that are sense impressions, because information is not something material that you see but something immaterial that you understand. Seeing a rose is not an act of photography but an act of intelligence.
A fifth idea. The ur-experiment of quantum physics is the one showing that not only light but subatomic particles are not only particles occupying a particular here and now and if this not that, part of space, but also a universal wave, everywhere and nowhere and unbounded by time. But for me an even more crucial experiment is that done on fullerene molecules, showing that they too are both waves and particles. A fullerene molecule is only a thousandth of a millimeter across. But it’s huge compared with an electron. An electron is not a thing. A fullerene molecule is. For technical reasons, anyway at the moment, it is impossible to perform this experiment on anything bigger than a fullerene. But a molecule is so much bigger than an electron I think the implication is that all material things have a wavular (if I could coin such a word) as well as a particular aspect. None of us will go to heaven because we are already existing in this untimed unplaced everywhere and nowhere anything is everything dimension of existence that science has so unexpectedly discovered, but, particulated, we don’t know that we are.
Which brings us back to the Assumption. As usual the church has got it right. Our physical bodies will die. But what St Paul calls the spiritual body, which scientists call DNA for the information in the DNA as opposed to the nucleotides that transmit it belongs to the wavular world, will not. The Assumption is a most precious feast, for like Our Lady all of us will not be transported to heaven in golden chariots but will simply awake to find ourselves in the wavular world. But, according to Church doctrine, unlike her (but that’s another story) most of us are obviously not yet fit to enter this ultimate dimension. There must be purgatory, Actually I don’t think there’s a place called Purgatory either. I believe in the Hindu karma. I believe we get sent back to the particulated to try a bit harder. But that’s another story too (though when you see the joggers sweating it out as they run round and round Green Park , you can’t help thinking if this is not purgatory what is?)