Center for Astrophysics)

What does astrophysics mean?

Astrophysics / April 11, 2024

Susan Dykstra/Getty Images

Susan Dykstra/Getty Images

Everyone will tell you: "Be here now."

That certainly sounds like a good idea — but what does it really mean?

I am not asking this question in a "mindfulness mediation" kind of way. Yes, mindfulness is great for slowing down your monkey mind and paying a more intimate attention to what's happening around you. No one can argue with that.

What I'm interested in today, however, is the relationship between the first two words in that New-Agey triplet: Be here now. How do "be-ing" and, well, "here-ing" go together? Might they be same thing?

In February and April, I'll be spending time in Dartmouth working with 13.7's own Marcelo Gleiser. Philosopher Evan Thompson will be joining us for a while, too. Among other things, the three of us are getting together to try to unpack some questions about where to place physics in relation to experience or, better yet, in relation to being.

Experience, from my view, always comes before theorizing about experience. It's more primary and more fundamental. Just as important is the idea that ideas about experience — meaning any kind theorizing you do about it — can never exhaust its essential nature. That's because it's not just the "stuff" in our experience that matters — the tables and chairs and cats and chickens. The presence through which all that stuff can appear is what matters more.

But "presence" in this context can seem like a weird word to use. That's why it may be easier to say that what I'm really trying to get a handle on is the question of the verb "to be."

"Being, " in this context, is the domain of phenomenology: a kind of philosophy that's usually associated with Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger and others (like Jean-Paul Sartre). At its best, phenomenology's goal is finding meaningful ways to talk about this weird, ongoing, first person being that is the irreducible ground of everything else.

Which brings back us to "be here now." The first thing any good wise-ass will say when told to be here now is: "You mean now? ... or now? ... how about right now?"

From this bit of snarkery, you can see that the root problem in addressing being is not losing it's ongoing quality. That is, after all, what makes life so weird. We're always here until we die. After that, who knows?

And that's why "here" matters. We think of here as a place. I am "here" now. But an hour ago my "here" was somewhere else that I now think of as "there." We imagine an objective map of the world out there with a little icon indicating our present location on the map. That icon is our "here."

But at a more fundamental level, that map is just in our heads. It's a story we tell ourselves. From the point of view of phenomenology, there is only one here and that's the intimate focus of your ongoing experience, your being or, better yet, your "be-ing."

In that sense, "here" is not a location, it's a verb. You aren't just "be-ing, " you're "here-ing" as well. The two can't be separated. Here-ing is the way we are always showing up someplace. Our presence is always present at the place where we're looking from. In a sense "here-ing" is the continual manifesting of our perspective. Like the view from a first-person video game, we can never shake that perspective. It's the only way we are ever in the world.

To mess with Hamlet: To be, is to be here.

As a physicist, what's interesting about "here-ing" is what it might reveal about nature's intrinsic nature. We physicists love the idea of an external, objective independent world that's somehow "out there." The power of physics has been in the precision with which our theories seem to map out that objective world. After all, if they didn't how could all this technology work so well?

But a phenomenological perspective says: Whoa, hold up a moment. Yes, of course there is a world out there. But if you're really honest, you have to admit that the only access anyone gets to it is through our intimate ongoing experience, the "be-ing" which makes the "here-ing."

So while we like to imagine our maps of the objective world, no one ever gets to experience that. Instead, we have this remarkable never-ending (until we die) interaction between whatever it is that we are and whatever it is that's out there. Here-ing is what makes a place out of that. And what does that really mean?

Maybe, just maybe, we can't take ourselves out of the universe's story.

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4