The End of All Our Exploring

Much has been said of the gallant little spacecraft New Horizons winging its way past Pluto at 14 kms a sec – it’s taken nine and a half years to get there, a journey of some 3 billion miles – and now it is heading off into the farthest and coldest reaches of our solar system: it certainly seems a long way off.

And yet, when you consider that our solar sytem is one of five hundred that we have actually discovered in the immediate neighbourhood of our own, and that a reasonable projection suggests there may be as many as a hundred billion solar systems in our galaxy, and that our galaxy (The Milky Way) may itself be one of a hundred billion in the universe –
well, it is as if New Horizons has scarcely reached the end of the garden path, with the whole wide world beyond.


Such thoughts of the immensity of the universe naturally turn the mind to the idea that we surely cannot be alone, that there must be intelligent life elsewhere – indeed, the wonder is that we have so far failed to find it – the ‘Fermi paradox’, an idea examined in an article here.

And yet what these thoughts called to my mind was a question posed by Wittgenstein in the Tractatus:

‘is some riddle solved by my surviving forever?’ (6.4312)

It seems to me that heading ever outward in space and heading ever onward in time carry no guarantee that the trip, in the end, will yield – not so much anything worthwhile (I’m sure it would) – but rather what we were hoping to find, what we were looking for all along – and that put me in mind of an old folk tale that exists in many variamts, recently appropriated by Paolo Coelho in his widely-read book The Alchemist; here it is in a shorter form, drawn from Jewish tradition:

‘There was once a poor, G-d fearing Jew who lived in the city of Prague. One night he dreamt that he should journey to Vienna. There, at the base of a bridge leading to the King’s palace, he would find a buried treasure.
Night after night the dream recurred until, leaving his family behind, he traveled to Vienna to claim his fortune. The bridge, however, was heavily guarded. The watchful eyes of the King’s soldiers afforded little opportunity to retrieve the treasure. Every day the poor Jew spent hours pacing back and forth across the bridge waiting for his chance.
After two weeks time one of the guards grabbed him by the lapels of his coat and demanded gruffly, “Jew! What are you plotting? Why do you keep returning to this place day after, day?” Frustrated and anxious, he blurted out the story of his dream. When he finished, the soldier, who had been containing his mirth, broke into uncontrollable laughter.
The poor Jew looked on in astonishment, not knowing what to make of the man’s attitude. Finally, the King’s guard caught his breath. He stopped laughing long enough to say, “What a foolish Jew you are believing in dreams. Why, if I let my life be guided by visions, I would be well on my way to the city of Prague. For just last night I dreamt that a poor Jew in that city has, buried in his cellar, a treasure which awaits discovery.”
The poor Jew returned home. He dug in his cellar and found the fortune. Upon reflection he thought, the treasure was always in my.possession. Yet, I had to travel to Vienna to know of its existence.’

(‘The Treasure under the Bridge’ adapted by Gedaliah Fleer from the stories of Rebbe Nachman (slightly abridged) which I found here, with thanks )

Here it is again, more succinctly still. in four lines by TS Eliot:

‘We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.’
(Little Gidding, V – Four Quartets)

And I wonder (not for the first time) if it is not rather Inner Space that we should turn our attention to, if we want to find answers to the questions that keep us searching.

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