focus – Summa Metaphysica: Potentialism Theory by David Birnbaum
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“remarkable and profound”
Has David Birnbaum solved the mystery of existence?
David Birnbaum: ‘There must be an answer. How is it possible that so many brilliant people, over thousands of years, have missed it?’
David Birnbaum made his fortune selling jewellery to movie stars. Now he has published a ‘remarkable and profound’ investigation into the origins of the universe…
David Birnbaum is a prominent figure in the New York jewel trade, a private seller of high-carat diamonds and other rare gems, with a clientele that has included celebrities – Goldie Hawn, James Gandolfini – but consists mainly of the anonymous super-rich….
Summa Metaphysica is actually two books: a 270-page preliminary volume, then the 560-page main event. (He has also published at least 15 ancillary works and operates, by my count, at least 12 websites, including philosophy1000.com, womb1000.com and potential1000.com.) It is an exhausting read, partly thanks to its length – volume two alone has 90 appendices – but also because much of it is written in a kind of rapturous, mystical prose…Birnbaum’s big idea is what he calls “the Quest for Potential theory”, or Q4P, or occasionally Q4P∞. The sense that he is unveiling hidden, pan-historical connections sometimes gives his work the flavour of Dan Brown….
To grasp why a successful New York jeweller, with little philosophical or scientific expertise, might want to probe such questions, it is illuminating to consider Birnbaum’s early life. He had been haunted by these grand mysteries, he told me, since the age of 11, when he attended an Orthodox Jewish school, or yeshiva, in Queens. It was the early 1960s and many of his classmates were the children of Holocaust survivors, or other Jewish émigrés from Nazi Europe: humanity’s capacity for great evil loomed large in recent memory.
“And what could be more fundamental than potential? What must have existed, before everything else, but the potential for all those things that later came into existence? If you believe in God, the potential for God must have been there first. And prior to the Big Bang, there must have been the potential for the Big Bang…”“Birnbaum’s perspective isn’t without precedent. Since Aristotle, some thinkers have been drawn to the notion that the world must be heading somewhere – that there is some kind of force in the universe, pushing things forward. These teleological arguments are deeply unfashionable nowadays, but there’s nothing inherently unscientific about them…”
Yet the yeshiva boys were urged daily to put their faith in a just and merciful God. The contradiction that weighed on the young Birnbaum was the ancient theological puzzle known as the “problem of evil”: how could God be just and merciful, yet allow something like the Holocaust to happen? The secular side of the curriculum proved equally dissatisfying. If everything began with the Big Bang – a term coined just a few years previously, in the 1940s – then what caused the Big Bang? If evolution explained how living things changed, why did life start to begin with? Why was there anything?…
“So, pretty soon, it becomes clear to me that I’m not going to get answers,” Birnbaum said. “Everybody’s smart. Everybody means well. But we never quite get there.” Through college, and on to an MBA at Harvard Business School, the questions never stopped nagging. “There must be an answer,” he remembered thinking, “but how is it possible that so many brilliant people, over thousands of years, have missed it?” That was when he began to suspect the answer might have remained hidden not because it was too complicated, but because it was too simple: “I decided it must be hiding in plain sight.”…
The answer, after years of fruitless reflection, dawned unexpectedly. Birnbaum was in Barbardos on holiday in 1982, sunbathing on a beach and turning matters over in his mind. “I’m good on the beach,” he explained. “My brain is working a little better… And then” – he snapped his fingers – “it was clear to me.” The answer was: potential.
This part takes a little explaining.
Birnbaum considers his specialty to be metaphysics, that hard-to-define corner of philosophy that deals with the most basic questions of what there is. It’s the territory into which you cross when you reach the limits of what biology, chemistry or physics can tell you. Metaphysical explanations aren’t supposed to be substitutes for scientific ones, though; they just claim to be even more fundamental. And what could be more fundamental than potential? What must have existed, before everything else, but the potential for all those things that later came into existence? If you believe in God, the potential for God must have been there first. And prior to the Big Bang, there must have been the potential for the Big Bang…
Rising from the Barbadian sand, Birnbaum saw the world in a new light: everything and everyone around him was an expression of cosmic potential, working itself out. Why? Because that’s what potential does. Birnbaum calls this process “extraordinariation”. It is explained in depth in the hundreds of pages of Summa Metaphysica, but the core idea is concise enough to fit on a T-shirt. The universe itself is potential, actualising itself.
You may be raising your eyebrows at this. But Birnbaum’s perspective isn’t without precedent. Since Aristotle, some thinkers have been drawn to the notion that the world must be heading somewhere – that there is some kind of force in the universe, pushing things forward. These teleological arguments are deeply unfashionable nowadays, but there’s nothing inherently unscientific about them. In his controversial 2012 book Mind And Cosmos, the US philosopher Thomas Nagel argues that teleology might be the only way to account for the still unsolved mystery of why consciousness exists…
At one point, I suggested to Birnbaum that there was a parallel between his jeweller’s eye for beauty and his love of elegance in ideas. He eagerly agreed. His theory “is aesthetically elegant… and I like things aesthetically elegant.” What got the professionals into trouble, he said, was over-thinking: “Everyone’s missing it because they try too hard. You get there by relaxing. Letting go. Potential, possibility: it’s the gentlest of all concepts… Possibility is driving everything. It’s so simple.”
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