Find Your Way
July 22, 2002
Hamilton to Lolo

Today's Miles = 59.3
Average Speed = 10.1 mph
Maximum Speed = 25.7 mph
Total Miles = 3684.1

I'll warn you now that this is a long and rambling entry. Feel free to stop reading when your eyes start to glaze over, or pour yourself a cup of coffee and get ready to waste a little time with me.

Today was a day more of thought than of action, where my mind was occupied with internal grappling and I was mostly oblivious to the passage of space around me. My ride today was a gradual downhill from Hamilton to the town of Lolo, then an ascent to my destination at a USFS campground around sixteen miles outside of town. Looking ahead on the map I'm happy once again that I am heading west, for the next week will contain several mountain passes which are far more challenging to climb in the eastbound direction.

Without any conscious direction on my behalf, my thoughts this morning were back on the subject of the rights of man and the role of government. Now I know that writing about politics is a no-win situation for me, as I'll either be preaching to the choir or I'll alienate those who disagree with me. But if I don't write about what I was thinking then I'll have nothing to write about, as thinking was all I did.

I happen to be a person who agrees with the principles for which the Revolutionary War was fought and upon which the United States was founded. But somehow over the course of time, and particular over the last century, it is as though we have taken those principles and turned them on their head. If I ask myself today "where do the rights of Man come from", the answer appears to be that they are granted by the government. If I ask myself today "what are the powers of the government", the answer appears to be that they are broad and general with only a few specific exceptions. But this state of affairs is so very wrong, so completely at odds with the groundwork laid by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, that I can't understand how we have come to this state and why more people don't see things as they are.

According to the principles upon which the United States was formed, rights do not come from the government but instead exist even in the absence of government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that it is a self-evident truth that Men are "Endowed by their Creator with certain Inalienable Rights". The idea that our rights come to us naturally was the cornerstone of the philosophy behind our nation. Since our rights come naturally, government can no more "grant" them to us then it can "grant" us the air that we breath. Instead, in fact, it is the people who grant powers to the government. This belief courses through our founding documents like blood through our bodies.

In the Declaration we find "...that to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed..." which means just what it says, the powers of government come justly from the people. In the first sentence of the Constitution we find "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress...", again stating the belief that legitimate power of government is a grant from the people.

The question of where the powers of government come from is an important one, as it leads us directly to the question of what the powers of government should be. If we believed in the divine right of kings to rule then it would come naturally that the sovereign could legislate, execute, and adjudicate however he pleases. But the founders had explicitly embraced the concept that all powers flowed from the people, and had to be granted to the government for them to be legitimately held. From that concept came naturally the doctrine of enumerated powers, the idea that the government held only the powers explicitly granted to it by the people as listed in the Constitution. Return again to the first sentence of the Constitution "All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress..." and ask yourself "what of the powers not granted"? There was no wholesale transfer of power from the people to the Congress, but only of those powers "herein granted". So where do the powers not granted lay? The answer, of course, is that those powers stay with those who naturally hold them, namely the people. Just to drive this point home the Tenth Amendment states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution ... are reserved ... to the people".

I need to stop writing this here. These pages aren't meant to be a primer on the nature of government, nor do I imagine that this is what those reading these pages come here seeking. And just as I am forcing myself to stop writing on this topic now, so I realized as I pedaled north that I needed to force myself to stop thinking about this subject. Since I couldn't simply force my mind to be blank I scanned my memory for some other problem to occupy my thoughts, and I somehow turned to the topic of physics.

My friend Rob Vanderhoff had posed a question for me, which I will paraphrase as follows. Imagine we take a centrifuge and load it with several vials of blood, then cause the centrifuge to spin for a period of time, then stop it from spinning, then examine the blood in the vials. Our inspection would reveal that the blood had separated into several base components, sorted by mass, from top to bottom within the vials. So far, this is everyday stuff, but then Rob threw in the following twist. Say that we repeat the experiment, but we shift our frame of reference. Instead of causing the centrifuge to spin, we consider the centrifuge to be standing still and the universe to be rotating around it. Does the blood still separate? If the blood does separate, does this violate Newton's First Law, which says that an object at rest will stay at rest until acted upon by an external force?

This one kept me occupied for at least a couple of hours before I felt I had thought it completely through. Of course the blood will separate, as shifting our frame of reference does nothing to alter the underlying mechanics of what is happening. Newton's First Law is not violated with respect to any object that isn't being acted upon by a force. And while I don't want to spill the beans for anyone who wants to think about this for a bit, I would recommend focusing on the following two questions. First, what are the nature of the forces acting in a centrifuge and where do they come from? Second, what does it take to be considered an "object" for the purposes of Newton's First Law and does our loaded centrifuge count in this situation?

Alright, so it just wasn't going to be one of those "light thinking" kind of days. This happens to me more than I care to admit, and I know from experience that all I can do is go with the flow or find something to distract me. But from the saddle of my bicycle I couldn't exactly turn on the television or pick up a book, and although the passing scenery was new to me it felt so familiar that it couldn't distract me from the gears that were turning inside my head.

When I reached Lolo I decided to stop for a quick supper before riding west on Highway 12. I was pleased to find that for the first time in awhile I had a strong digital signal on my cellphone, so I hauled my electronics into the restaurant with me to catch up on some email while I ate. If you have been reading these pages from the beginning, you may remember Ed Gibbs, whom I rode with for several days back in Virginia. Ed was the first cyclist I met on the road, and he and I clicked well enough that we have been in fairly regular contact via email ever since. Now several of the people I have met on the road have obviously been on a spiritual journey, and several others have encouraged me to spend some of my time on the road in spiritual exploration. More than anyone else, Ed has been constantly reminding me to think about not just where my bicycle is taking me, but where I want to go as a person. As I ate my supper and replied to one of Ed's latest messages, the idea of God was planted in my mind and stayed with me once I returned to the road.

Ok great, now I'm on the subject of religion, one of the three great topics one is supposed to avoid in polite discussion. I guess since I've already brought up politics I may as well consider nothing taboo for this entry, but I'll just keep my mouth shut regarding sex for now.

Religion sure is a hard one to talk about, isn't it? It is such a personal thing that it is almost impossible to discuss without being offensive to someone. I've met too many people who believe that if I don't share the key points of their faith, then I am at best a bad person or at worst a good person who is going to a bad place. But on the other hand I have plenty of friends who hold that to even consider the existence of God is to follow a path of superstition. Both of these camps consider the other to be narrow minded in their thinking. The faithful feel pity on those who won't open themselves to the possibility of God, and the secular look down upon those who have to rely upon belief in the supernatural to find order in their lives. Personally, I think that either mindset misses the point. The key to believing in God is making a leap of faith. Notice the words I used, that our language uses, to discuss religion. One "believes" in God, but one doesn't have proof of God's existence. One makes a leap of faith, not a leap of knowledge.

So as for myself, what do I believe? That is a question that I can't really answer. Firstly, because I don't really know what I believe. Secondly, because I struggle to put into words the concepts that I form in my mind. I can say that a very long time ago I believed in God the same way that I believed in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. God was something that I was told existed and I accepted that without question, because as a child I hadn't learned how to question yet. At a later time in my life, as a student of science and engineering, I actively disbelieved the existence of God. God was something for which no concrete evidence existed.

But just because something cannot be proven does not mean that it has been disproved. I've been increasingly captivated over the past ten years with the idea that certain things are simply unknowable. At the simplest level we have the sentence "this statement is not true". More than simply a puzzle to entertain a child, the sentence sits there and refuses our attempts to classify it as true or false. Kurt Gödel demonstrated that mathematics will always contain theorems that are not possible to prove true or false. Werner Heisenberg postulated that certain information about the state of quantum particles will always lay outside our grasp. Erwin Schrödinger even went as far as to theorize an animal that was simultaneously living and dead.

Almost always at the heart of these conundrums is a kernel of self-reference. "This statement is not true" only works because it refers back to itself. And self-reference is at the heart of one of the most astonishing things we find on this planet - life. Life itself relies upon self-reference to reproduce and perpetuate itself. Our cells are built upon the blueprint carried by our DNA, but our DNA is reproduced by our cells.

Two questions arise here - where am I going with this and why am I going there? First the "where" question; Self-reference is everywhere around us in our universe, self-reference often leads to things that are unknowable, and therefore I can accept things being unknowable. Perhaps at the core of God's existence is the idea "I CANNOT BE PROVEN"? Second the "why" question; Because I am a logical person, because I am an engineer, because I believe in science, I need a framework to explain to me how God could exist and yet be unprovable.

This leads to what has been my biggest revelation in my quest to come to understanding - that science and God are not incompatible ideas. It seems that in our conventional way of thinking we consider science and religion to be opposed to each other. I have come to see them as one and the same. If God is the creator of the Universe, and science is Man's attempt to understand the Universe, then I can accept seeing science as nothing more than an attempt to understand God through the understanding of the creation.

It was just one of those days.


Hi Nick:

I think you have discovered a couple of options of what to do when you finish the ride. I think you would make an excellent editorial writer for the political section of a major newspaper like the Washington Post or the New York Times (I'm serious-you have a way of writing that comes from the heart that I think readers would like).

The other would be to write a philosophy book about the existence of a God. On my bike trip God played a major role. Too many good things happened to me to be just a coincidence. I became a firm believer that those things were in God's plan. My trip became a real spiritual experience. While I didn't get to church every week, I had more meaningful conversations with God than I have ever had.

Best regards,

Posted by: Bob George on July 25, 2002 07:52 PM

Hey Nick,
A couple of thoughts (or lack there if). Do you not think that there were inherent contradictions in the agreed upon 'principles' of our nation's founding fathers? As far as the rights of man as an individual, are there not also rights and responsibilities of the collective (community, profession, fraternity, etc)? If so, should some balance not be sought? On the religion stuff, my mind recalls that XTC song 'Dear God'. As we are only human, so are the institutional manifestations that we place are faith upon and with that an inherent culpability in all our perspectives on religion. Can God/Allah et al, yourself, or anything ever be conclusively proven or disproven?
Je pense, alors je suis!
Happy Trails,

Posted by: Tom on July 25, 2002 10:55 PM

Almost forgot - Aren't all laws made to be broken?

Posted by: Tom on July 26, 2002 05:45 AM

The Declaration of Independence is certainly an elegant document, don't you think? I just have one small response to your post: it's true that our government does not grant us our rights, even though sometimes it seems that way. Yet at the same time, it doesn't do you any good to have Natural Rights if someone more powerful than you decides to take them away and our government declines to intervene. Some of us are lucky and will never have to face this possibility. Natural rights are good in the abstract. In actual practice, though, does it matter? I suppose that to the authors of the Declaration, it was important to argue that these rights were Natural in order to have a higher justification for the rebellion. That's o.k., but not necessary. I'm more of a Nietzche-inspired thinker--to me its all about the reality of force. Hey, I should reread the GENEALOGY OF MORALS--it's been a while. "We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge . . ."

Take it easy. Keep thinking about God--it can't hurt.

Posted by: Kristin on July 26, 2002 10:00 AM

In the last ten years, I've come to the same revelation about god and science that you have. I don't understand the inherent icompatibility that people preach between these so intertwined things.

On a simple level, why is it so difficult to believe that each of the 6 days of creation were days as we know them? Is it so implausible that those "days" were actually eons of billions of years each? If the teeming millions could grasp that concept, then evolution wouldn't be the controversial subject that it is. How can people deny that evolution exists based on the obvious evidence that we've experienced over the last thousands of years?

God is a personal matter and should be left that way. While you know that I'm a fairly conservative individual for the most part, the Christian-right aspect of our current administration is perpetuating a constant slide of the Republican party into a party of individuals who simply do not represent the American people. And, I don't subscribe to much of the liberal spew on the other end of the spectrum; it seems to me that the problems with government usurping power from the people plagues both sides of politics.

We need change in this country, and it's not happening, or at least the correct change isn't occurring. The teeming millions are fat and happy (read lazy), and this only perpetuates this problem. They are too complacent with their suburban lives (look who's talking...maybe).

I was told about a recent PBS special about some people who willingly were plucked from their posh suburban lives, and put into a "frontier" lifestyle somewhere in rural Montana where they needed to do everything for themselves -- grow or kill their own food, build their own shelters etc. At the end of this "experiment", the people involved didn't want to go home. They appreciated the hard work they went through in their daily lives; they were rewarded by doing things for themselves; they didn't have the distractions of TV, the internet, newspapers, the other teeming millions. They weren't motivated by money or power. They simply had an instinct and need to survive, and they did so.

It's not that I agree with what the "militia" folks in Montana/Idaho etc. are doing with their lives, but on some level, it makes sense to me, given the outcome of the PBS special. It doesn't surprise me that people desire to give up the hustle and bustle of the American lifestyle to go back to what you might call "human roots", and live a simple existence. Imagine how nice it would be to not worry about where your next meal comes from because you just got laid-off, or have to worry about your retirement 401k. Imagine how living on your own schedule would be, not moving so fast through life, and actually having time to appreciate the beauty of life and the land around you. It sure sounds good to me.

But, I digress, it is apparent that way of life is over, and we'll never really get to enjoy those simple pleasures. Maybe you could move to Mexico and live a meager existence and have something close, or join a Hudderite colony.

It's too bad too, because the very objections that you have to our current state of affairs might be mitigated by a simpler way of life. If we didn't have multi-billion dollar corporations sucking the life out of the many to make the few rich, power wouldn't be the intoxicant that it is. If the draw of power wasn't there, our government wouldn't attempt the usurpation of the power of the people.

In some way, your trip is kind of a microcosm of the simpler way of life. You certainly have time to think about the issues that are truly important, and as you've stated before you get a totally different perspective, not only on your life, but also on the general nature of life in this country.

Maybe my point is that if everyone took a 3 month bike ride accross the country, we'd all get a better perspective on life, and be able to effect better change.

Cheers to you Nick, I'm glad you took this trip.

Posted by: Joe V on July 26, 2002 12:14 PM


You are God entertaining yourself by experiencing life from Nick's point of view. Someone told me that once...It made me feel better for a bit.
The great thing about the question: Is there really a "God"? is that we will all ultimatly have our question answered. Unfortunately we will be dead at the time and have nobody of consequence to report our findings to. If there is a "God" and it's the same one the Bible speaks of, then he will forgive your having any doubt, as he will love you for the analytical man that you are.

The state of our government is a sad topic indeed. Why don't you run for public office and change the world?

Posted by: Audrey on July 27, 2002 09:58 PM
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