Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Space, Outer and Inner (Part II)

I think I'll be taking a short break from blogging so I can turn my undivided (or rather less divided) attention towards a couple of heavier items on my agenda. (I need to edit a short novel and prep it for pimping. A novella requires editing and fact checking. Etc. Etc.) In a perfect world I would have enough time to simultaneously work on short and long-term projects, but this is no perfect world.

In the meantime, I will be updating the comics page every week for a month or two, so don't expect me to disappear. I'll slap the strips up here and they will double as blog posts, because I'm allowed to do that.

Now. About a year and a half ago I threw together a post about why astronomy is a useful and beautiful thing, but never concluded it and so left it dangling as a "Part I." Since I dislike leaving projects unfinished, and since I've been going out to hunt for Messier objects lately (the Crab Nebula and Triangulum Galaxy still elude my lens), now seems as good a time as any to tie up this year-old loose end.

I'm looking at the original half-baked post again and thinking I remember where I wanted to go with it -- but well, we'll see. A thought dropped sixteen months ago probably won't be quite the same when it's picked back up.

Anyway: today we begin with the grand Western intellectual tradition of arguing with shit Plato said. From the Republic:

And now, Socrates, as you rebuked the vulgar manner in which I praised astronomy before, my praise shall be given in your own spirit. For every one, as I think, must see that astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another.

Every one but myself, I said; to every one else this may be clear, but not to me.

And what then would you say?

I should rather say that those who elevate astronomy into philosophy appear to me to make us look downwards and not upwards.

What do you mean? he asked.

You, I replied, have in your mind a truly sublime conception of our knowledge of the things above. And I dare say that if a person were to throw his head back and study the fretted ceiling, you would still think that his mind was the percipient, and not his eyes. And you are very likely right, and I may be a simpleton: but, in my opinion, that knowledge only which is of being and of the unseen can make the soul look upwards, and whether a man gapes at the heavens or blinks on the ground, seeking to learn some particular of sense, I would deny that he can learn, for nothing of that sort is matter of science; his soul is looking downwards, not upwards, whether his way to knowledge is by water or by land, whether he floats, or only lies on his back.

I acknowledge, he said, the justice of your rebuke. Still, I should like to ascertain how astronomy can be learned in any manner more conducive to that knowledge of which we are speaking?

I will tell you, I said: The starry heaven which we behold is wrought upon a visible ground, and therefore, although the fairest and most perfect of visible things, must necessarily be deemed inferior far to the true motions of absolute swiftness and absolute slowness, which are relative to each other, and carry with them that which is contained in them, in the true number and in every true figure. Now, these are to be apprehended by reason and intelligence, but not by sight.

True, he replied.

The spangled heavens should be used as a pattern and with a view to that higher knowledge; their beauty is like the beauty of figures or pictures excellently wrought by the hand of Daedalus, or some other great artist, which we may chance to behold; any geometrician who saw them would appreciate the exquisiteness of their workmanship, but he would never dream of thinking that in them he could find the true equal or the true double, or the truth of any other proportion.

No, he replied, such an idea would be ridiculous.

And will not a true astronomer have the same feeling when he looks at the movements of the stars? Will he not think that heaven and the things in heaven are framed by the Creator of them in the most perfect manner? But he will never imagine that the proportions of night and day, or of both to the month, or of the month to the year, or of the stars to these and to one another, and any other things that are material and visible can also be eternal and subject to no deviation -- that would be absurd; and it is equally absurd to take so much pains in investigating their exact truth.

I quite agree, though I never thought of this before.

Then, I said, in astronomy, as in geometry, we should employ problems, and let the heavens alone if we would approach the subject in the right way and so make the natural gift of reason to be of any real use.

It's neat to imagine that the most renowned minds of antiquity disdained empiricism. Just thinking about something was more than good enough for them, and infinitely preferable to dirtying their hands with the contents of this filthy reality. This would be why Aristotle (and thus Western science, for many centuries) believed that heavier objects fall faster than lighter ones. Until Galileo, we don't know of anyone ever bothering to test it.

The material fact supersedes the thought. And as the physical reality we experience terraforms our intellectual landscape, the extent to which we accurately understand that reality informs the veracity of our idealizations.

Plato underestimates the extent to which the study of the stars can expand human knowledge -- which, of course, is the classical aim of philosophy. After all, astronomy is the egg from which modern science hatched; and in only the last few centuries, the scientific method has yielded such a wealth of hidden facts of our world as to necessitate a thorough reevaluation of two or three millennia’s worth of philosophy. (Do you think Plato would be galled by the irony of being upended by the results of pursuit he deemed “absurd” and unfit for the philosopher?)

As the history of astronomy over the last five hundred years is a veritable trophy rack for science, it also attests to a physical universe that consistently defies our presumptions about it.

For instance:

“The stars and sun revolve around the Earth, which is the center of the universe.” Nope!

“The Earth and other planets move around the sun in circular paths.” Nope!

“The universe is about as big as all the stars we can see.” Nope!

“Light travels through space instantaneously.” Nope!

“The values of time and space are absolute.” Nope!

“The universe is essentially static.” Nope!

“Gravity should put the brakes on cosmic expansion.” Nope!

Homo sapiens (and perhaps a few very closely-related ancestors) are, as far as we can guess, the first and only animals on this planet capable of conducting such enquiries into the machinery of reality. We’ve only gotten decent at deciphering the universe’s blueprints in the last 500 years or so (out of the nearly 200,000-year history of our species), and there is yet unimaginably much beyond our grasp. But we’re moving right along.

It’s rather drolly funny that some of Homo sapiens' mightiest intellectual achievements led directly to the realization of Homo sapiens' cosmic insignificance.

From the very beginning of our species's foray into the domain of “intelligent” life, we’ve just been figuring our shit out as we went along. Everything had to be invented on the fly -- it’s not as though Homo sapiens ever had any prior examples it could follow.

Throughout most of its history, humanity's conception of its place in the cosmos was far from accurate. Our perceptive senses evolved as a means to keep us alive (in a terrestrial environment) long enough to pass on our genes, not to peer into the outer and innermost vistas of reality and speculate on its causes. Jury-rigging the capacity to do the latter with our faculties for the former was just a wonderful accident. (Whether or not such an adaptation is advantageous for the long-term survival of the species remains to be seen.)

The various conceptions of the universe painted by our ancestors vary with time and place, but the overall pictures are fairly similar. The Earth was the fulcrum of the universe, made and kept by gods and spirits with strikingly human characteristics, who interacted and communicated with human beings. Though humanity was unquestionably subordinate to higher powers, the gods representing these forces of nature could be petitioned, placated, and reasoned with by human beings.

Now we know that this is not the case. The universe is vaster and stranger than we can understand, and our stature in it has shrunk considerably in the last few centuries. The "new" cosmos is no longer something on which we can easily impose human characteristics, and we have little to no reason to believe that it has any interest or investment in our continued existence. And it certainly does not communicate with us; every solid fact about its existence about which we can be remotely sure had to be wrestled from it.

(Consider how many of our traditions, institutions, beliefs, prejudices, etc., were born of actions taken, decisions made on the fly based on incomplete information, repeated and repeated long after their initial usefulness had passed, their original intent and context forgotten. “There’s orthodoxy!”)

(Of course, one maddening truism of humanity's lot is that the facts are never all in.)

Today we know the stars in the night sky aren’t just green-screened somewhere behind our existence; our existence is a haphazard collateral product of their existence, and there exist more stars than human beings.

This is the context of all human affairs, and we cannot claim to understand anything when we neglect to put it in its proper context.

The pursuit of astronomy -- and I mean doing more than just looking at Astronomy Picture of the Day; I mean looking at the stars out of habit, keeping track of the movements of the planets and phases of the moon, investing in some optics, learning about the methods and milestones, even crunching some of the numbers for yourself -- will bring the practitioner down to Earth, so to speak.

In fact, a foray into amateur astronomy can often make one feel intolerably small. People looking at the night sky for a while often remark how tiny it makes them feel; going outside with a telescope on every other clear night puts one face to face with this aspect of their situation on a regular basis, making it that much harder to ignore.

This is a useful thing.

Another useful (but somewhat more extreme) exercise would be to look at yourself in the mirror each morning and remind yourself that you’re very close to nothing. Nothing I do matters. Everything I feel and know and possess will be lost. Everything I make and say will be forgotten.

(Recall as well that everyone else in the world is as equally tiny and clueless and lost, and they’re only a quiet, starry night away from being reminded of it.)

Routinely call to mind as well that the Earth formed 4.54 billion years before you came into existence, and will go on existing without you until the dying sun gobbles it up (five billion years from now?),  destroying every last trace of Homo sapiens' existence except for a few burnt-out space probes coasting through eternity.

(Granted, we’re discounting the possibility that humanity gets its shit together and survives long enough to master interstellar travel, but I think we can safely assume the odds are not in its favor. I eagerly invite humanity to please prove me wrong.)

But none of this is new information. You’re certainly aware that this is the truth of our existence, but probably don’t think about it very much. We rather go to lengths to avoid dwelling on it.

I believe that what a person decides to do, when honestly confronting the fact that his life is infinitesimal and all his work in vain (because all human endeavor will finally amount to nothing in time), determines the grade of his character. The existentialists might call it the truest choice he can make.

Even as it humbles us, the knowledge of our place in the cosmos must also encourage. Most of us probably aren't in the habit of conceiving of miracles as infinitesimal occurrences -- but, well, here we are: small creatures of strange and splendid circumstance.

We are marvelous beings with incredible capabilities. Look at us: we’re monkeys that have gone to the moon; apes that figured out how split the atom. We’ve sent flying robots beyond Pluto. We’ve figured out what life is made of and how it works. We’ve peered at photons and galactic clusters. We created the blue-flavored snocone and Beatles records.

Of all the other 187 planets and moons in our neighborhood, none of them have produced anything remotely like us. Of the 851 extrasolar planets we've counted in our galaxy (so far), we guess that only 0.5% are habitable. Peculiarly, astronomy has revealed at once how insignificant and how precious we are.

People preoccupied with the stars are popularly regarded as asocial, but it it is hard not to feel a concerned interest, if not compassion, for one's fellow creatures when his avocations routinely put their situation's tenuity in such sharp focus.

Although it’s miraculous that we’ve been able to come so far and achieve so much, we have nothing assuring us that we’ll go much farther or learn much more. The cosmos has no reason to wish to take care of us.

We must take care of ourselves.

Any world we would choose to build for ourselves that would be worthy of us -- of the best parts of us and our potential -- must be constructed with a mind to our position in the broad scheme of things, and all of its ramifications.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting food for thought, Pat. I've always said that recognizing one's own insignificance is the first step to becoming an enlightened curmudgeon, though that knowledge always seems to bum out the world-saving hippie types. Still, personally I'd rather be miserable and informed. Good luck with your work, looking forward to putting another Pat book on my shelf next to The Zeroes.