Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Our place in the Cosmos

The great paradox of humanity is that all the greatest of our intellectual endeavours are perversely mirrored by a crippling diminution of what it is to be human. Having emerged by a slow, bloody march from the primeval slime of the earth we are informed in gloating terms of our complete and total insignificance. Copernicus banished the earth from the centre of the universe, Darwin told us our closest ancestors were ‘damn dirty’ apes and Freud told us we all secretly fantasise about sleeping with our mothers; although that last vignette might tell us more about the scale of his cocaine habit than the state of the human condition. We should remind ourselves that all these facts are only unsettling because they are viewed through the ghastly prism of our species’ inherent sense of self-loathing. Perhaps disgusted by its capacity for greed, hate, genocide, and inclination towards such perversities as sado masochism and the covert sniffing of other people’s under garments, Homo Sapiens has a peculiar capacity to see itself in terms of some destructive virus, unworthy of existence and something to be abhorred. Even our predominant vision of the afterlife isn’t some Olympian paradise where our spiritual doppelgangers parade themselves majestically in the company of the gods, but one where we grovel submissively in front of a celestial super-being who then chastises us for the worldly activities of our sex organs. Some segments of humanity look forward to a glorious utopian future, but in my experience the vast majority look forward longingly to the next apocalypse, whether it be via nuclear annihilation, a seven degree increase in global temperature or an angry swarm of killer bees.

In the 1980s the cosmologist Carl Sagan released the TV series COSMOS, a show which aimed to bring the light of scientific truth to the world but ended up being a shameless rehash of enlightenment mythology. In one episode he claimed that the Medieval natural philosophers were conceited for suggesting that the sun and all its planetary bodies revolved around the earth. ‘How could then have been so arrogant!’ he said with the kind of smugness which accompanies the abuse of hindsight. Sagan clearly never bothered to read any history of science but if he had he would have realised that in the medieval worldview the earth’s position at the centre of the universe was not in any way celebrated. In fact it was universally believed that the centre was by far the worst place to be. According to the accepted cosmology of the period our miserable sphere was located at the bottom of the celestial hierarchy, considered too unworthy to be part of the heavens due to its imperfect and sinful nature and with hell and purgatory placed at its core. Our planet stood in dismal contrast to the heavenly firmament above, a realm of perfection derived from Plato's Theory of Forms with the realm of God beyond. Out of all celestial bodies our earth was emphatically the Middlesborough of the Cosmos. As Michael de Montaigne wrote:

"The most wretched and frail of all creatures is man and withal the proudest. he feels and sees himself lodged here in the dirt and filth of the world, nailed and riveted to the worst and deadest part of the universe, in the lowest story of the house, the most remote from the heavenly arch"

The Copernican revolution, rather than knocking us from our celestial pantheon, rocketed us up to join the lofty heavenly firmament above. Consequently, if you read through the literature of the time you rarely find people complaining about being dislodged.

Nor, by any stretch of the imagination, was Copernicus the hard-headed rationalist of popular myth. This becomes immediately apparent when reading De revolutionibus, which reads more like something one would find in the ‘New age and Spirituality’ section of Borders than a scientific textbook. The aim of Copernicus was to demonstrate that the heavens worked in a way consistent with their creation by God – ‘The wisest and most orderly workman of all’. Like many Christian humanists of the time he dabbled in pagan ideas, in particular the occult writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistos or "the thrice-great Hermes", a syncretism of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian Thoth. Influenced by Platonic mysticism, Hermeticism placed considerable emphasis on the source of light, the sun as an object of worship. In De revolutionibus 1:10 Copernicus says:

At rest, however, in the middle of everything is the sun. For in this most beautiful temple, who would place this lamp in another or better position than that from which it can light up the whole thing at the same time? For, the sun is not inappropriately called by some people the lantern of the universe, its mind by others, and its ruler by still others. [Hermes] the Thrice Greatest labels it a visible god, and Sophocles' Electra, the all-seeing.

It is considered likely by historians that Copernicus took Hermeticism and the notion of ‘divine simplicity’ as his main sources of inspiration. This is consistent with the fact his model raised some serious problems -for example, if the sun is at the centre of the universe, why doesn’t everything fall into it- and owed more to aesthetics than anything else. Copernicus’s explanation for this was that ‘earthly things’ tend to fall towards earth, solar things tend to fall towards the sun, Martian things tend to fall towards mars and so on and for forth. What he meant was ‘I haven’t a bloody clue’, thus demonstrating a good scientific theory doesn’t always need to make any sense, nor does it have to be inspired by reason.