Thursday, July 24, 2008

Our Cosy Little Universe

(A preliminary note of warning: there will be more animal humour today, not quite as severe as other times, but then I do not know your tolerance for it. Mine is quite low, and there is a goodly amount, and other things besides. Finish your drinks and snacks...)

Well, I hope you have spent the last week going around chanting "do it again" to yourself, and maybe playing your Beach Boys albums, too? I mean, the beach is the place to go. Hee hee. Since then, I found a wonderful Latin quote which surely links into our discussion about amplifiers that go up to eleven:
Decies repetita placebit
(ten times repeated please)
[Horace, Art of Poetry, 365]
That is, a good work of art can seen again and again, and still will be fresh and wonderful. (Horace meant a poem, but it pertains to sculpture, painting, music, movies as well!)

Of course, if I had known of this last week, I might have said duodecies... hee hee. But then Spinal Tap were - er - musicians, who usually have a thing about 12, or should. No, I don't mean the Apostles that time! But in computing we go up to 16, or 32, or 64, or other powers of two. And since we use "hex" (base 16, not a magic spell, hee hee!) our amps still only go up to 1016. Ahem.

One of the things that comes up in this very complex discussion of the nature of "law" in the sciences, and one of the things people like to flaunt in such discussions of science versus religion, is the idea of a "miracle". I am not going to give a whole long argument here, nor does GKC - but he does bring up the issue, and I wish to call it to your attention. If you wish to know more, there are several books by Father Jaki which I recommend, such as the very interesting God and the Sun at Fatima (about the miracle of the sun dancing), or the discussion of the Ninth Bridgewater Treatise by Charles Babbage in Jaki's Brain, Mind, and Computers. Babbage, if you do not yet know, was the First Computer Scientist (he lived from 1792-1871), and wrote about God as well as programming - in fact, he suggested that God really is a programmer... but I must reserve that to my own blogg for additional discussion. (Yes, I have re-established my blogg, so perhaps I will examine BMC there. But for now, let us proceed.

(( click here to read more. ))

Remember, Chesterton has just finished telling us about his principle of "Do it again": the idea that God claps His hands and commands an encore of the sun and moon, of trees and dogs and humans - but this was in demonstration of his pair of convictions he derived from Fairy Tales: "first, that this world is a wild and startling place, which might have been quite different, but which is quite delightful; second, that before this wildness and delight one may well be modest and submit to the queerest limitations of so queer a kindness."
This was my first conviction; made by the shock of my childish emotions meeting the modern creed in mid-career. I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were wilful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician. And this pointed a profound emotion always present and sub-conscious; that this world of ours has some purpose; and if there is a purpose, there is a person. I had always felt life first as a story: and if there is a story there is a story-teller.
Here we have another deep idea - I mean a high point in our journey, from which a grand and wonderful Road leads off to the very heart of elfland! This insight, the sense that creation has a creator, but now exalted to the idea of story and storyteller: this is given a great exposition in GKC's The Everlasting Man (see CW2:380) and in J. R. R. Tolkien's essay "On Fairy-Tales"... alas we have no time to proceed down it and examine the splendid sights and come to a wonderful place in the end, where the best Story comes true...

But modern thought also hit my second human tradition. It went against the fairy feeling about strict limits and conditions. The one thing it loved to talk about was expansion and largeness. Herbert Spencer would have been greatly annoyed if any one had called him an imperialist, and therefore it is highly regrettable that nobody did. But he was an imperialist of the lowest type. He popularized this contemptible notion that the size of the solar system ought to over-awe the spiritual dogma of man. Why should a man surrender his dignity to the solar system any more than to a whale? If mere size proves that man is not the image of God, then a whale may be the image of God; a somewhat formless image; what one might call an impressionist portrait. It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree. But Herbert Spencer, in his headlong imperialism, would insist that we had in some way been conquered and annexed by the astronomical universe. He spoke about men and their ideals exactly as the most insolent Unionist talks about the Irish and their ideals. He turned mankind into a small nationality. And his evil influence can be seen even in the most spirited and honourable of later scientific authors; notably in the early romances of Mr. H. G. Wells. Many moralists have in an exaggerated way represented the earth as wicked. But Mr. Wells and his school made the heavens wicked. We should lift up our eyes to the stars from whence would come our ruin.[contrast this with Psalm 121:1]

Some notes:

  • An imperialist is someone who supports the idea of a large British Empire. At the time GKC was writing, it was much bigger, and there were some who wanted it bigger. As you may have noticed, GKC preferred small things, but we must be very careful not to misinterpret this preference; we shall hear from GKC himself about that very shortly.
  • Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) an English philosopher, whose philosophy was "at once dingy and dapper" [ILN March 14 1914 CW30:59]; "in some ways the most mediaeval of modern men." [ILN July 14, 1906 CW27:237] A Darwinian who hung out with others of that type, like Huxley and John Stuart Mill; he is not treated in GKC's Heretics by name, but appears over 100 times in AMBER, but the best single hint about him is most likely this: "the youth of Herbert Spencer was emphatically a misspent youth. It was spent over the scientific names of things instead of over the things themselves - Herbert Spencer never saw a thing in his life; if he had seen a thing he would have fled screaming." [ILN Sept 1 1906 CW27:274]
  • An impressionist portrait: "a type of Realism the aim of which is to render the iummediate sense imporession of the artist apart from any element of inference or study of detail" (such as done by Monet, Degas, Pissarro, Renoir).
  • A Unionist (according to one reference) is a member of the political party that advanced maintenance of the parliamentary union between Great Britain and Ireland, in opposition to Irish home rule.
  • H. G. Wells wrote early science fiction classics such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man (to be distinguished from the Father Brown short story of the same name!)

I see one line that I feel deserves to be re-read: "It is quite futile to argue that man is small compared to the cosmos; for man was always small compared to the nearest tree." A whole mound of blogging might be done on it, and it is worth contemplating how far into the Large (the galaxies and their groupings) as well as the Small (the atomic and subatomic particles) we have been able to "see"... even in our observatories and our particle-accelerators we can walk out and stand under a tree and understand. But we are going to see something quite a bit more marvellous shortly.
But the expansion of which I speak was much more evil than all this. I have remarked that the materialist, like the madman, is in prison; in the prison of one thought. These people seemed to think it singularly inspiring to keep on saying that the prison was very large. The size of this scientific universe gave one no novelty, no relief. The cosmos went on for ever, but not in its wildest constellation could there be anything really interesting; anything, for instance, such as forgiveness or free will. The grandeur or infinity of the secret of its cosmos added nothing to it. It was like telling a prisoner in Reading gaol that he would be glad to hear that the gaol now covered half the county. The warder would have nothing to show the man except more and more long corridors of stone lit by ghastly lights and empty of all that is human. So these expanders of the universe had nothing to show us except more and more infinite corridors of space lit by ghastly suns and empty of all that is divine.

In fairyland there had been a real law; a law that could be broken, for the definition of a law is something that can be broken. But the machinery of this cosmic prison was something that could not be broken; for we ourselves were only a part of its machinery. We were either unable to do things or we were destined to do them. The idea of the mystical condition quite disappeared; one can neither have the firmness of keeping laws nor the fun of breaking them. The largeness of this universe had nothing of that freshness and airy outbreak which we have praised in the universe of the poet. This modern universe is literally an empire; that is, it was vast, but it is not free. One went into larger and larger windowless rooms, rooms big with Babylonian perspective; but one never found the smallest window or a whisper of outer air.
I think we had some discussion on this horror of infinitely recursive nested buildings last year, when we talked about fractals (did we really talk about fractals here? Wow.) This is quite a horrifying image of hell, and though it may take some pondering, is quite preceisely accurate in a theological sense: an infinity which has no End. Heaven, of course is the infinity which has an End, Who is God. This is the true and glorious intersection where my own computing meets theology, as Chesterton has revealed! The end which has no end, or the endless End... it's our choice (we had that word too last week, didn't we!) But let us go on, as we are coming to the point...
Their infernal parallels seemed to expand with distance; but for me all good things come to a point, swords for instance. So finding the boast of the big cosmos so unsatisfactory to my emotions I began to argue about it a little; and I soon found that the whole attitude was even shallower than could have been expected. According to these people the cosmos was one thing since it had one unbroken rule. Only (they would say) while it is one thing it is also the only thing there is. Why, then, should one worry particularly to call it large? There is nothing to compare it with. It would be just as sensible to call it small. A man may say, "I like this vast cosmos, with its throng of stars and its crowd of varied creatures." But if it comes to that why should not a man say, "I like this cosy little cosmos, with its decent number of stars and as neat a provision of live stock as I wish to see"? One is as good as the other; they are both mere sentiments. It is mere sentiment to rejoice that the sun is larger than the earth; it is quite as sane a sentiment to rejoice that the sun is no larger than it is. A man chooses to have an emotion about the largeness of the world: why should he not choose to have an emotion about its smallness?

It happened that I had that emotion. When one is fond of anything one addresses it by diminutives, even if it is an elephant or a life-guardsman. The reason is, that anything, however huge, that can be conceived of as complete, can be conceived of as small. If military moustaches did not suggest a sword or tusks a tail, then the object would be vast because it would be immeasurable. But the moment you can imagine a guardsman you can imagine a small guardsman. The moment you really see an elephant you can call it "Tiny." If you can make a statue of a thing you can make a statuette of it. These people professed that the universe was one coherent thing; but they were not fond of the universe. But I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind. Actually and in truth I did feel that these dim dogmas of vitality were better expressed by calling the world small than by calling it large. For about infinity there was a sort of carelessness which was the reverse of the fierce and pious care which I felt touching the pricelessness and the peril of life. They showed only a dreary waste; but I felt a sort of sacred thrift. For economy is far more romantic than extravagance. To them stars were an unending income of halfpence; but I felt about the golden sun and the silver moon as a schoolboy feels if he has one sovereign and one shilling.
Though GKC just mentions money (a sovereign is a British gold coin worth one pound sterling, and a shilling is a British silver coin worth 1/20 of a pound) consider this priceless line:

"I was frightfully fond of the universe and wanted to address it by a diminutive. I often did so; and it never seemed to mind."

Remember the famous essay "What I Found In My Pocket" from Tremendous Trifles? "For the knife is only a short sword; and the pocket-knife is a secret sword." It has a point... something very small, but very penetrating.

--Dr. Thursday

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