Friday, August 6, 2010

Sketch of an Outlandish View

I want to examine the “naturalistic” explanation of life and humanity from yet another angle today. That label, “naturalistic,” is peculiar to my own thought. I’ve explored this notion numerous times on this blog before, most recently touching on it in The Hungry Ghost and, earlier, in On “Teleology” and the “Fall” as well as elsewhere. The gist of the notion is that “life” is an arrangement whereby an “out-of-place” spiritual community is making an attempt at finding its original home or attempting to return to it. I realize that this is an outlandish sort of idea in the West (or elsewhere, for that matter). But in the West particularly both the philosophical development of thought and religious belief (based on the Creation) produce a habit of thought. Some observations about that mode of perception today…

It strikes me that what we call the scientific method is one modern form of rational thought about the things we see about us. It attempts to observe accurately, to define precisely, and then to reason logically. The ancients—and here I’m thinking of Aristotle—had an observational field limited to the earth. They did not have, as we do, genuinely good pictures either of the solar system or of the enormous expanse of the galactic Out There. For them the incommensurability of life and cosmos was not really a visceral experience as it is for me. They had no knowledge or systematized evidence of what we call evolution—albeit a general idea of development was present. They hadn’t explored the immense age of the earth, named its epochs, or assembled the evidence of the Cambrian Explosion. But they did engage in rational thought in a systematic way. Their concept of “substance” as a matter-form duality actually rested, it seems to me, on an observation of life, with examples drawn from human handicrafts: the bronze or stone statue, for example, in which the material is the matter and the statue, as statue, is the form. This separation of form and matter was, in other words, based entirely on the most peculiar and rare phenomenon of cosmic reality, namely living things. This dualism, as it turns out, fits living entities very nicely indeed, but it doesn’t fit the cosmos with any kind of precision at all. Yet it’s the cosmos that is the dominant reality, becomes that when we ponder its size and extent.

It is in life that we encounter something shaping matter (or a subset of its elements) into countlessly many forms the utility of which, the “ends” of which, we can investigate and actually discover to some point. The ends or purposes of hydrogen or helium escape our attempts at discovery altogether; by a vast stretch we can give hydrogen a minor meaning as a necessary component of life—but there is far too much of it out there for life alone to justify its existence; and our bodies don’t use helium; it’s just out there. Plato projected eternal forms by way of rescuing the concept from the ever-changing flux that continuously destroys specific manifestations of them. Plato seems to have thought that forms must somehow exist somewhere, solidly, permanently, as it were, to cause physical manifestations of them to appear and to reappear. But Plato also seems to have reasoned by looking principally at life rather than, say, at clouds of nebulae, stellar collisions, or the great wasteland of our own, local asteroid belt. Would he have arrived at the same theories if he’d had access to the rich photography of the Hubble telescope?

The form-matter duality is much better explained using quite different concepts while retaining the structure of this hypothesis, thus its dualism. Instead of saying form, let’s speak of intention. Instead of speaking of prime matter, a vague sort of unformed material substrate never actually encountered, let’s think of matter simply as inorganic matter. Instead of substance let’s think of life. What we know as life is an intention manifesting in matter, forming it into entities for some kind of purpose or purposes. Of these we can certainly identify the most obvious, the act of enduring over time against all odds in specific and more or less repeating forms. It’s only in life that we encounter genuine reproduction.

But if form is intention, how do we explain the rest of the cosmos—indeed almost everything other than life; because life itself appears to be next to nothing in the universe. In life we see forms supporting intentions. In the rest of reality we also see form but no intention whatsoever. A rose bush and an amoeba, very different in size, shape, and appearance, are both nevertheless engaged in an identical project, and this project has an aim. But what is the aim of an enormous cloud of hydrogen out there? Is it to become a sun? What is the aim of suns? Their projected life is to explode in novae and to expel their now heavier elements into yet another cloud of matter or to become super-heavy dwarf stars. There is no discernible meaning in any of this—except, from our point of vantage, perhaps one.

Here I have in mind the sculptor chipping away at that rock to make a statue. All eyes are on the statue or on the sculptor. We don’t consciously, precisely notice the substantial amounts of detritus that have accumulated, and still accumulate as the sculptor works, on the floor and on the statue’s supporting structure. Particles large and small, chips tiny and sizeable, litter all of the surfaces—and at some distance from the work-space itself stand piles awaiting the dust pan…while old accumulations of waste await disposal at a landfill in battered old buckets or barrels. A highly scientific study of that floor, conducted with laser measurements and microscopes, might actually reveal the same random distribution of objects of all sizes we actually see when we look at the depth of light years into outer space. It’s a wasteland out there! It’s beautiful, awesome, full of light. But so also perhaps would the sculptor’s rubble appear to us if we were small enough to see the electrons of that waste shining brightly, each electron the size, relative to us, of a sun…

The cosmic chaos, of course, is not absolutely random. Nor is that pile of chips under the statue. Inorganic matter carries a kind of residual of meaning. We express that meaning by speaking of the laws of nature. Hydrogen is not a carbon. Something constrain matter in the cosmos to spherical and circular forms when certain degrees of density are reached. I’m tempted myself to see in this fact clear evidence that the cosmos really is a waste or residue of something meaningful but not visible to us. And this view is compatible with my naturalistic notion that our community of life may indeed be out of place. In the western religious conception, however, this view finds very little resonance—despite what seems to me obvious proof for it. In our tradition (Genesis, etc.) the cosmos is made—to be what it is—by the will of the divine. It cannot therefore be viewed as the residue of some other divine activity which only leaves, in the cosmos, the faintest of traces of agency, in the form of laws—but nothing else even enough to hint at any kind of meaning.

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