The Nine Billion Names of God

Arthur Clarke’s 1952 sci-fi story, “The Nine Billion Names of God,” tells the story of two cynical Manhattan computer programmers in the early days of the industry, who were hired by Tibetan monks to write a program to spit out every possible permutation of a sequence of random letters. According to their Tibetan belief, when all of the nine billion names of God have been discovered and then recorded within the sacred books, history will come to an end, because the natural world will have fulfilled its purpose of revealing all facets of God. The monks figure, by recording every possible permutation, they will cast a wide net, and get the sacred names to boot, thus accelerating the ordinary procedure of history.

Toward the end of the project, though, the Americans, recognizing the absurdity of the venture, begin to get nervous that these superstitious and primitive monks will blame the machines and their programmers for failing to bring about the end of the world. They decide to slip away a few hours before the last permutations have been emitted, sneak down the mountain, and catch a flight out of the region before the project is revealed as a failure. On their way down to the valley, they have this exchange:

The sky overhead was perfectly clear, and ablaze with the familiar, friendly stars. At least there would be no risk, thought George, of the pilot being unable to take off . . . This had been his only remaining worry . . . 

Presently, George glanced at his watch: “Should be there in an hour,” he called back over his shoulder to Chuck. Then he added, in an afterthought: “Wonder if the computer’s finished its run. It was due about now.” Chuck didn’t reply, so George swung round in his saddle. He could just see Chuck’s face, a white oval turned toward the sky. “Look,” whispered Chuck, and George lifted his eyes to heaven . . . Overhead, without any fuss, the stars were going out (13).

As one who has spent the past decade working on how the medieval Platonic tradition of divine naming helps us understand the Comedy, I am inclined to enjoy this sort of story. But in particular I enjoy the unexpected irruption of the sacred in a thoroughly secular space. Clarke imagines a world in which modern technology and science can, even unwittingly, contribute to a religious consummation of the natural world—he imagines the possibility of the “iconicity” of the natural world even in the modernity. Perhaps we could rephrase the question this way: Does pre-modern cosmology have any value for modernity?

We live in a world in which the possibility of a fundamentally religious or aesthetic approach to the natural is almost unthinkable in popular and political culture. In this way, we are so thoroughly the heirs of the vision of Francis Bacon that we barely know there is an alternative. At the heart of Bacon’s seventeenth-century revolution was the rejection of the knowledge of the “reasoners,” as he called them, as well as that knowledge of the practical tradesmen, whom he called “empirics.”

What we need is a fruitful marriage of the two: the philosophical tendency to abstract toward the universal, but the concern with accomplishing of practical tasks of the empiricist. Then we will come to possess a general understanding, but one which will yield gains in power, “for the glory of God and the relief of man’s estate” (27):

The Empirics [says Bacon] are like ants who only collect and use. The Reasoners resemble spiders who make cobwebs out of their own substance. The true opificium of philosophy neither relies solely or chiefly on the powers of mind, nor takes material from . . . mechanical experiments and stores it in the memory whole . . . Like bees, the true philosophy takes a middle course: it gathers its material from the flowers of garden and field, but transforms and digests it by a power of its own (IV, 92-3; cf. 111, 6 16).

This “Promethean Paradigm,” as the historian of thought Pierre Hadot called it, has enjoyed such complete conquest that we cannot even remember that another approach to the natural is even possible. As the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer put it in his 1980 speech, “In Praise of Theory,” “Today, it seems, there is no need to assert that the future path of humanity depends on things other than technological inventiveness and skill in dealing with the bottlenecks of global industrialization”.  

But in the pre-modern world an aesthetic, or, even “literary” response of praise, was considered the consummation of my atttempt to get the natural world into my mind. I study the world, discover its structures, and then rebuild the world, in image or word: that is, seek to perceive its structure, get inside them, and by doing so, come to admire the world and to praise it. As Aristotle reports, when Anaxagoras was asked why it was better to exist than not exist, he replied: “for the sake of viewing the heavens and the whole order of the universe.” Plato, Cicero, Seneca, Macrobius, Calcidius, and Boethius say similar things.

During the so-called twelfth-century Renaissance, William of Conches, Adelard of Bath, Honorius of Autun, Hugh of St Victor, among others, returned to this ancient tradition. For example, in the dedicatory epistle of his Imago mundi, Honorius of Autun argues that contemplating the image of the whole world opens up, what he calls, the oculus cordis.[1] In contrast to earlier encyclopedic works, Honorius’s is not an allegorical cipher. And yet, despite the literal nature of his depiction of the world according to “physics,” Honorius still claims a spiritual value for meditating on the physical face of the cosmos: “in this work, as you become able to refashion the eye of the body, so also will you grow accustom to nourishing that vision of the heart as you look at the working system of the universe.” Adelard of Bath adds: “Were we to neglect coming to know the admirable rational beauty of the universe in which we live, we would deserve to be cast out from it like guests incapable of appreciating a home in which hospitality is offered to them.”

Thus, in contrast to the “Promethean” or technological or Baconian approach to the natural world, the pre-modern world, for the most part, cultivated a “natural listening,” or what Pierre Hadot called the “Orphic View.” And it finds, perhaps, its most perfect expression in the tradition shaped by the Timaeus, what turned out to be Plato’s single most enduring dialogue.[2] There are many reasons which help explain Timaeus’s cultural magic, but I want to draw attention to four features:

  1. the idea that the ultimate principle of reality is mathematical, or, better yet, a pattern of order which underlies mathematical operations themselves;
  2. the idea that the mind of man is married to the cosmos, so that by uncovering the world’s deep structure I discover my own and find healing for my soul;
  3. the cosmos itself is an eikon, what Calcicius translates as imago or simulacrum; that is, a likeness or image or, as I will argue, even an icon, a grand visible symbol whose very physical order is an exegesis of an invisible reality. As Hadot put it, “physics” is a spiritual exercise; and
  4. the extraordinary idea that Timaeus, in order to adequately describe the cosmos, must shape his description into a “myth” (what he calls, “mythos eikos,” a “likely story).

I will turn to the Timaeus, now. Just after the famous Atlantis myth, the presumed Pythagorean, Timaeus, explains how a divine craftsman, at the beginning of time, made the world by first forming for it a rational soul—a soul which would dwell at the center of the world’s body. This craftsman took “sameness” and “difference,” and then “indivisible existence” and “divisible existence” and mixed them together. He then divided up the mixture in this way:

First [the demiurge] took one portion from the whole, and next a portion double of this; the third half as much again as the second, and three times the first; the fourth double of the second; the fifth three times the third; the sixth eight times the first; and the seventh twenty-seven times the first . . . These links gave rise to intervals of 3/2 and 4/3 and 9/8...

In other words, by the simple process of kneading, the craftsman is able to produce a string of ratios of similarity and difference which form the basic building blocks of ancient harmonics and arithmology. As Conford explains: we are to imagine an equilateral triangle: at the apex is one, and coming down the left side is 2, 4, and 8; on the right side of the triangle other side is 3, 9, and 27. Out of these numbers you can find cubes, but also all the numbers you need for the fundamental operations of mathematics which are the essence of the world: it is a kind of ancient Pythagorean “superstring” theory, of likeness, difference, and harmonic proportion. But Plato adds a few passages later:

[The craftsman] turned once more to the same mixing bowl wherein he had mixed and blended the soul of the universe, and poured into it what was left of the former ingredients, blending them this time in somewhat the same way, only no longer so pure as before . . . (41e).

The leftovers are kind of put into a big ziplock bag, like a psychological friendship bread; of course, the mixture becomes human souls, and this, it would seem, is a mythological way of asserting the mysterious marriage of the human intellect and the intelligibility of the natural world.

How is it that our thinking processes just so happen to be capable of uncovering patterns in the world, or as Eugene Wigner wondered in 1960, what is the source for “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in the natural sciences”? The fifth-century translator and commentator on the Timaeus, who preserved this precious bit of antiquity for the non-Greek-reading medieval West, elaborates on this very idea. Like other Neo-Pythagoreans, Calcidius is mesmerized by the fact that out of four numbers (1, 2, 3, and 4) you can build a perfect 10 (1 + 2 + 3 + 4). And once you have that, you can get all of the other numbers out of these basic ingredients. By doubling 3, you get 6; doubling 4 you get 8; tripling 3 you get 9; and halving 10 you get 5. All of the numbers except 7. For this reason, Calcidius tells us, 7 is the virginal number, like Pallas Athena, who is neither generated nor generates. And it is for this reason that you find 7 so frequently in the natural world. For Calcidius, then, this explains why we find 7 everywhere in nature: for example, at seven month human births are viable; or that babies bring forth teeth after 7 months; or that puberty begins after two seven-year periods; or that diseases unfold in seven-day cycles.

This is weird stuff, I know, and I think we moderns have a natural revulsion for ancient science. But bear with me while I try to explain why this matters. To start, Calcidius believes (like all ancient instructors of the quadrivium) that if I develop my ability to notice geometric and arithmological patterns in my mind (say, thinking about ratio or arithemetic patters in the first ten numbers, the so-called, Pythagorean decad), then I will be able to discover those same patterns in the physical universe. The eye of my mind becomes keyed in, as it were, and if I am trained properly in the quadrivium I will have a kind of x-ray ability to see down to the fundamental structures of the universe.  

But it is not just biology, but also astronomy that follows these patterns. The stars are intelligent agents, “cognizant of the tasks enjoined by god” (309), which quite literally make up willing notes in a symphony:

The Pythagorean doctrine is that the world consists of harmonic ratio and that the celestial bodies, separated by intervals which are congruent and consonant with one another, produce musical sounds owing to the extremely rapid impulse of their flight…musical sounds are produce by stellar movement (239).

The whole world is attuned “as with the seven tones of a plucked cithara” (239).

So, for Plato and his commentator, Calcidius, these overlapping harmonic patterns are found repeating in biology, astronomy, physics, and music. Despite the messiness of material reality, we can find underneath it all the same paradigm of order, and thus we can see that “time is an image of eternity” (157). The cosmos then is longing and groaning and moving in its best effort to figure forth eternal simplicity.

The “eternal paradigm” which is invisible and full of joy (what Proclus would later call, “pure intelligible light”), serves as the model for the visible world, but the physical world is already at a disadvantage, because it must translate intelligible light into visibility. For this reason, we can talk about Plato’s cosmos as an “icon,” in the sense of an artistic representation which translates into a new medium the eternal principles of a higher order. The very physical movements of the world constitute a kind of longing to measure up: physics is prayer in an iconic universe. And for this reason, perception of the world order also leads to worship. When the mind perceives the world in its rational patterning, says Calcidius, the “soul, fashioned after the same pattern as the celestial bodies, immediately recognizes its own natural affinity to them” (211). Looking out, I start to reach down.

It is also for this reason that Timaeus’s own account of the world is so well-suited to communicate this vision of nature. Like the cosmos, Timaeus’s speech is ordered and whole, and it also has an aspirational character; that is, Timaeus is intensely self-conscious of how far he fails to do justice to the “visible god” of the world. His speech is not just a description: it, too, is a prayer. As he says to Socrates:

Surely anyone with any sense at all will always call upon a god before setting out on any venture, whatever its importance. In our case, we are about to make speeches about the universe . . . and so if we’re not to go completely astray we have no choice but to call upon the gods and goddesses, and pray that they above all will approve of all we have to say (27c).

The very fact that Timaeus’s speech is a kind of failure and incomplete, actually accounts for its success, because, strikingly, this is one of the characteristics that his speech has in common with the visible world: the cosmos itself is said to be rational, aware of its limitations, and full of longing to conform itself as much as possible to its model. The cosmos is longing and groaning and moving in its best effort to resemble the eternal being on which it is based, just as Timaeus is longing and groaning to shape his speech to resemble the world. Thus, just as physics is prayer in an iconic universe, such human image making can recreate the aspirational character of the world through performative speech acts which point beyond themselves.

Much of my work has been devoted to tracing these imagines mundi, these iconic representations of the cosmos in the mind, from Cicero’s “Dream of Scipio” to Boethius’s “O Qui Perpetua Mundi Gubernas” through the twelfth-century renaissance to humanist Italy and then even into early modern England. It was a tradition founded on the belief that the human mind was calibrated to the physical world and that the physical world had an iconic quality to it.

The world itself, as Bruce Foltz has put it in his Noetics of Nature, had another side, or a “face,” that is, a meaning independent of its profit to us. And such “iconic” reading of the world survived longer than is commonly thought in popular history. Copernicus himself, for example, thought that re-locating the earth would better preserve such an aesthetic approach to cosmology. As he put it:

But in the center of all resides the Sun. Who, indeed, in this most magnificent temple would put the light in another, or in a better place than that one wherefrom it could at the same time illuminate the whole of it? Therefore it is not improperly that some people call it the lamp of the world, others its mind, others its ruler. Trismegistus [calls it] the visible God, Sophocles’ Electra, the All-Seeing.

Analogously, although setting the stage for Newton with his laws of motion and discovery of the elliptical order of the planets, Kepler’s chief delight was that his elliptical understanding of the orbit of the planets traced out the platonic solids! He replaced a cosmological model with nesting crystaline spheres, with a series of nesting Platonic solids! And so, when he had achieved this in his 1597 Mysterium Cosmographicum, he offered up a hymn of praise, like some ancient Pythagorean sacrificing bulls over the discovery of the Pythagorean theorem:

The intense pleasure I have received from this discovery can never be told in words. I regretted no more the time wasted; I tired of no labour; I shunned no toil... I contemplate its beauty with incredible and ravishing delight.

But eventually, of course, in a story which has often been rehearsed, the hylozoistic universe of desire and intelligence and sympathies, yielded to an inanimate world of mechanistic structures and mathematized qualities. For Plato and Aristolte and Calcidius down to Dante, the heavens were crystalline spheres, and the motion of the luminous bodies were the visible manifestation of operation of intelligences which were gazing on eternity.

But this ancient and medieval fabric of the heavens, of course, began to unravel when Galileo revealed “flaws” in the heavens: he found 80 stars within Orion’s belt, too faint to be seen without a telescope; he found not only that there were spots on the sun’s surface, but that they moved across its surface, which strengthened his conviction that, as Steven Schapin put it, “studying the properties of ordinary earthly bodies could afford understanding of what nature was like universally”; and, of course, he found moons orbiting Jupiter, downgrading our moon from that symbolic horizon between the airy and ethereal to just another stone rotating around a larger body.

When Newton showed that the elliptical orbits of the planets was due to gravitational falling around the sun, in just the same way that a terrestrial projectile falls toward the earth, then the operation of the heavens could no longer be considered designed in order to display a delicate harmonic pattern: apparently their paths were not laid out in order to circumscribe cubes and tetrahedrons, and their motion was not the propulsion due to the love of an intelligent being. Newton also declared what previous centuries had been hesistantly hinting at: there are no crystaline spheres; luminous bodies are not suspended in ether; the stars are not like gems in a band; rather, they are spread out throughout an infinite void which has no limits.

In this way, the inward looking cosmos, which existed in order to translate into the harmonic ordering of time and space the deep perception of eternity, lost its metaphorical value: that is, its order could not be read as specifically designed to reveal, iconically, the eternal paradigm. Here’s Alexandre Koyre’s famous formulation in The Scientific Revolution of the change:

His scientific and philosophical revolution . . . can be described roughly as brining forth the destruction of the Cosmos, that is, the disappearance, from philosophically and scientifically valid concepts, of the conception of the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole . . . and its replacement by an indefinite and even infinite universe which is bound together by its fundamental components and laws, in which all these components are placed on the same level of being. This, in turn, implies the discarding of scientific thought of all considerations based upon value-concepts, such as perfection, harmony, meaning and aim, and finally the utter devalorization of being, the divorce of the world of value and the world of facts.

To put it in contemporary terms, physicist Steven Weinberg: “as the universe has grown more comprehensible to science the more pointless it also seems.”[3]

In addition to this mechanistic picture on the level of large movements, there was also a mechanization of the world picture at the level of particles; that is, in place of “substantial forms” that imbue matter with real qualities, Galileo, Descartes, Boyle, and others made a distinction between “primary qualities” and “secondary qualities.” Primary qualities were those properties which could be described as extensions in space (size, shape, arrangement, and motions).

The secondary qualities were the ways in which these various primary qualities affected what is produced subjectively in us: “only some of our ideas of bodies might now be treated as objective... other experiences and ideas would have now to be regarded as subjective—the result of how our sensory apparatus actively processes impressions deriving from the real, primary realm.” In this way, Koyre continues, “micromechanical reality took precedence over common experience, and subjective experience was severed from accounts of what objectively existed” (53). And so, as it turns out, we live in a world which is in actuality flavorless, odorless, and colorless, a series of interlocking microstructures whose various mathematical extensions and motions create within the human mind different impressions.

It is for this reason that the loss of this world has produced so much nostalgia, because of this historical process Charles Taylor hauntingly called godforsakenness: “This is what we sense [i.e., the loss of the sacred], and often regret the passing of, when we contemplate the medieval cathedral. Godforsakenness is an experience of those whose ancestral culture has been transformed and repressed by a relentless process of disenchantment, whose deprivations can still be keenly felt.” Elsewhere, he adds that there has been a great migration of meaning from the world into our subjective consciousnesses: we “conceive of ourselves as having inner depths. We might even say that the depths which were previously located in the cosmos, the enchanted world, are now more readily placed within.” And, C.S. Lewis, similarly warned us about the chasm between the medieval universe, which was an:

[Orchestra] tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine. It is very important to grasp this at the outset. If we do not, we shall constantly misread our poets by taking for highly conceited metaphor expressions which are still hardly metaphorical at all.[4]

I would like to conclude by coming back to the main quesaiton: what good is the pre-modern iconic cosmos? Are we left merely to regard it with nostalgia? Is it possible to recover, in whatever capacity an understanding of nature as a theophanic material world which can serve as an icon, as a great translatio of the spiritual world into the visible? Is there any way for us to acknowledge these historical changes apart from feeling like aesthetic orphans? Is there any element of pre-modern cosmology that can be saved? Is there any possible approach, other than the technological to nature? Can an aesthetic approach to the natural mean anything?

Here I am thinking about these thoughts as an extension of Charles Taylor’s brilliant essay, “A Place for Transcedence?” There he warns religious people about falsely rejecting modernity. Protestants, Taylor speculates, are tempted by ignoring modern science; Catholics are tempted by the desire to re-constitute Christendom. Rather, what we should do, according to Taylor, is look for cracks in the immanent frame, and pry them open. And so, although this is obviously the first step in a longer project, I would like at least to suggest some tentative lines along which such a project to recover an iconic cosmos, without abandoning the fundamental tenets of modernity, could proceed.

I think we can find resources for the rescue of the “iconic cosmos” by turning to that startlingly interesting period of history straddling the medieval and modern worlds, that liminal space between what Andreas Speer called the twelfth-century “discovery of nature” and ending sometime before the death of Newton, a period in which a loosely connected series of authors put forth a range of interesting alternatives to the answer in what sense the visible world could be said to figure forth God.

I am thinking of Hugh of St. Victor and Thierry of Chartres, but even more of Nicholas of Cusa, the astonishingly strange, Giordano Bruni, as well as Cambridge Platonists, such as Henry More and Richard Cudworth. These authors, loosely linked, occupy a fascinating space still accustomed to teleological readings of the world but with the expanding resources of humanism and natural philosophy at the dawn of the scientific revolution.[5]

But they also are the beneficiaries of an extraordinary aesthetic revolution according to which beauty (which in antiquity was most often described as “harmony” or “order”) had begun to be experienced in terms of the infinite. Classical philosophers treated multiplicity as something that had to be overcome, a specious appearance that obscured a vision of the underlying Good, or One. In Plotinus, for example, the philosopher must overcome the many, pealing back layer upon layer until the inner core of reality is exposed: “the higher soul . . . flies from multiplicity (ek tōn pollōn), and gathers multiplicity into one and abandons the indefinite; because in this way it will not be [clogged] with multiplicity but be light and alone by itself” (IV.3.32). One can find the same thing in Plato’s Symposium. In this way, the ancients sought unity despite or beneath the deceptive diffusiveness of the visible world of multiplicity.

But in contrast to such ancient, purist, pagan images of reality “tapering” off toward the pure and simple, the Christians Hugh of St. Victor and Bernard Silvestris celebrate the multitudo of things in the world. This is an extraordinary aesthetic shift. Whereas Plato and Plotinus discovered the One despite the plurality of the world, their medieval Christian successors cultivated the practice of looking at unity through multiplicity. According to old well-worn Boethian and Platonic maxim: time imitates eternity, and this meant that time is the imposition of harmony on multiplicity.

But in the twelfth century, the “Gothic aesthetic” expressed a new point of analogy between the world and its maker: infinity. For example, Thierry of Chartres, who discussed how each creature, by virtue of being this blend of unity and equality, functioned as a mirror of God. And so, the universe taken as a whole, is like a world of mirrors reflecting one face: “Just as a single face, when casting its reflection off many mirrors, is still one” (Commentum super Boethii librum De Trinitate, II,48). God looks at history and sees his face reflected in an infinite number of mirrors.

A similar idea can be found in the fifteenth-century, German cardinal, Nicholas of Cusa. For example, in his brief treatise, On Searching for God, Nicholas, in language that echoes but transforms Plotinus and Augustine, tells a spiritual brother that the path to God is a paradoxical ascent accomplished by a descent into the world. Nicholas promises to provide a series of meditations—small metaphysical thought experiments—to help accomplish this in the reader’s mind.

At one point, for example, Nicholas expresses admiration for the mustard seed, which he says can “stir us in wonder at our God.” Within the tiny seed, is the life which will grow into a tree, but then that tree, when fully grown, will drop thousands of other seeds, which could all become, potentially, trees that will drop then drop thousands of more seeds, such that “if its potential should be unfolded in actuality, this sensible world would not suffice, nor indeed, would ten or a thousand or all the worlds that one could count.”

But Nicholas goes on on this thought experiment of unfolding infinity to marvel that what is even more miraculous is that my mind can even perform this kind of spiritual calculus, that I can intellectively surpass,

All capacity of the whole sensible word, and not only of this one world but also of an infinite number of worlds . . . How great a magnitude there is in our intellect! . . . through similar ascents, you will be able to ascend from the power of the millet seed and likewise from the power of all vegetable and animal seeds. The power of no seed is less than that of the mustard seed, and there are an infinite number of such seeds. Oh how great is our God, who is the actuality of all potency!

That last part is important, because even if all the potentialities in every seed were unfolded into their infinities, the world would still be but a shadowy explication of God.

It is this moving idea of an infinity of finite infinities that I think might be able to serve as a resource for the modern recovery of a vision of the world as iconic, particularly in light of contemporary ecology and contemporary cosmology. Within recent years, the “ecological” way of thinking has moved beyond thinking about ecosystems; rather, some philosophers of science are beginning to encourage us to think of every being—inanimate or animate—as a system of irreducibly complex elements which give rise to simple operations on the macro level.

Philosopher of science, Michael Strevens, for example, explains such “complexity theory” as the scientific interest in “the emergence of simple or stable behavior of the whole from relatively complex or unpredictable behavior of the parts and the emergence of sophisticated behavior of the whole from relatively simplistic behavior of the parts.” As he puts it:

Almost everything is a complex system: Manhattan at rush hour, but also, if you know how to look, a rock sitting in the middle of a field. Excited by the heat of the midday sun, the molecules that make up the rock are vibrating madly. Each is pulling at or shoving its neighbors, its part shifting around its center of mass in most haphazard way, their next move hinging on a multitude of minute details concerning the many atoms making up the surrounding stone.

The human body, too, is composed of simple organs which give rise to sophisticated interaction; but organs are composed of cells; cells of molecules. At the same time, though, we have ten times as many exogenous cells—bacteria and viruses—within us as we have endogenous cells, and these colonies of immigrant cells are essential for our lives. At the same time, clouds of gas follow simple laws which regulate the relationship between their heat and the pressure they exert on walls of that contain them, but at the molecular level the molecules buzzing around are incomprehensibly complex. We can say the same for ecosystems within tropical forests and mountain valleys and the ocean. The world is made up of an infinity of finite infinities, and these systems are made of elements which are in turn made up infinite systems. It is extraordinary that Nicholas of Cusa adumbratred such “complexity theory” in the fifteenth century.

But it is not just the extremely intricate—the infinite network of finite infinities—which Cusanus anticipated, but also what we could call the infinite on the cosmic level. Of course, since the Renaissance, the history of cosmology has been one of a greater and greater growth of our conceptions of the size and speed and variety of types of objects within the universe, as well as their unexpected relationships with one another.

In Hubble’s day, there was still debate on exactly what those dusty cloudy objects in the sky were: called nebulae. A leading theory held that they were solar systems in progress, being cooked up in cosmic outer space. Thus, the conception of the world was as one great galaxy, with stars and solar systems in various stages of evolution. But Hubble had access to a newly built telescope at Mount Wilson, at the time, the largest in the world, and he turned it toward a series of nebulae, including the Andromeda nebula. He was able to resolve some of the dusty spots into specific stars, as well as identify within stars which periodically pulse in their brightness, called cepheids. Now the rate at which cepheids pulse is related to their absolute brightness, thus Hubble was able to use them as a great cosmic yard sticks, showing that these nebulae were clusters of stars, at tremendous distances, whole worlds, infinitely remote.

We look out, then, and find “island universes,” as large or larger than our own. It was an extraordinary discovery which forced a recalibration of the size of the universe. Hubble’s discovery of the expanding universe was said to be a shattering moment, analogous to the Copernican revolution, forcing astronomers to reconceive of the universe as massively larger than previously expected. But it was not only larger than expected, but accelerating, expanding at mind-boggling speeds. Here’s how popular science writer Marcia Bartusiak summed up the discovery:

Our celestial home was suddenly humbled, becoming just one of a multitude of galaxies residing in the vast gulfs of space. In one fell swoop the visible universe was enlarged by an inconceivable factor, eventually trillions of times over. In more familiar terms, it’s as if we had been confined to one square yard of earth’s surface only to now suddenly realizes that now there were vast oceans and continents, cities and villages, mountains and deserts, previously unexplored and unanticipated.

Since then the Hubble telescope has expanded our conception of the universe even more. One of the images from Hubble is a photograph of what appears to be stars (about 1000 shining objects if you count them), but, in reality, only about 12 of them are actually stars. The rest are galaxies. The astrophysicist goes on to explain: imagine holding up a grain of sound at arm’s length, behind it are 1000 galaxies hidden behind that single grain of sand. Move your grain of sand one millimeter to the right, and you’re covering up a different1000 galaxies.

This what I want to call a “Hubble moment,” by which I mean the aesthetic awe and shock that comes when a previously static image is suddenly transformed within our imagination into a picture of something dynamic. Thus, these Hubble moment can come on the level of the microscopic or on the level of the cosmological: but they occur when our conception is suddenly enlarged by dazzling degrees, or something assumed to be banal, like the eye of a drone fly, is rendered more complex that we could have previously conceived as even possible. Robert Boyles said that such discoveries “help to enlarge the somewhat too narrow conceptions men are wont to have of the amplitude of the works of God.” Similarly, Leeuwenhoek marveled at complexity of the eye of a fruit fly, adn Bernard de Fontenell in the same ages put it: “We see from the elephant down to the mite; there our sight ends. But beyond the mite there is an infinite multitude of animals for whom the mite is an elephant, and which can’t be perceived with ordinary sight.”

And the twentieth century, is, of course, a whole history of “Hubble moments” in cosmology, physics, biology, as well as, most notably, molecular biology. For now, I will stick to cosmology and astrophysics. We have discovered the after glow of the big bang in cosmic background radiation; that there can be waves in gravity; that there are stars which have the same mass as two of our suns, but whose radiuses are only about 6 miles long, given that their cores have collapsed in on themselves during a super nova explosion; and we know that some portions of the universe are so dense that light cannot escape their gravitational field.

Thus, we have a cosmos which, seemingly, has an infinite array of cosmological objects, spread out over infinite speeds and spaces, but made up, on the microcosmic level, of micro-cosmic infinities. We live in a world of deep time, deep space, dark matter, dark energy, spiral nebulae, and anti-matter. We have gone from imagining a sun rotating around the earth, to an earth rotating around the sun within a finite cosmos, to the discovery that what had felt to us like our universe was actually just what Hubble called an “island universe,” a small little galaxy among many. In this way, the twentieth century has conducted a thought experiment analogous to the exegesis of Cusanus on the mustard seed—the dramatic unfolding of the world picture as it approaches the infinite. As it turns out, our cosmos is more like something out of Jorge Louis Borges than Jane Austen.

I hope I have at least hinted at a path forward, one which, as Taylor says, does not try to ignore the conditions of our modernity, but one which, at the same time, opens up a possibility in which the physical cosmos could again be seen as iconic. It is within this paradigm that I think we can speak about the possibility of recovering the medieval project, in a way which has no taint of nostalgia. I would like to conclude with a metaphor.

This summer I heard a performance of two of Bach’s cello sonatas (No. 3 and No. 6), and as I listened, I was mesmerized at how a single instrument, like the cello, could be made to produce so many different patterns of sound from just four strings: sometimes running up and down scales; sometimes imitating vocal vibrato by modulating rapidly between two tones; sometimes ascending or descending in triadic patterns; but always varying tempo and patterns over the seven movements. What was extraordinary, I thought, was how much variety—how many different patterns of sound—the mind of Bach was able to draw out in one key, on a single instrument. But then, of course, Bach did the same thing for the organ over the course of his life, and then the newly designed piano in his Well-Tempered Clavier. But what Bach’s genius managed to draw out of the cello, organ, clavier, as well as choirs and ensembles is just a fraction of the world of possible music.

Consider the Gregorian chant and polyphony that came before, and the music of Romanticism and twentieth century that came afterwards, and the minimalism of Arvo Part, and the experimentation of Messien, but even that is just a portion of the whole world of song, when take into consideration music oustide of Europe, and then even consider, as ethnomusicologists have found, how peasants in traditionally agricultural communities sing in key with the sounds of their environs.

I imagine our knowledge of the natural as unfolding in a similar way to Bach’s attempt to work out every possible pattern on a cello: but what if it is the case that we will not approach final solutions even within decades but over the next centuries or even millennia more, in which our present knowledge comes to seem but a tiny island universe within what can be known within the natural. And thus, it is the humanists’s job to cultivate these individual visions, to collect all of the Hubble moments together, as I have called them, to safeguard works of literature and moments of language and epochs of history and unexpected philosophical moves, as well as visions of ecosystems and phenomena in physics and molecular biology within this universal cosmology; to hold within a vision of the unfolding of the infinity of finite infinities.

Now imagine a hypothetical time in which we will have come to know the ecology of every landscape, its dynamic balance of flora and fauna, within its geological terrain with its own suited metereological climate, and then each one of those landscapes has found its perfection in the eyes of a greater naturalist. Imagine a time when every Black Forest has founds its Thomas Wolhleben, and every Chimborazo has found its Alexander von Humboldt. A time when every Walden Pond, Sand County, Port Royal, KY, Pilgrim Creek, Lazy Point, Big Horn Mountains, and Utah dessert has found its Thoreau, Leopold, Berry, Dillard, Safina, Ehrlich, and Edward Abbey. And then, we have worked out the interplay of gravity and light and energy, and discovered the relationship between subatomic particles and the fields of energy in which they play; and every star has run the course of its galactic life; and every symphony has been composed on every instrument that is yet to be invented in every possible key; and every language has found its perfection in every literature; and every historical age has offered up its finest heroes in that particular historical microclimate. Then we will be in a position to have seen, unfolding in history, the full range of the infinite unfolding. And we will still have a shadowy glimpse of the eternity which time has so desperately tried to imitate, even if though we will have learned all nine billion names of God.

[1] For text, see De Imagine Mundi Libri Tres, P.L. 172. For Honorius’s place within the encyclopedic tradiiton, see Franklin-Brown, Reading the World, 101-110

[2] Gretchen Reydam-Schilds has called the Timaeus a “cultural icon,” given its influence, not just on late ancient philosophy and Neoplatonism, but also on Judaism (through the agency of Philo), and on medieval Latin philosophy through the translation and commentary of Calcidius.

[3] “Science, God, and Cosmic Purpose,” 263.

[4] C. S. Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1954), 4.

[5] Several of these particular authors are loosely linked togegther (David Albertson, for example, has shown the influence of Thierry on Cusanus; and Cusanus exerted influence on Bruni, and Bruni on the Cambridge Platonists).

Featured Image: New photo by Hubble telescope of the so-called "Pillars of Creation" taken in 2015, PD-Hubble.


Jason Baxter

Jason M. Baxter is an associate professor of fine arts and humanities at Wyoming Catholic College and the author of multiple books, including The Beginner’s Guide to Dante’s ComedyAn Introduction to Christian Mysticism, and the forthcoming The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis.

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