Monday, 24 October 2016

Toomas Karmo (Part B): J.M.Greer on Popular Geology, Chronocentrism, and Deep Time

First: How big is Cameroon? Is it a decorous, compact little state, akin to Belgium, Estonia, and Switzerland? Or is it more sprawling, akin to Ukraine and Venezuela - akin, again, to Canada's big province of Ontario? Until last week, I would be flummoxed. Now, however, having done a bit of cartographic follow-up on last week's news of a Cameroon railway tragedy (working from the Web last week, and working from my library-room globe this afternoon), I have a better idea.Quality assessment: 

On the 5-point scale current in Estonia, and surely in nearby nations, and familiar to observers of the academic arrangements of the late, unlamented, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (applying the easy and lax standards Kmo deploys in his grubby imaginary "Aleksandr Stepanovitsh Popovi nimeline sangarliku raadio instituut" (the "Alexandr Stepanovitch Popov Institute of Heroic Radio") and his grubby imaginary "Nikolai Ivanovitsh Lobatshevski nimeline sotsalitsliku matemaatika instituut" (the "Nicolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky Institute of Socialist Mathematics") - where, on the lax and easy grading philosophy of the twin Institutes, 1/5 is "epic fail", 2/5 is "failure not so disastrous as to be epic", 3'5 is "mediocre pass", 4.5 is "good", and 5/5 is "excellent"): 4/5. Justification: Kmo had time to make the necessary points to adequate length. 

Revision history:

  • 20161025T0001Z/version 1.0.0: Kmo uploaded base version. He retained the right to upload minor, nonsbstantive, merely cosmetic, revisions over the coming 48 hours, as here-undocumented versions "1.0.1', "1.0.2", "1.0.3", ... .  

[CAUTION: A bug in the blogger software has in some past weeks shown a propensity to insert inappropriate whitespace at some late points in some of my posted essays. If a screen seems to end in empty space, keep scrolling down. The end of the posting is not reached until the usual blogger "Posted by Toomas (Tom) Karmo at" appears.]

Mr Greer's verdict, that our biosphere is by now in the early autumn  of its long life, is at once sobering and helpful. 

To this we might add an assessment, similarly at one and the same time sobering and helpful, of our place in the overall cosmic history of star formation. The assessment is mentioned briefly by one of Mr Greer's commenters, and is duly published by that same commenter at  /.../ the Sun was born when ~79% of stars that will ever exist already existed, and at the present moment ~90% of all stars that will ever exist already exist. Thus, the sun is a relative but by no means extreme latecomer to the universe, and despite existing near the beginning of an apparently open-ended universe its time of formation is not terribly special. 

It would perhaps be fair to say on the strength of Mr Greer's just-quoted commenter that 
on the cosmic  scale, our Sun itself sits by no means in the fresh spring, or even in the high summer, of cosmos-wide star formation, but finds itself in a kind of autumn. 


I have described these considerations as "sobering and helpful".

They are sobering in that we have some sense now of things not embarking on a long and promising career, but rather of drawing toward a conclusion. These same considerations are helpful in that it is, here as everywhere, good to have things put into context.

The situation calls to mind two humble parallels. All readers will have had experiences similar to the pair I am about to cite.

First: How big is Cameroon? Is it a decorous, compact little state, akin to Belgium, Estonia, and Switzerland? Or is it more sprawling, akin to Ukraine and Venezuela - akin, again, to Canada's big province of Ontario? Until last week, I would be flummoxed. Now, however, having done a bit of cartographic follow-up on last week's news of a Cameroon railway tragedy (working from the Web last week, and working from my library-room globe this afternoon), I have a better idea.

And second: How big or small is a litre? I used to be a bit vague. Now, however, I think I can estimate some volumes by eye - having made repeated use, in household management, of a one-litre Pyrex beaker, which  confronts my gaze every time I walk from my little cooking space to my sleeping-and-paperwork space.


As a species in the early autumn of the Terran biosphere, and arguable also as a species situated in the cosmic autumn of star formation, we do not seem to enjoy a particularly privileged position. Two 
theological responses to this dismaying discovery suggest themselves. I think both have been proposed at one point or another by someone in Mr Greer's current family of blog commenters. 

On the one hand, we could insist that our dismayingly unremarkable position in space and time leaves in strict logic inimpugned the presumption of a fundamental, unique role for Homo sapiens in the cosmos. The CPU occupies an unremarkable position on the motherboard, being indeed smaller and less imposingly cabled than some other components, the dismissively named "peripherals". The books of permanent importance in a library - the Augustines, the Hemmingways - do not look, from their spines or their shelf positions, different from the ephemera, such as the Deepak Chopras and the Tom Clanceys. Perhaps, then (the suggestion goes) humans are still, despite their recent and tardy emergence in the biosphere, and despite the unimposing position of our Sun in the overall historical sequence of stars, uniquely important. We are still (this suggestion goes) the point of everything else, constituting a reference to which other physical cosmic things are subordinate. 

On the other hand, we might consider ourselves to be in an ensemble of living things, some of them more intelligent and more technologically adept than we are. On this alternative line of thought, we would recall the New Testament admonition that to God, even the falling sparrow is important. We would speculate that as sparrows are in comparison to us, so are we ourselves in comparison to other species in biospheres far removed from our own. 

The first, and more grandiose, of the alternatives harmonizes with the Christian notion of Redemption. It gives Homo sapiens a gratifyingly prominent role in a cosmic Salvation drama. 

The second (the less grandiose) alternative, however, is for its part equally consistent with Christian conceptions. The consistency has been discussed in a specially vivid way (which I for my part herewith embroider and elaborate) by the sound British theologian C.S.Lewis. 

Lewis compares our species to a school, or other organization, suffering from poor corporate tone. 

We may, as the snivelling, nose-picking, semi-literate, undisciplined, resentful boarders at Ugby-Narrow, have the sneaking feeling that something is wrong. We have endured no other Latin masters. And yet we feel at some level that our Catullus could be made into living poetry, in the manner of Keats, rather than into the painful exercise in cryptanalysis which is all we ever get from Dr Exiguus Drudge. 

We have met no calculus specialists beyond the depressing Miss Morticia Sludge. And yet we realize at some level that somebody who knows her stuff would be capable of trotting out physical applications at the blackboard, so that we might at long last grasp the purpose, the point, of this rebarbatively intricate Riemann Integral. 

And the school meals? Dinner, as we crowd into our chilly Hall, adjoining the Chapel in the Ugby-Narrow Main Quad, ready for another evening helping of tepid grease, with sterile white bread and cold Brussels sprouts? They say in America (when settling into a steamy narrative, over steaming latte bowls, at Starbucks): "Oh, puh-LEEZE, don't get me STARR-did..." 

So, says C.S.Lewis, we realize that in our local school, something is Off. Even without experience of morally superior intelligent beings, we find the doctrine of Original Sin plausible in its application to Homo sapiens. We are eventually only too willing to learn, says Lewis, that so-to-speak schools (or so-to-speak regiments, or so-to-speak colleges, or whatever) other than our own, perhaps in remote parts of the cosmos, do things better, having perhaps no need for our particular type of Redemption in the Sacrifice of the Cross. 


Which of these theological responses, it might now be asked, more closely approximates the mediaeval worldview, as laid out in, e.g., Dante? 

The mediaevals considered Homo sapiens distinctively important in the physical cosmos. But they also had a notion of a "Great Chain of Being", with humans by no means at the top of the chain. Above Earth (which, for Dante, sits at the centre of the cosmos), lay a set of ever-so-hierarchical heavens. Above humans (in Dante's world, at the physical apex of zoology) lay an ever-so-hierarchical ensemble of created spiritual beings, the Angels. 

Perhaps the mediaevals would have been willing, eventually, I presume after due scholastic grumbling and sic et non and respondeo and sed contra and counterblast-to-refutation-of-rebuttal-of-seventh-objection, to accept a modest modification in their cosmology: there are in the physical created realm not only humans, but additionally vast cohorts of other intelligent species, many of them morally superior to ours, even as the angels excel us in the spiritual realm. These species either stand in no need of Redemption or benefit from some Redemption, from some economy-of-Salvation, incomprehensible to us in this life. 


And which of these two theological responses, it might be asked, offers, as a matter of common human psychology, greater joy? 

Let us suppose, Gentle Reader, that your family experience is somewhat akin to my own. Let us suppose that the vagaries of the 1945-through-1991 Cold War cut you off from much of your family, leaving you with the impression that you were uniquely important - being the distinguished Only Child, the Sole Hope of your so-endlessly-suffering Cold War parents. And now let us suppose that the Iron Curtain is lifted, and communications become once again as easy as they were before the autumn of 1939. Now you learn that you have siblings, or half-siblings, or first cousins, or something, in the Old Country on the far side of the Atlantic, significantly more distinguished and successful than you yourself are. Let us suppose (I exaggerate here beyond my own family situation, to make things vivid) you discover yourself to have two brothers - one an acknowledged leader in 20th-century symphonic composition, the other a Nobel Laureate in physics. 

Do you snivel and mope, feeling yourself displaced from an enjoyable position at the centre of the universe, envying your suddenly only-too-visible siblings? Or do you, rather, feel liberated, being now glad to belong, in however subordinate a capacity, to a family unexpectedly enlarged and unexpectedly glorious?

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