Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Our gaze fills the universe"


The WorldWide Telescope is a computer program, developed by Microsoft, that knits together images from the world's strongest and best telescopes and satellite images to create a video representation of the universe that a user can navigate and explore. It is undeniably super cool. With the program, one can create personal tours of the universe, zooming in on selected objects in deep space and also accessing information on them. It makes the study of stars and other distant objects accessible even to small children. The images in the video demonstration are remarkably clear and achingly beautiful.

I was moved by the evident enthusiasm of the first narrator, Roy Gould, and I was even swept up in it, so that after my first listen, I did not find anything amiss. But then as I listened a second time, I was struck by three points he made:

  1. He's a great believer in stories, and he's excited to think that this new technology will help people to create their own stories about the cosmos and our place in it. This observation, that human beings are story-making creatures, who are built and fortified by their stories, is quite prevalent. Like many ideas that have a large following, it has truth in it. The trouble with it is that it celebrates the subjective experience and the personal utterance of that experience. Embedded in this notion is that we're all a bunch of chatterers and what gives our life savor and depth is this cacophony of stories, which we produce in order to give meaning and order to an otherwise disordered collection of meaningless events. We listen to one another's stories because they're interesting, or they entertain, or they inspire us to refine our own stories. But the most important thing is that each story be "original" -- and not in the sense that they refer back to our Origin, but that they originate in each of us. Essentially, this celebration of story-making is a celebration of the human person as the producer of meaning for his life.
  2. He's noticed that when he asks people how it makes them feel to look into the night sky, they almost always answer, "tiny and insignificant." He feels that this new computer program will change that experience because now humanity is no longer helpless in front of the night sky. Now we can each of us contain and encompass it within man-made machines that we own (so we can also "own" the night sky...), manipulate it, navigate it, explain it, and make our own stories about it.
  3. Through the use of the WorldWide Telescope program, we can discover that we are "wonderfully significant" because we can have a "dialog with the universe." This dialog takes place by virtue of a key pad and a computer screen. The entity with which we are having this dialog has been mastered and transformed into a likeness that we can manipulate and conquer.
I am sorry to put these points in such stark terms, terms that Mr. Gould would perhaps find untrue to the spirit in which he spoke them; however, I feel it's necessary to go beyond the surface of his narrative to the assumptions that undergird it. These assumptions have to do with power, the triumph of subjectivity, and a blind, naive faith in humanity's ability to use science to achieve ends that are outside her expertise.

The WorldWide Telescope is indeed an exciting tool, one that I will certainly explore. The problem is not with the tool but with the expectation that it will accomplish what it cannot ever accomplish. The universe is an objective reality that I neither generate nor master. It is not a collection of stories we tell about it -- no matter how vast the collection of stories or how much hard data we incorporate into the stories, all our words will never substitute for the cold, vast, inscrutable reality that surrounds us.

"And [God] brought [Abraham] outside and said, 'Look toward heaven and number the stars, if you are able to number them'" (Genesis 15:5a). Can we even begin to imagine what that night sky looked like for Abraham -- standing in a desert, in a world with no electricity or smog? How many stars Abraham must have seen when he looked up! And those were only a fraction of a fraction of the actual stars -- stars that Abraham could have no knowledge of. God was teasing him! But he wasn't only teasing him -- he was also inviting him to verify -- just as when Jesus told Thomas to place his hand into his side and believe. It is not wrong for us to count and name and classify the stars. It isn't wrong for us to enjoy them and wonder at them. Astrophysics is a discipline that we were invited to pursue when God first teased Abraham. God generated in us a desire for significance and for dialog with the cosmos, but no machine that we build, so system of knowledge that we devise, will ever give us these things.

When will humanism train the powers of observation developed through scientific inquiry on itself? When will it acknowledge humanity's limits? The evidence is all around us, but if we prefer to do our exploring through machines we've made ourselves, any humanist could tour the cold, vast, and inscrutable terrain of the human heart when it becomes its own measure and guide, as revealed on the internet.

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Dumbstruck by the Mystery

...our temptation is always to impose our prejudices or our measure on reality -- except when we are faced with a fact that leaves us dumbstruck, and instead of dominating the fact ourselves, we are dominated, overcome by it. If there were no moments of this kind, the Mystery could do anything, but in the end, we would reduce everything to the usual explanation. But not even a Nobel Prize winner can stop himself from being dumbstruck before an absolutely gratuitous gesture. If there were not these moments, we would find answers, explanations, and interpretations to avoid being struck by anything. It is good that some things happen that we cannot dominate, then we have to take them seriously, and this is the great question of philosophy. If the conditions for the possibility of knowledge (see Kant) impose themselves on reality or if there is something that is so powerfully disproportionate that it does not let itself be "grasped" by the conditions of possibility, then the horizon opens. If this were not the case, then we could dominate everything and be in peace, or at least without drama. Instead, not even the intelligence of a Nobel Prize winner could prevent him from coming face-to-face with a fact that made him dumbstruck -- instead of dominating, it was he who was dominated. Here begins the drama, because I am called to answer. It is the drama that unfolds between us and the Mystery, through certain facts, certain moments, in which the Mystery imposes itself with this evidence. These are facts that we cannot put in our pocket, which we cannot reduce to antecedent factors.
-- Julian Carron in "Friends, that is, Witnesses."