In The Everlasting Man, a masterpiece of Christian apologetics, G. K. Chesterton opens Chapter 1 with something of a mocking hat tip to the “scientific custom of beginning [a book, a lecture, a debate] with an account of the astronomical universe,” and specifically with an effort “to conceive [the earth’s] remote position for the dehumanized spectator.”  Think Carl Sagan’s “millions and billions of stars.” Before, however, pulling off his own Chestertonian spin on this all too common trope (which turns it on its head and includes mention of lots of strange things on earth, “and none stranger than the men of science”),  he editorializes on the custom in general:

Only I do not believe in being dehumanized in order to study humanity. I do not believe in dwelling upon the distances that are supposed to dwarf the world; I think there is even something a trifle vulgar about this idea of trying to rebuke spirit by size.

Amen.  And I think Chesterton’s view of the world and his critique of the use of distances to vulgarize debate would be a welcome addition to the recent and very interesting back and forth between Jordan Peterson and Sam Harris on the subject of God and religion.   

For the purposes of this installment of my own ongoing and very occasional critique of the cult of distances and bigness, I’m not going to focus on its connection to keeping us all in a state of psychological neoteny and adolescence, like I did here. Nor am I going to make the claim, taking Erich Fromm’s Art of Loving a step further than he took it himself, that it’s ruining the possibilities of romantic love in our time. (If you’re interested in reading that essay, called “Grail and Anti-Grail Quests”, published in Jesus the Imagination, write me here.) Instead, I actually want to make the more important claim that, until we get this thing about size right (it’s one of the two greatest powers of the human imagination; the other one being the ability to put yourself into another person’s place), we’re going to continue to pile up a lot of dead bodies in genocide and war.

True to form, then, a series of recent debates in London between Peterson and Harris begins in this discursive vein, which takes for granted the one-sided worldview where vast distances of outer space supposedly dwarf everything familiar and meaningful to us. Sam Harris compares Peterson’s support of traditional religion with that favorite whipping-boy harnessed by all believers in the religion of progress: astrology. Says Harris:  

This traditional God and the doctrines that support him are on no firmer ground than astrology… Everything you say about religion for a thousand years … that’s it’s a cultural universal … etc. … all of that can be said about astrology.

And, for Harris, what is astrology?  

Belief that human personalities and human events and the difference between good and bad luck in a human life are a result of what the planets are doing against the background of human stars.

Fair enough. Unlike Neil deGrass Tyson and others, who reduce the ancient astrological worldview solely to the shriveled, dead husks called newspaper horoscopes (quite literally a straw man), Harris at least has the courtesy to offer a slightly more robust working definition, though I would insert the word “partly,” so as to say, “partly the result of what the planets are doing against the background of stars,” as this would be more accurate.

Now, what I hope to make clear through the critique of the cult of bigness and distances is that, if you take the unscientific word “luck” out of Harris’s comment, he’s essentially mocking the belief that the difference between the good and bad health of a baby can be the result of the baby’s position in the womb or the mother’s exposure to magnetic fields.  I wish that, instead of beating up on astrology (which comes across in such statements as does the word “Polack” in Polish Jokes), he would simply and more honestly begin with a foray into the scientific debate regarding “action at a distance,” or the field of, for example, epigenetics, where it’s taken for granted that not only does the gene affect the surrounding environment but that the surrounding environment affects the gene!   

Of course it does. It can’t not. This background and foreground stuff, the back-and-forth between the thing and its surrounding environment (and this is the point) is infinitely scalable. The fetish we have developed for focusing on how small we are vis-a-vis really big things, a la Stephen Hawking and others (“The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting around a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies”) has a history and, furthermore, it is completely and utterly arbitrary when one could write a similar sentence about the comparative sizes of, say, a cell nucleus and a quark, or hypothesize on the intelligent life and modes of travel that exist on a particle (unobserved as of yet) the size of a yoctometer.

I have an Ivy educated gardener friend who, when I mention the biodynamic farmers who plant according to the position of the moon, the stars, and signs, lets out a big guffaw. But I tease him back by saying that, for a much larger mind and frame of reference and consciousness, the space between Sirius the Dog Star and our little cucumber seeds seems no bigger than the distance between a cell wall and a nucleus. Perhaps there are connections between the stars and cucumbers or between the planet Venus and the metal copper (as the ancients believed) but, like my own relation to the people gifted with synesthesia, I just don’t perceive the connections they, in the case of the ancients and some gifted people today (countless charlatans notwithstanding), perceive. It’s unscientific not to at least be open to the connections, however faint they may be. This comes across as the colorblind denying the very existence of certain colors.

Jordan Peterson brilliantly responds to Harris’s statements about religion and astrology from his own direction; one that actually praises certain aspects of astrology:

[A]strology was astronomy in nascent form, and astrology was also science in its nascent form as alchemy was also chemistry in its nascent form and so, sometimes, you have to dream a crazy dream with all of the error that that crazy dream entails because you have an intuition that there’s something there to motivate you to develop the intuition to the point where it actually becomes a genuine practical utility. [emphasis mine]

This is a good and useful corrective, no doubt, but it needs to be complemented (not replaced) by the worldview that doesn’t see astrology so much as “nascent” astronomy, but astronomy as “fallen” astrology, as chemistry is, in a sense, “fallen” alchemy. This is because, a) it’s quite possibly equally as true and needs to be investigated more, and b) we will have a lot less war and genocide if we do this, which is a case I will make below.  

Hard is it might be to digest this at first bite, please follow me, as the story of “inevitable progress” is as ubiquitous as it is embedded. It’s hard to get our minds out of such ruts.

The Russian polymath Pavel Floresnki, in his study of icons, showed that perspective in art was not, as so many think, “discovered” in the Renaissance. Many of the laws of perspective had been used in stage sets in Ancient Greece but, apart from that, were apparently found quite uninteresting. Iconographers, instead, aware of their tools but more conscious of how they used space in their attempts to portray a higher reality, ’wrote’ one-dimensional Icons that transformed the space around them. They had a different and, to them, nobler goal in mind.

When you look at something only in terms of how it can serve you, you might be able to control it, but you also might not, in fact, be seeing that thing accurately.

Analogously, Rene Guenon noted that there “are some modern sciences that, quite literally, represent residues of ancient sciences that are no longer understood.” Particularly in decadent ages obsessed with utility, “the lowest part of these sciences became isolated from all the rest, and this part, grossly materialized, served as a starting point for a completely different development.” Think Analytic Philosophy. I emphasized the word “utility” in order to draw to mind the ancient and sane claim that, when you look at something only in terms of how it can serve you (like the fruit “that was good for food and pleasing to the eye”), you might be able to control it, but you also might not, in fact, be seeing that thing accurately, or in its fullness, or to be truly able to understand it. It might constitute “fallen” vision. We think here of the great physician’s warning regarding utilitarian, “lustful” observations of a woman’s body: “if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out”.  

Every science and every scientist has a framework in which facts are understood. The Inkling Owen Barfield was brilliant and, in my estimation, irrefutable on this subject in his book, Saving the Appearances. The framework Harris uses, however, is ideologically skewed toward utility. The framework Peterson uses does a better job in my opinion. But better still is the framework which comes from the choice to see oneself and the world as both big and small, which is also a choice to put one’s imaginative house in order. And this takes discipline. Echoing Keats, “I am certain of nothing but of the holiness of the Heart’s affections and the truth of Imagination.”

As stated above, the fetish with seeing the universe as so big and stars as so distant actually has a history. Chesterton was a witness to this, and another person who saw it unfold was the great French dramatist and poet of love and brotherhood, Paul Claudel (1868–1955). It frightened him. Notice what he said about the results of this choice:

The whole nineteenth century was persuaded that creation was infinite, that beyond this world lay others, innumerable others, all populated with intelligent souls and creatures perhaps superior to us. There is no conception more foolishly vertiginous, more deleterious for the imagination, and more thoroughly demeaning for our dignity. [emphasis mine]

How exactly is it deleterious for the imagination?  

Choices have consequences. And notice the choice itself in action, as we see it take place in microcosmic Confessions of Felix Krull, Thomas Mann’s novel about an eponymous confidence man. Felix mused during his childhood on the great choice he (and, by default, all of us), have to make:  

Which is better, to see the world small or to see it big?

[G]reat men, I thought, field marshals, statesmen, empire builders and other leaders who rise through violence above the masses of mankind must be so constituted as to see the world small, like a chessboard, or they would never possess the ruthless coldness to deal with the world so boldly and cavalierly with the weal and the woe of the individual. [emphasis mine]

And what of the people who subscribe to this worldview while lacking the temperament of ruthless “statesmen and empire builders”? Apathy. As Mann writes, “[T]his might lead to one doing nothing at all.”  In other words, they become toadies and cannon fodder. Here you have, in a nutshell, the world of the bullies and the bullied, the world we’ve created.

To see ourselves and our planet, instead, as relatively big, according to Felix:

will give weight and seriousness to your life … lending it meaning in your own eyes and leading to your advancement, … considering the world a great and infinitely enticing phenomenon, offering priceless satisfactions and worth in the highest degree of all my efforts and solicitude.

There you have it: Violence vs. solicitude. All of this, for Peterson, should echo a similar underlying dynamic he’s undoubtedly come across in Dostoevsky: “The more I love humanity in general the less I love man in particular.” In short, the worldview of vast distances and bigness is a choice, a wrong choice that acts like a stink bomb in regards to its effect on all of humanity’s more noble feelings and aspirations, as well as to talk of things like brotherhood, peace, and understanding. The social theorist Leopold Kohr (author of the magisterial The Breakdown of Nations, and mentor to E. F. Shumacher of Small is Beautiful fame), said it best when he wrote:  

“[T]here seems to be only one cause behind all forms of social misery: bigness. Oversimplified as this may seem, we shall find the idea more easily acceptable if we consider that bigness, or oversize, is really much more than just a social problem. It appears to be the one and only problem permeating all creation. Whenever something is wrong, something is too big. … And if the body of a people becomes diseased with the fever of aggression, brutality, collectivism, or massive idiocy, it is not because it has fallen victim to bad leadership or mental derangement. It is because human beings, so charming as individuals or in small aggregations, have been welded into overconcentrated social units.” [emphasis mine]    

Now, all of the above I put forth simply because, when listening to the beginning of the debate between Harris and Peterson, I sensed a serious and portentous disconnect between Peterson’s interesting brief on behalf of astrology and an insight from the biologist and philosopher David Berlinsky he shared a few minutes later. After having a resolutionless back and forth with Harris about the death toll that could be laid at the doorstep of atheist regimes, and whether ideologies like Communism actually constitute “a religion” (a claim that sits comfortably with me, for what it’s worth), Peterson, references the great observation from The Devil’s Delusion: Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions:

What Hitler did not believe and what Stalin did not believe and what Mao did not believe and what the SS did not believe and what the Gestapo did not believe and what the NKVD did not believe and what the commissars, functionaries, swaggering executioners, Nazi doctors, Communist Party theoreticians, intellectuals, Brown Shirts, Black Shirts, gauleiters, and a thousand party hacks did not believe was that God was watching what they were doing. And as far as we can tell, very few of those carrying out the horrors of the twentieth century worried overmuch that God was watching what they were doing either. That is, after all, the meaning of a secular society. [emphasis mine]

In the Harris-Peterson debate there was not, nor can there be in that venue, a proof that God does or does not exist. It’s refreshing, then, that the terms of the debate put forth initially by Harris had more to do with ideas that are “dangerous.” What I’ve tried to do by talking about the ‘vast distances of outer space,’ and the results of this ambient context, is to flip the tables a bit on what constitutes mature thought, “mental derangement,” and “idiocy” (Kohr quote above) and also what constitutes the real danger in terms of body counts, genocide, and war (Berkinski).   

As seen, many creative artists since the scientific revolution have expressed remorse regarding a form of thought and education which, in building something new, actually robbed us of many of the aptitudes that come with a mature, flexible, and imaginative mind, and among them are the human feelings of compassion and solicitude, as well as the nearness of God.  There is no problem worse than being sick and calling it health. Rilke referred to this new, mental creation as “the hard steel we have strictly schooled.” Is, then, the actual truth that God doesn’t exist and/or is not watching us? Or, instead, is the truth that, in our avaricious hunt for utility we have a created a form of unknowing which confuses ignorance with enlightenment and a fall with ascent? In short, have we broken our friendship with God, whom we so desperately need at this time? Rilke (and Five for Fighting), each in their own ways, pose the quandary well:

Shall we reject the age-old friendship, the great
never-soliciting gods, because the hard
steel we have strictly schooled does not know them,
or shall we suddenly seek them on a map?  (Sonnets to Orpheus )

4 COMMENTS

  1. This was one of the best essays I’ve read on FPR, and I particularly appreciate the kind words for old-fashioned but still-thriving (if you look a little harder) sciences like astrology. Now I’m going to spend some time thinking about scale _in time_ and how you cannot be intellectually coherent when either your scale of place is too big or your scale in time is too small.

  2. As the health of natural systems is also largely dependent upon their size; as the success of a batch of jam is dependent upon its size, as well. With this observation: distance matters if you (and your milk cow) have to walk it on your own feet. Twenty-five dairy cows can live within walking distance of their barn and their rotationally-grazed pastures; add more cows and you soon reach an abrupt limit to the capabilities of both cows and pastures.

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