The brain is a facilitator. It enables perception, meaning, judgment, and action as an ongoing flow of engagement. Its genius is in guiding selection of what we pay attention to, evaluate in comparison to other options (that is, judge), and subsequently act upon.

When a routine is effective, the brain makes it easy for us to do more of the same. We come to think in terms of routines in our repertory so we don’t have to keep reinventing the wheel. The essence of consciousness is in turning new problems into effective routines we can count on when one such problem comes up again.

Speech is a tremendous saver of brain space, whenever possible substituting fine muscle movements of jaw, tongue, and lips in place of gross movements of trunk and limbs. Language is a code for reducing the brain space we need to get by with, using a limited set of words over and over again in new contexts, always with new shades of meaning.

Which is what Peter Mark Roget did in producing his Thesaurus. And Plato did in pondering the parallels between the stars in their heaven and the activities of people on Earth below. He was working on that question for the rest of us, and did his best to come up with a workable understanding.

The Timaeus is a record of the trouble Plato went to on our behalf. As every World Series game is a record of the skill and effort players on each team expend on behalf of their fans in particular, and all fans of stellar performances beyond them. The same is true for Olympic athletes. And outstanding thinkers and doers of all kinds.

Individual minds matter. Consciousness matters. Brains matter. Engagements matter. Families matter. Communities, cultures, and nature matter. All as aspects of a planet that matters in a solar system that matters in a galaxy that matters in a cosmos that matters. Not to fulfill a set of universal laws, but to make an effective response to conditions and situations that come up and need to be dealt with.

None of these levels of interaction and engagement are governed by rules or laws. Each is determined by the energy available and forces bearing on fraught situations of every size and nature throughout the whole system.

We are all parts of that system: particles, nuclei, atoms, molecules, bases, chromosomes, amino acids, proteins, cell walls, plasma, organelles, organs, organ systems, organisms, species, genera, families, orders, classes, phyla, kingdoms, life, planets, solar systems, galaxies, universes, and whatever lies beyond.

We can do nothing but respond to the situations and conditions that put pressure upon us in every ways from every direction with whatever energy is available. We strive to do the best we can under those conditions in those situations.

And what we do best is engage the world around us on as many levels as we can manage because that is what we have evolved to do because we don’t have a choice. Either we make it or we don’t. The system will go on without us.

We are the leading edge of a spreading and evolving wave of energy that spurs us to be who we are in our own time and do what we find it best to do. That is our job; our only job. To be good citizens of the precinct of the universe we find ourselves in at the time—on the playing field, in the library, out at night ogling the stars in their sky.

So, yes, minds, brains, bodies, engagements—all matter, whether we understand them or not. The particular piece of the puzzle I have claimed for myself is nothing less than the challenge of understanding my own mind as well as I can.

This blog is the best I can do. It is my performance in the last play of the last game of the World Series for mindfarers. There will be Series after this one, with fresher farers as players.

Having come this far, I can’t add anything to this discussion with myself that I haven’t said several times over. I will move on to whatever conclusions I can take from my journey this far.

In the beginning, Earth was thought to be the center of the universe. Plato, Aristotle, and Ptolemy said so, along with a great many others, so till the end of the Middle Ages it had to be true (Photo: Peter Apian, Cosmographia):

Conceptual Depiction of the Ptolmaic Universe.

The Illusionistic Universe Centered on Planet Earth.

 

Then Copernicus (1473-1543) came along and proposed that the sun, not the Earth, held the honor of central place (Photo: Wikimedia):

Copernican Model of the Solar System.

Nicolaus Copernicus Hypothesizes that the Sun Lies at the Center of the Known Universe.

 

Now in the Space Age the universe has no center; or, rather, every star is the center of its own orbital system. Here is an artist’s rendition of what such a stellar disk might look like (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)):

An Artist's conceptual rendition of planetary formation.

Gas, Dust, and Planets Orbit a Conceptual Star During Planetary Formation.

 

Here is an actual radio-telescope array image of a planetary disk about its central star in the constellation we call Taurus. Planets are thought to have swept up the material in the gaps between rings (Photo: Atacama Large Millimeter Array/ESO/NAOJ/NRAO, NSF, Chile):

Radio-telescope array image of planetary formation.

A radio-telescope image of actual planetary formation around a young star in the constellation Taurus.

 

The implosion of stars in on themselves when their gravitational force exceeds the radiative pressure from their fading nuclear engines—that event is what we call a supernova, an extremely bright star that fades in a few weeks’ time. This photo of a supernova that was witnessed by Tycho Brahe was made by the Chandra X-ray Observatory (Photo: NASA/CXC/SAO):

X-ray Image of Supernova Remnant.

X-ray Image of Remnant of Supernova Witnessed by Tycho in 1572.

 

This is the same supernova that Tycho saw in 1572 as rendered in a combination of different wavelengths of visible light (Photo: NASA/Prof. John P. Hughes, Dr. Jeonghee Rho, Dr. Oliver Krause):

Visible-light Image of Tycho Supernova.

Visible-light Image of Supernova Witnessed by Tycho Brahe in 1572.

 

This is a nebula in our southern constellation Carina, a region of star formation fueled by condensing clouds of gas and dust pressed together by the force of gravity. Here is a modern view of creation of the universe, one speck of dust at a time, not as an eternal harmony of perfect motion driven by a prime moving god (Photo: NASA/ESA/M. Livio & Hubble 20th Anniversary Team (STSci)):

Creation is not only ongoing, it is now.

A Region in the Constellation Carina Where Clouds of Gas and Dust are Forming New Stars Under Gravitational Pressure.

 

Clouds of gas and dust, remnants of supernova explosion(s), known as the Pillars of Creation. Stars are literally being formed in the pillars of gas and dust shaped by gravity. This is also known as the Eagle Nubula (Photo: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScl/AAURA)/J. Hester, P. Scowen (Arizona State Univ.)):

Star Formation in the Eagle Nebula.

The So-called Pillars of Creation, Columns of Gas and Dust Being Compressed into New Stars.

 

We must take such images as these eight into account in finding meaning in our non-universe of today. That is, in a cosmos that is far more complex than the simple and idealistic image of one-turning (which is what our word “universe” means or implies.)

That old style universe is based on an illusion that projects both Earth’s rotation about its axis and orbit about the sun onto the stars, which are wholly innocent of forcing that illusion upon us. The illusion is our own doing, and has been for more than six thousand years.

Creation is ongoing today, and is a much messier affair than Plato could suggest in his philosophy. The cosmos is not what we think it is; it is what it is in itself. Our assignment, should we accept it, is to bring ourselves into as close agreement with that fact as we are able, given our habitual frailties and fallibilities of mind.

This particular post brings to an end my series of posts illustrating human engagements in the case of baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars. My job from here on is to discuss the way-stations along my introspective journey as illustrated in these recent posts, then present a brief summary of what conclusions I have been able to draw.

 

The stars that we are born to in the twenty-first century are not that different from the stars our ancestors have been born to for hundreds of generations. But the cultural setting within which we view those stars today is entirely new in the history of the Earth.

Both our perception of the stars and the ways we think of them within our various fields of understanding—astrology, astronomy, astrophysics, theology, mysticism, art, and so on—vary from place to place, time to time, so that stars have a very human history culminating in the mind of each person living today.

Consciousness is as much a matter of cumulative life experience as it is of perception and memory. Our personal experience is influenced by our natural experience, as well as our cultural, communal, and familial experience.

Van Gogh’s Starry Night conveys some small part of his personal experience of the stars. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope details other aspects of the stars that most of us have never personally experienced or imagined. Perspectives available to us today simply did not exist only a few decades ago.

Yet we are the progeny of stars themselves, and cannot be anatomically, physiologically, or psychologically separated from their influence on our innermost mental and physical being. We are born of the stars as well as to them. In a very real sense, the stars ‘R us. We are star stuff up and walking around, ogling our extended family spread through the universe.

That is no poetic dream. The atoms we are made of were forged in supernova explosions that cast those atoms into space, where gravity took over and condensed those same atoms into a mass so dense that they ignited to form a new stellar system, together with a retinue of planets that included what we now call Earth, our home in space for all the days of our lives.

It is fitting that throughout history every tribe and people has paid homage to the stars. The Sumerians did it according to their lights in Mesopotamia, Plato did it his way in Greece, the Neoplatonists in Alexandria, and now NASA, a governmental agency, spends billions of dollars in paying homage to the stars, planets, asteroids, comets, and meteors of today.

The meaning that every generation projects onto the stars is a salute to our origins as couched in the meaningful terms of the day. The stars have always had place on the leading edge of human understanding. The stars have not changed all that much, but our understanding is now undergoing an exponential growth spurt that leaves our past understanding lagging far behind.

We used to put haloes around the heads of our saints to signal their divinity (connection to the stars). We built Gothic cathedrals to seat our bishops that had stained-glass windows dedicated to the zodiac, and mechanical clocks with rotating symbols of the twelve zodiacal houses, again to show honor to the stars as we interpreted them in Mediaeval times. Those cathedrals served as models of the supposed celestial hierarchy worked in stone, with their vaults shining down on the seat of the bishop below, and those assembled around him, as if that seat were the throne of reason, order, harmony, truth, and beauty on Earth.

As Chartres Cathedral was abuilding in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas wrote (in Latin) of the stars: “Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God.” The prime mover that drove the universe was as alive in our formative era as it had been in the days of Pseudo-Dionysius, Ptolemy, Aristotle, Plato and, before him, the Sumerians.

What all that effort achieved, rather than making a place for humanity in the stars’ cosmic scheme, was assign them their place in our psychic scheme, so having us ride our own coattails round and round, as if tied to a peg driven into the ground, setting us back for well over five thousand years in solving the world puzzle from inside our respective black boxes.

But that peg in the ground has been yanked up by a succession of new thinkers: Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo, Kepler, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Gregor Mendel, Einstein, and many others who have built the new cosmology of today that recognizes the stars for what they are in themselves and not merely the due we thrust upon them out of our own needs.

The idea of binding our lives back to the orderly motion of the stars is one of the most profound realizations that the human mind has ever entertained. We have evolved to appreciate the patterns, brightness, and motions of the stars at night; that should suffice. We need not look for a message coming from them any more than we look to a mockingbird or giraffe for truth. If we truly honored the stars, we would celebrate their gift of light and energy, so receiving them as they give themselves to us without overlaying our psychic needs on their radiance.

We don’t look for messages from baseball or Roget’s Thesaurus, yet we freely engage with them as valuable aspects of our experience. Why impose such a burden on the stars in order to fit them into our scheme of things? Instead, we should do everything we can to live in harmony with the natural world, of which stars are one of the highest and most eminent expressions.

At this point I can hear my Quaker friend Ken Doyle stepping in to tell his joke about the three baseball umpires being interviewed by a reporter after the big game. How do they go about making such difficult and often controversial calls as their duties require them to?

The first umpire says, “I calls ‘em as I sees ‘em.” The second says, “I calls ‘em as they are.” The third umpire says, “They ain’t nothin’ till I calls ‘em.”

Each umpire does the job his own way in light of his personal belief, as each player plays, and each fan roots, everyone in the stadium giving as he or she is able to give, and receiving a like gift from everyone else.

Like the three umpires, artists, scientists, and theologians see with different eyes. As do the young, the mature, and the elderly. The Sumerians saw the stars their way, Plato saw them his way, Pseudo-Dionysius his way. It is unrealistic to sort through them in trying to decide which is right. They are all right and all wrong in some respects.

But under the circumstances, they each were true to their perceptions, judgments, actions, and life engagements—to their minds and personal experience. Our predecessors have borne witness to the stars as only they could at that time in that place. What more could we ask? It is now our turn to see them through our own eyes. That, now, is something to celebrate. As well as an obligation to right the wrongs of the past.

Tomorrow: photos of the heavens from our modern point of view, so ending this review of human engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and most recently, the stars.

Plato’s cosmology did not die with him but was developed and given new life by his followers such as Aristotle, who broadcast a sharpened image of the prime mover at the center of a universe of stars moving about him in a procession of celestial grandeur.

A Latin translation of the Timaeus found fertile ground among Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria in the third century of our current era, philosophers who subsequently joined Plato’s idealism to Jewish, Christian, and Roman thought, producing a grand image of the heavenly host spread before the mind’s eye for human guidance and edification.

Dionysius (Denys, Dennis) the Areopagite (Pseudo-Dionysius, second century CE, six centuries after Plato), a Neoplatonist with a theological bent, has left us an ornate depiction of the cosmos combined with a religious structure mirroring the heavens in the hierarchy of the Christian church here on Earth.

Dionysius depicted God’s retinue in heaven as divided into a celestial hierarchy of three tiers of heavenly minds placed there for our instruction and imitation here below (a scheme similar to that proposed by the Sumerians–see Post 474).

The purpose, then, of Hierarchy is the assimilation and union . . . with God having Him Leader of all religious science and operations, by looking unflinchingly to His most Divine comeliness, and copying. . . its own followers as Divine images, mirrors most luminous and without flaw, receptive of the primal light and the supremely Divine ray, and devoutly filled with the entrusted radiance, and . . . spreading this radiance ungrudgingly to those after it, in accordance with the supremely Divine regulations. . . .

All of which culminates in a grand summary that emphasizes the power that drives the stars in their harmonious orbits:

He, then, who mentions Hierarchy, denotes a certain altogether Holy Order, an image of the supremely Divine freshness, ministering the mysteries of its own illumination in hierarchical ranks, and sciences, and assimilated to its own proper Head as far as lawful. (From The Celestial Hierarchy, Caput III, Section II, 1899, http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/areopagite_13_heavenly_hierarchy.htm, Accessed Nov. 2, 2013.)

For Dionysius, Plato’s cosmos had become a divine holy order immediately accessible to those who would not only contemplate, but obey the directives of its radiance. A strongly prescriptive and mystical tone had crept into the story, comprehensible only to those instructed in decoding such language. But behind the language, the stars can still be seen to shine as clearly and brilliantly as they do overhead on a moonless night through dry air.

The Neoplatonists gave stellar radiance a finely divided and philosophical series of orderly distinctions which they bound into a philosophy centered on a single, luminous, but hidden central God surrounded by ever-larger ranks of heavenly powers, commonly regarded as angels or angelic messengers, the whole troupe of heavenly luminaries being divided into a concentric hierarchy of ever-finer gradations that were meaningful to the informed (indoctrinated) mind.

Dionysius carried his argument to finer levels than most of us care to consider, as if he got points for the number of distinctions he was able to make, creating a lot of confusion and overlap in the process under the guise of devotional scholarship.

His overall scheme, however, divided the celestial hierarchy into three levels, each level composed of three further sub-levels. Beginning tightly around the “Divine Hiddenness” (or prime mover) at the center, the celestial powers or angels are divided into,

  1. a highest, brightest, and hottest circle of Seraphim, Cherubim, and Thrones;
  2. a second circle farther out divided into somewhat lower, dimmer, cooler groupings of “Heavenly Minds,” Lordships, Powers, and Authorities, or alternatively, Dominations, Virtues, and Powers;
  3. with a lesser group of angels in the outer reaches of heaven, those concerned with human welfare and obedience, encompassing Principalities, Archangels, and Angels.

And complementing the celestial hierarchy in heaven, Pseudo-Dionysius depicted three Earthly triads intended to enforce the dictates of heaven upon the faithful below:

  1. symbolic sacraments—Baptism, Communion, and Consecration of the Holy Chrism;
  2. holy orders—Bishops, Presbyters, and Deacons;
  3. together with Monks in a state of perfection, Initiated Laity in a state of illumination, and Catechumens in a state of purification.

These Pseudo-Dionysian hierarchies were a late melding of Neoplatonic ideas with orthodox Christian theology to produce a mystical union of ideas and ritual acts as a blend of philosophical and theological strands to produce a wholly spiritual system of human belief rooted firmly in a personal faith, often embracing incompatible aspects, very much like the state Plato found himself in while penning the Timaeus as his last word on creation of the universe and its cosmology.

Shining through the mists of such doctrines, however, is the awe with which people in every age have gazed upon the stars. Our reward is not so much hearing what the stars would say to us if they could speak, but ideas which we unabashedly put in their mouths so that we take from them what we need to hear.

That is the essential point to be made regarding our perennial engagement with the stars: we make of them what we will, and call it the truth. And that is exactly how our minds work, finding little else but variations upon what we are looking for, be it confidence, comfort, succor, authority, charity, gentility, or whatever quality we need to balance the turmoil (chaos) of daily life. The stars are up there for our free and personal use. Living the difficult lives we do here below, we rely on their guidance as needed.

In my next two posts I will wrap up this section on our popular engagements with baseball, Roget’s Thesaurus, and the stars by seeing our take on the stars through Mediaeval times into the space age of today. Then in future posts I will shift to discussing where I hope to have taken readers on our wayfaring together over the past 150 or so posts, leading to the conclusions I will leave you with regarding my views of consciousness, mind, and engagement as draw from the personal journey I have made across the past eighty-two years.

The Greek philosopher Plato (c. 420s to late 340s BCE) serves as a crucial link between Mesopotamian cosmology and the ideas that guided the development of the Western World through the vehicle of Christianity. His cosmology may have been influenced by earlier Greek philosophers, as well as by ideas his step-father acquired as Athenian ambassador to Persia,

The Greek-speaking, Hebrew Neoplatonist thinkers in Alexandria in the new millennium got hold of a Latin translation of Plato’s dialogue, the Timaeus, and even though Plato didn’t have much direct influence on Western thought until the Renaissance, his and early Sumerian cosmology passed almost directly into Christian teachings via the Neoplatonists in the second century BCE. In the fourth century, Roman emperor Constantine took several preparatory steps short of adopting Christianity as the empire’s official religion, which eventually was declared by the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE, more than forty years after Constantine’s death, so assuring the influence of Plato’s thought on Christian theology.

Plato’s dialogue Timaeus is named after the narrator who presents what he has learned about cosmology from his lifetime of study. In that capacity, he is Plato’s persona, serving to distance the author from his own ideas, giving him space to fine-tune his thinking.

I find reading the Timaeus hard work in forcing me to think in terms that may have made sense to Plato and his followers, but are foreign to my own way of making sense of the world.

For Plato, ideas and ideal concepts are more vivid and perfect than their flawed realization in sensible objects and events, while I think of ideas and concepts themselves as abstractions derived from sensory impressions with the nonessential details taken away or suppressed.

Plato thinks the other way around—of sensory impressions as flawed realizations of rational ideas, which are perfect in their own nature. I keep getting twisted around in my head, trying to live in two incompatible worlds at once, two minds at once, two streams of thought at once.

The Timaeus deals with the physical realization of the visible world of stars, planets, and the Earth from an intelligible model representing the essence of rational thought as entertained from Plato’s point of view. Bringing such a world into existence requires a craftsman or creator, which in the Timaeus serves as creator of the universe working from a basic plan and raw materials, though the craftsman himself is a lesser being than a god.

The irony in this version of creation is that the craftsman’s plan is nothing other than a model of the universe derived from human observation, a model similar to an armillary sphere as might have graced the shelves of Plato’s academy in Athens. Plato here indulges in circular reasoning in having the model for the universe being nothing more-nor-less than a model derived from that same universe. This clearly is doublethink, for which Plato makes no apology.

Plato details the fashioning of the model in such a way to ensure that, if the stars and planets are to move in perfectly circular paths, they must possess reason within souls within mobile bodies, thereby distinguishing order from chaos (characterized by random, inharmonious motions). Those three abstract entities are the raw materials of Plato’s universe as ideas in his own mind relayed via his spokesman and narrator, Timaeus.

This self-serving use of philosophy to lend dignity, stature, and order to a product of the human imagination is, in my mind of today, a misuse of human thought, deceitfully substituting the thing-at-hand as a ruse for the very thing sought.

I find this sleight of mind occurring again and again in the history of the meanings projected by humans upon the stars. Essentially, people have made what they will of the stars, and called it the truth. And the stars are so remote from human understanding, we wouldn’t hear them complain even if they did.

In Plato’s thought, the prime mover of the stars was the idea of divine reason as contained in the soul as spread among the stars all moving with identical, circular motions. When in fact those bodies are not moving at all! It is we on Earth who are rotating about our own axis and perennially sailing around the sun with all the other planets.

This is harmony, reason, soul, and order attained by declaration or fiat, not insight, realization, understanding, or research. The early history of cosmology is rife with such prideful acts on the part of recognized authorities at the time. The perpetrators include Sumerian temple priests, Greek philosophers, Alexandrian and Christian philosophers, and theologians throughout the history of religion until today, even into the age of evolution and space exploration, when you’d think we would know better.

In that regard, we are not as wise as we claim to be. Rather, we are stubborn. Recalcitrant. Backward-looking. Stuck in the mud. Sidestepping the fault by citing faith is an abuse of our situated intelligence. We know better. But hide behind our erroneous beliefs nonetheless—largely because we are used to, and highly invested in, those beliefs.

Plato’s desire to attain a universe that conforms to his ideals of reason, order, harmony, truth, and eternal perfection has created nothing but misery for those unable to come anywhere near to attaining any such standard, which surely includes all of mortal humanity. Leaving nobody left over to bask in the radiance of pure idealism.

Plato’s view was that humanity’s proper realm is reason, not sensation per se, because reason is superior to sensation, as ideas in the mind are superior to the imperfect body, which merely houses the mind. In this sense, having the stars supposedly move in rational orbits overhead elevates them as paragons for people to live up to in their worldly strivings. The more like the stars we become in our orderly habits, the closer we approach the ideal of the divine, the rational, and the good.

That is, the more we become like ourselves because we are the ones who are moving in the first place (rotating about Earth’s axis, orbiting the sun), while the stars themselves remain where they always have been, fixed (as far as we can tell) in place. We start and end where we already are, and only cause trouble by making an arduous journey out of striving to get where we want to go by a long and unnecessary detour through the universe of misbegotten ideas in our heads.

Such are the dangers of philosophy. Thinking overmuch without watching where we’re going.

I am turning these hundreds of posts into a blog on the topic of consciousness precisely because I want to offer an alternative to the human mental attitude of past ages. An alternative to judging the world by our subjective experience rather than really grappling with what the world might be like if we stood aside and got out of the way of our own efforts and forgone conclusions, giving the stars themselves a chance to tell their side of the story of our longstanding, mutual engagement.

But I am getting ahead of myself before I tell the rest of the story of the meanings that humans have mapped onto the stars. Enough said for today.

It was in the minds of forgotten, long-ago thinkers that the notion of divinity was coded into a language of symbols and rituals to bring about the obedience of humanity to the will of lustrous gods in their cosmic heaven through the agency of priests in their Earthly temples.

I don’t know who developed the ideas that bound the Sumerians to the orderly pageant of heaven as a kind of living mythology, but that idea was a potent one that caught priestly attention because none other than the local priest himself would play the mediating role between the so-called prime mover of the stars and those who read the radiant, angelic signs from below.

Earth and its cosmos would share in the same divine (shining, godly) order if the two could somehow be linked at the nexus between them, so unifying state, church, and people under the figure of a prime mover (creator and supreme being) in his heaven.

Sumerians set up the linkage, and have left shards of the cuneiform star chart or plan of heaven they worked out based on three celestial regions watched over by three separate gods. Anu as the highest god resided in the central, circumpolar region; Enlil, king of gods, resided in the zodiac made up of houses of twelve lesser gods marking out the paths of sun, moon and planets; and Enki, father of divine wisdom, resided in the fringe area closest to the pillars that held the heavens above the Earth.

A trinity of gods was in the heavens from humans’ formative conception. When that idea resurfaced during Rome’s transition from pagan empire to a Christian presence in the following millennium, it demonstrated the persistence of cultural ideas (memes) that survive via the medium of human memory and belief.

In the interim, the Greeks in the person of Plato and other thinkers subsequently supplied the philosophical rationale of the world soul, which spread through the colossus of religious belief via Aristotle, Abraham, Paul of Tarsus, the Neoplatonists, unto Constantine, the Prophet Mohammad and, in the thirteenth-century, Thomas Aquinas, among many others, thus staunchly assuring the personification of a prime mover and ruler of the one-turning universe.

Now in the Space Age, with photographs of stellar and planetary creation from the ashes of supernovas being readily available, that earlier meme has now outrun its currency. The idea of binding-back to the harmony of the formerly convenient fiction of cosmic unity is now over-stretched as a footnote to the meandering history of situated intelligence at the core of the human mind.

This long-standing abuse of the stars was upheld by all monotheistic religions, even after Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) made it clear that our planet is not now and never has been the center of the solar system. This revelation (long known by some) scuttled the idea of the universe and world soul as conceived up until then. As a truth claim, that former vision was proved to be false.

Long before then the meme of a divine prime mover at the center of the cosmos had become a cultural fixture. And that fixture was deeply embedded in the foundation of the three major monotheistic religions. Not only that, but in the institution of religion itself.

The tenacity of that meme in surviving against all odds hardened it from an ideal belief into a rigid universal constant unscathed by the mass of undeniable evidence that it was untrue. It was a truth of faith, not fact.

That faith had expanded from a regional Sumerian revelation in the Land between the Rivers, to a prescriptive belief that built monuments in other lands, to a global faith destined to implode from the weight of its inconsistencies as yet one more chapter in the history of intelligent minds in black boxes attempting to solve the world puzzle.

I take this chain of events as demonstrating the persistence of ideas that, once entertained in a given mind, become generally accepted by expanding numbers of people to, like a ripple made by a pebble thrown into the ocean, eventually engulfing the Earth.

Never underestimate the power of an idea in a single mind to which subsequent generations are born, all doubt having evaporated in the meantime, so the new generation takes guidance from the ritualized wisdom of the ancients. Think of spacetime as subject to gravitational influence. Turning trees into toilet paper. Eating with chopsticks. Eating with silver. The World Wide Web. Driverless cars. The birth of Venus. Pinocchio. The Tooth Fairy. Evil. The infallibility of the Pope. Justice. Truth. Peace. Freedom. Eternal love.

Cultures are built from two-way engagements between human minds. Individuals get what they want; groups of people get what they need to sustain their belief in the mystery, majesty, and convenience of an idea that floated to the surface of a mind and spread far and wide in general practice as if by law.

434. Cultural Inertia

February 16, 2015

We are born to cultures centered on worship and religion as fixtures of daily life. When I was growing up in Hamilton, New York, in the 1930s, buildings with spires were landmarks in my young eyes, conspicuous curiosities I passed in my roaming about town, but had little to do with. What is it about churches-mosques-synagogues-temples that they should occupy such prominent positions in our lives?

In one form or another, they’ve been around a long time. Recent excavations in Göbekli Tepe in Turkey have uncovered impressive sanctuaries 11,600 years old. On the estuary of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Sumerians built ziggurats in 3,200 BCE where priests worshipped gods in their starry heavens. A big part of Sumerian belief focused on the correspondence between the sun’s position in the zodiac and the seasonal labors of people on Earth.

During grape harvesting and pressing, for example, the same constellations of stars were visible overhead each year. That fact was summed in the religious teaching, “On Earth as it is in heaven.” The prime-mover God was sending us signs to make sure we coordinated our practices with his teachings. The priestly class emerged as mediators between the will of God above and dutiful humanity below.

About the same time, the first stage of what we call Stonehenge was erected on Salisbury Plain. During their Babylonian captivity, ancient Hebrews came across what they called the Tower of Babel, a religious structure built by a culture whose speech they found incomprehensible.

In his dialogue the Timaeus, Plato mused about the origin of religion in the seemingly orderly, harmonious, and rational motions of the stars about the celestial pole. Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle, passed his mentor’s teachings on to the Middle Ages. Latin translation of part of the Timaeus reached Neoplatonist philosophers in Alexandria, who relayed a good part of Plato’s thinking into the new religion, Christianity, given the recognition and blessing of Constantine, last Roman Emperor.

From the beginning, Christianity’s central theme was the death and rebirth of Jesus, echoing the ancient belief in the miracle of planting a seed in the ground and its sprouting three days later. Jesus was one among a number of vegetation gods (Attis, Adonis, Tammuz, Dumuzi, Osiris) who, as exemplary humans or demigods, personified the same cyclical fate that crops do in their annual plantings (death) and sproutings (rebirth).

Chartres Cathedral, built in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, emphasized not only the link between zodiacal constellations in the sky and the labors of humanity on Earth, but, too, the symbolic cycle of death and rebirth in its zodiacal stained-glass window and clock that still tracks the seasons as gauged by the stars overhead. The cathedral stands as a monument to those longstanding ancient traditions.

Ptolemy in the second century had pictured the motions of the stars as centered on the Earth, and that notion persisted for fourteen hundred years until Copernicus in the sixteenth century discovered Earth to be a planet orbiting around the sun. The stars, it seems, do not move; it is our home planet that is responsible for their orderly march day-by-day, year-after-year through the heavens. Tycho, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton refined the Copernican idea, fixing it in human understanding of the universe.

As late as the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas stated: Nothing can move itself; there must be a first mover. The first mover is called God. That is a restatement of Plato’s belief as expressed in the Timaeus. But it is not the stars that move, it is Earth revolving about its axis that makes the stars only seem to move. As it is Earth’s orbiting about the sun that powers the progression of zodiacal constellations repeatedly through the seasons of the year.

But despite the enlightened cosmology put forward during the European renaissance in a new understanding that put Earth as a minor planet orbiting a typical sun in the outer reaches of the Milky Way galaxy, western religious culture did not update its primitive belief in the orderly and rational motions of a universe for which only a God as prime mover was deemed responsible.

Religion, which means binding (Latin, re-ligare) humanity to the apparent motion of the stars at the will of a prime mover, was too invested in its traditional ideas to change, so kept on as before, exposing its asserted beliefs as a matter of unsupported faith, so reducing church doctrine to the level of mythology.

Then Charles Darwin came along and provided compendious evidence that humans are descended from an ancient lineage of animal life, making it impossible to believe that we were created by God in his image. Without ceremony, Adam and Eve in their happy garden became merely a myth. Yet when I was born, all those steeple houses stood on the main streets of Hamilton, pointing skyward, just as the columns at Göbekli Tepe did 11,600 years ago in the mountains that fed melting snow into the waters of the Tigris and Euphrates.

Strange business. My culture today sends me mixed and incompatible messages about the universe. Science says one thing based on corroborated evidence; the church says something entirely other on the basis of its longstanding faith. A faith that still erects spires pointing to the heavens.

How am I to engage such a culture so divided between passionate faith and demonstrable evidence? That’s easy. Evidence trumps faith every time. I go with the facts supporting our modern cosmology (just think of the evidence provided by the Hubble Space Telescope alone) over Plato’s ideals of order, harmony, and reason—which gave us a picture of the universe as he wished it were, not as we now know it to be.

Much of the turmoil in the world today stems from armed conflicts between different systems of faith. We keep lugging past ideas around with us as if they were as relevant to our time on Earth as they were 1,800 years ago, 2,700 years ago, or even 11,600 years ago. Once cultural memes get planted, they go on forever and never die off. We won’t let them die off. Out of sentiment, we are dedicated to preserving every thought anybody ever had, no matter how feeble or erroneous.

Consciousness is the medium that preserves those outdated ideas. We resurrect them because we somehow find them comforting as reminders of childhood. So our intelligence is split between faith and fact, tradition and the latest breakthrough. And for some reason we cannot tell the difference. Between what is relevant to our lives and what is superfluous. We know better yet seem not to know better at the same time. This is the conundrum at the core of our everyday culture. Due to trusting memory more than perception, the familiar past more than the now.

That was the conundrum I experienced growing up as a kid, and still find within me even though I have gained so much vital experience between then and now. Humanity suffers from cultural inertia in not being able to let go of outdated ideas. That is, from couching those ancient ideas as honored faiths and mythologies which, in all innocence, keep us chained to our primal ignorance and mistaken beliefs.

Even the word “universe” itself is a misnomer because it means one-turning, as a hidden reference to the impossible-to-believe-in prime mover behind what we used to think of as the motion of the heavens, but now understand as a reflection of the motions of our home planet.

So much to wrap our minds around, so little time. How do we know what to take off the shelf of our culture, and what to shun like the plague?

Discrimination is the secret, not personal preference, not tradition, not habit. Exercising the gifts we are born with in reaching out to the universe around us, not accepting it on anyone’s terms but our own. Seeing with our own eyes. But that is hard work. Requiring us to be on the forefront of our own minds at all times, defining the leading edge of our human understanding as we go.

That, I think, is the responsibility we owe to our ancestors, to transcend their faulty cultural beliefs by advancing with the experiences available to us that they never knew. That is the essence of engagement. Keeping up with what’s happening around us in our own times. Not living in the past, but shifting with every new day into the now. Going beyond old notions and ideas. Faith is a lazy way of avoiding the hard work being asked of us as we evolve with the life around us. Keeping up with the times. Looking to the future, not the past.

The culture we are born to is the challenge we must accept in growing into our new selves every day. We must make our efforts part of that culture, and so move it ahead with us. The risk if we don’t is to become imprisoned by the past. Is that why we’re here, to be stuck in the mire of ancient ideas?

I will conclude this section on cultural engagements with twelve examples of my personal cultural engagements divided among my next four posts.