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.

 

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.