Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Culture and Cosmos I: Out of the Big Black Dark

One by one and in their billions they move through the world along recurring paths they are powerless to change. The span and influence of their lives is decided entirely by their birth; and those lives are of no meaning, nor in truth of any importance save to that which immediately surrounds them, for each is separated from the other by a vast and unbridgeable gulf, one which - but for the most tenuous of connections - they are able to cross only with their deaths. Their common center is a yawning bottomless maw, whose inner workings are impenetrable yet whose indomitably fierce appetite is undeniable, for it is that hunger around which all else takes shape. As to the shape that is taken, it's origin is ineffable: impossibly distant, beyond any hope of observation even in theory, an invisible hand that reaches down from everywhere to ensure everything is kept in its place. Meanwhile everything is flying apart, on an inevitable slide into emptiness, dissolution, and a total isolation where in the end there is nothing left but that endless appetite, and that distant invisible hand.

What is it we're talking of, here? Is it our society? Well of course it is. It has an economy driven by rampant consumerism, while its communities are dissolved by a misunderstood notion of individualism that has left the individual alone before the State and the Market. Whatever appearances may be, everyone knows that all real power is in the hands of the financial interests, for there is no argument with their massive concentrations of wealth, nor with the insatiable greed at the heart of those concentrations. At the same time there is the shadow government, permeating the institutions that give society form, ensuring that a certain script is followed as events unfold. Anyone who denies that these influences have become the dominant ones in our culture simply isn't paying attention.

But it's not just society, for the description above could as easily be the cosmos as it is today described to us.

Stars form when a certain quantity of gas collapses under its own weight. However large they happen to be when they are born in their nebulae predetermines every characteristic of their lives, from how brightly they shine to how long they live: those lives will be long and dull or short and glorious but either way, one day, they will end in an entirely predictable fashion.

Some will fade to embers and some will explode, showering the cosmos with the fruits of their death in the form of newly created heavy elements and a certain amount of their energy. Those that explode will then become either neutron stars or black holes: immortal, invisible, and indomitable concentrations of gravitational potential.

Most are small and of relatively little importance, but at the center of every galaxy lies a supermassive black hole, its gravity the center around which every star in the galaxy revolves. Surrounding every galaxy, meanwhile, its influence in fact dominating every large structure in the universe, is dark matter: an invisible, undetectable substance that takes on nebulous shapes for unknown reasons but by whose gravity the behaviour of everything in the cosmos is arranged.

For some time now we have been told that the universe started with a Big Bang, an event so full of infinities that it is impossible, even in principle, to make any meaningful probe beyond it. Ever since then the universe has been expanding, every point in space rushing away from ever other point according to a strange metric whereby those points that are furthest away recede from one another the fastest. More recently we've been told that the future of the universe is at the mercy of a mysterious new dark energy, under whose influence everything shall (some tens or hundreds of billions of years hence) fly apart so far and fast that atoms shall be separated by light years and nothing will remain save black holes and their invisible, cold halos of dark matter.

It's no surprise that dark energy has become all the rage, cosmologically speaking. More or less coinciding with it's 'discovery', the world began its inexorable slide into the thicket of interlocking existential crises that now confront it and indeed seem to define what we've seen so far of the 21st century. Which came first is up for debate but if you take 9/11 as a rough signpost of a shift in the collective panic factor, it's distinctly interesting to note that dark energy seems to have first cropped up just a few years beforehand, in the late 90s.

That's a joke, by the way.

It's no accident that there are such striking metaphorical similarities between our cosmology and our culture. The story we tell about the world, after all, is fundamentally a story about us. This is the case in any culture you care to examine. Whatever their particular cosmological mythos happens to be, it is both a reflection of that culture's inherent nature, and simultaneously a justification of that nature. Whether or not the cosmology is true (and it never is), the archetypes expressed within the story are every bit as real, at the level of the cultural imagination, as anything else. This is as much the case for Modern Western Techno-Corporatocratic Materialist civilization as it has been for every other civilization in history.

Of course, it's not so explicit now as it has been in the past. The Catholic Church adopted the Ptolemaic geocentric cosmology early on for the precise reason that it provided an additional leg of support for both the papacy and the system of hereditary feudal kingship, themselves also both mutually reinforcing: the divine perfection of the heavenly crystal spheres reflected both the temporal order of the monarchy and the divine rule of the papal throne. Cosmos, kingdom and Church formed an ideological Holy Trinity that stood unchallenged for a thousand years.

Until, at a certain point, came a small group whose members possessed the independence of mind, industriousness of spirit, education and means to pursue a different idea: that it was in fact the Sun that was the common center of the solar system's planets. They were ignored, ridiculed, and persecuted without mercy by the Church, for the Vatican well understood the danger posed by a competing cosmology, yet the renegades held fast in the face of the loss of academic sinecure, arrest, and even torture, and as evidence accumulated it grew ever harder for educated people to deny the heliocentric solar system. That the Church took centuries to admit its mistake, that intermediary models were put forward in which the Sun for some reason still orbited the Earth even as all other bodies orbitted the Sun, that court astronomers continued to calculate orbits with Ptolemaic epicycles until the 19th century ... all of this was immaterial to the inevitable and total triumph of those scientists who made truth rather than sociopolitical expediency the star by which they navigated.

The changes wrought to the culture's cosmology have echoed through every aspect of the culture itself. The authority of the Church in temporal matters was ultimately shattered; the primacy of kings, steadily diminished. With the heavens liberated from the impenetrable crystalline spheres, the story of the world from the Renaissance on through the Enlightenment and into the present became one of heady freedom, of expanding possibility as man ascended through history.

This triumph of science over superstition was achieved through evidence: the theories of the nascent astronomers more accurately described the observations than those taught by the Church philosophers. With this crucial battle won all else followed. Because of this, the modern heirs of Copernicus, Galileo and Kepler adjudge that their own theories must be if not true exactly, the closest we have yet come to it, for after all has not the whole point of scientific astronomy been to describe the cosmos as accurately as possible, without consideration for political interests?

And yet now, as at every other time in history, with every culture that has ever been, there is a striking metaphorical similarity between the entities that populate our heavens and the institutions that rule our lives.

It is not surprising that this is the case. Given the wider societal context, especially the power structure on which astronomers inevitably depend for financial support, no other situation is possible. The influence a cosmology exerts over the cultural mind has not been forgotten by the elites. As ever it is desirable to those who fancy they own the world that the cosmology justify their order, thus they will fund whichever cosmology best accomplishes this aim and nothing else. In this there is nothing new or different, save perhaps the subtlety with which the manipulation is performed.

As for the academic mainstream of scientists, perhaps some have learned this and keep their own council, and maybe others have cynically sold out and gotten in on the gag (as we've all seen most recently in the climategate scandal). In all likelihood most are simply hypnotized by the Big Bang and its credulity-stretching cast of shadowy characters for the simple reason that, at a deep level, they sense the resonance between the theory and the human world out of which it has arisen.

That world has lately been characterized by materialism, greed and deceit on every scale from the personal to the global. It is a world divided against itself, and the consequences grow more apparent with every day's headlines. It is not a world that can last, nor was it meant to. As above, so below: what once seemed solid and dependable is becoming as tenuous as smoke. Just as the cosmologist's dark energy is pushing the universe apart at an ever-accelerating pace, so it seems that some mysterious force has taken hold of every institution that underpins society, dissolving its structure, flinging what remains into the outer darkness and leaving behind only the concentrated power of finance and the fist of the security state.

It is ever more obvious that something new is required: our society must be recreated, based on new assumptions about the world, or perhaps rather an updated understanding of the underpinnings of very old assumptions. There are many who understand this, who know exactly which directions society must change in and from which axiomatic truths those changes must proceed. Words like consciousness, connection and oneness are ringing through the zeitgeist. Yet as long as the cosmology remains unchanged, these new cultural narratives will remain uncomfortably shoehorned within a wider theoretical meta-context that could not be more incompatible. The result will be that every attempt to spread the new ways, to teach the new truths, and to form the new institutions will meet an almost invisible but pervasive resistance from the very depths of the cultural imagination.

Conversely, if those assumptions about how and why the universe is can be changed - not on a whim, not on a fancy but with a scientific theory more compelling than the alternative - that subtle resistance can be removed, even reversed.

That's what the electric universe theory is all about.