Monday, April 6, 2015

THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN and the Rise of Modern Fundamentalisms

So close - the infinitesimal and the infinite.
But suddenly, I knew they were really
the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the
unbelievably vast eventually meet - like the closing of a gigantic circle.
 I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens.
The universe, worlds beyond number,
God's silver tapestry spread across the night.
And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite.
I had thought in terms of man's own limited dimension. […]
That existence begins and ends in man's conception, not nature's.
And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing.
My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance.
All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something.
And then I meant something, too.
 Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too.
To God, there is no zero. I still exist!
— Scott Carey, The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957)

         For a while there — let's say 1400-1650 C.E. — educated folk could take a wide view of the saying of Protagoras that (drumroll here), "Man is the measure of all things," or as a character of E. M. Forster's puts it, "Man is the measure." Since then it's been pretty much downhill and rolling out of center stage for "Man."

         First off, the meaning of "Man" got complicated with the "voyages of discovery" that helped put European White men at the center of things geopolitically, in positions of power, but "things" just in terms of human politics got much bigger much faster.
         Educated folk had known since the ancient Greeks that the Earth was a large ball, but they came to learn just how large a ball it is, both physically and socially. "It's a small world / After all" the Disney song may tell us with maddening persistence, but our planet isn't small on a human scale. The ball of Earth was a whole lot bigger than, famously, Christopher Columbus thought and larger still in terms of its peoples. Back when civilization was getting started, kings could proclaim themselves Lords of the Universe when they controlled territories the size of New Jersey, and even Alexander the Great could see himself at times as a world conqueror. But not even Genghis Khan and his successors, however much of the landmass of Eurasia they conquered, could see themselves as conquering the world.

         Just as "European Man" set himself on the road to being top dog, he started to learn just how big the kennel was.

         And how diverse.

         If your goal was "One God, One Land, One Culture, One King," well good luck, to that! The more European Man came to control more and more peoples, the more he came to learn — if damnably slowly — that his culture was but one among many. The Prime Meridian may've been placed at Greenwich, England, UK, but another 359 of those meridians went around the Earth. The sun may've never set on the British Empire, and it was commonly the attitude that "The wogs begin at Calais," and that the "wogs" of the Earth — like Barbarians to the snootier ancient Greeks — really didn't count. But there were a hell of a lot of them thar "wogs," and as time moved on from the Medieval through the Early Modern into the modern, a lot of those "wogs" got their freedom and the vote, and started to count — and then doubled in number when women were added in. So Britain, say, could've been great, but that greatness had to be shared among a lot of other Brits, and the British may've been less top dog in a small pack as at the top of the heap, and the heap one more like ants or termites.

         If scarcity value is part of value, "Man" as an individual was getting diminished just by discovery of our numbers — and that's over seven billion as I write — and an individual's being the wonder of a whole society diminished in value against the large number of societies, many of whom have never heard of you and might not think much of your accomplishments if they had. (Like, Alexander the Great isn't so great by the standards of the Amish, and Amish kids are unlikely to have seen movies about him).

         "Man" as species fared little better as Earth moved out of the center of the cosmos and the cosmos kept increasing in size.

         Now, a Medieval astronomer could wow an audience with the size of the Ptolemaic universe, and I had a teacher who had a lot of fun with a spiel from the time on how an anvil dropped from the Sphere of the Fixed Stars would take nine days — nine full days! — to fall to the Earth. It was a big world, after all, but Earth was still the center.

         And then came Copernicus and Galileo and evidence for a sun-centered cosmos and hints that there might be reason to believe one or two of the wilder bits of Renaissance mystic speculation that had not only the Earth not at the center of the universe but suggested a universe with no center and no end. Or at least the possibility of a "plurality of worlds": i.e., a number of planets beyond the known Solar system, some of which might have life, even intelligent life, making Homo sapiens, the "Wise Man" just one intelligence among many.

         Meanwhile, though, back on Earth, even as the cosmos was expanding in volume, "Man's" world was expanding in time.

         In the 19th century, truly ancient languages were deciphered and in a sense human history doubled: Egypt was an ancient kingdom when the Hebrews arrived, and even older were Sumer and Akkad and the civilization that could produce an epic like Gilgamesh ca. 2100 BCE. If a human person was to be a historical big shot, there was now even more competition, plus a reassertion of the old question of Ubi sunt, "Where are they now." You could be a world-historical character indeed, but so was Ramses II, perhaps best known, to the few who know the name, as the Ozymandias ironically celebrated by Percy Bysshe Shelley. 

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies[…].
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,  
The lone and level sands stretch far away.  (1818) 
         So, Hey, Big Man: If you want to get "world-historical" you have to compete with Ramses the Great among a whole lot of others. Chances are you'll lose, and even if you win at that game: "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Eventually, even the pyramids will wear down. Fame is fleeting, and nothing human-made will last very long, let alone "forever."

         And the human species …? That was the bigger blow during the 19th century, reverberating down to our day far more than the extension of history through early scientific archeology and philology (ruins and word studies).

         During the 19th century scientists got an inkling of, and then strong confidence in, the great age of Earth, and, along with confidence, some idea of the large form of the history of life on our planet and, eventually, where Homo sap. fits in.
         It's not a reassuring picture. And wasn't even before Alfred Wallace (1858) and Charles Darwin on evolution (Origin of Species 1859).
         Finding all those fossils of extinct species was itself a major downer.

Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life [* * *]. 
‘So careful of the type?’ but no.From scarped cliff and quarried stone
She cries, ‘A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go.‘Thou makest thine appeal to me:
I bring to life, I bring to death [...] The spirit does but mean the breath[...].
And he, shall he, Man, her last work, who seem’d so fair,Such splendid purpose in his eyes,[...] Who trusted God was love indeedAnd love Creation’s final law–Tho’ Nature, red in tooth and clawWith ravine, shriek’d against his creed– [...]  [Shall he] Be blown about the desert dust,Or seal’d within the iron hills?
                             [i.e., as just one more extinct species]
                                   — "In Memoriam A. H. H.," by Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1849 [LV-LVI])

Tennyson's question is apt: If all those species are extinct, will Man — God's and/or Nature's "last work" of creation — also go? Well, not if we're special, not if in us humans the animating "(life)breath" (ruach, anima, spiritus) is spirit in the sense of immortal soul, separable from the body and immortal: immortal in individuals and thereby, in a sense, the essence of an immortal species. But if Homo sapiens is just a recent work of Nature, evolved by variation and natural selection from precursors who in turn had evolved; if we're only the top of a tree of life, or just another twig on the a biological bush? Well, then we get to the allusion in Tennyson's "The spirit does but mean the breath," that is, we get to some hard words from Koheleth, the Preacher, "Ecclesiastes," words I like to quote so often because other religious folk quote them so rarely. So as the Bible saith, in the words of the Preacher: "So I decided, as regards men, to dissociate them [from] the divine beings and to face the fact that they are beasts. For […] the fate of man and the fate of beast [are] one and the same fate: as the one dies so dies the other, and both have the same lifebreath; man has no superiority over beast, since both amount to nothing. Both go to the same place; both came from dust and both return to dust. Who knows if a man's lifebreath does rise upward and if a beast's breath does sink down into the earth?" (Tanakh 1985; cf. KJV 2000: 3.18-21)

         In the 20th and 21st centuries we can say that humankind evolved on a small planet orbiting an unremarkable star on in one arm of an unremarkable galaxy of perhaps 400 billion stars in an observable universe of perhaps 170 billion galaxies or more. And there may be much more to the universe than we have yet observed or perhaps can observe, and there may be more than one universe. Indeed, there may be a "plurality of worlds" in the sense of a multiverse. And how many worlds to a plurality of worlds, universes to a multiverse? If it is a multiverse and not the uni- sort, there's no reason in simple logic to put a limit on "multi," and we'd need to consider the possibility — and some physicists believe in the actuality — of an infinite number of universes.

         And the value of a man or Man or a woman or humankind in such a multiverse? Well, a realistic view might be whatever the value we put on the best of beasts, "the paragon of animals" in Hamlet's nice phrase — whatever value we put on the greatest achievement of the material world evolved over time, placed as a numerator over some denominator that is minimally humungous, up to infinity.
         I value nonhuman animals more than Koheleth did, but, in our universe, the arithmetic means "both" — both human animals and nonhuman animals "amount to nothing."

         So we are invited to "face the fact" of The Incredibly Shrinking Us, look into the Abyss of the Real, and despair.

         Except we don't. We just don't often face such facts. Most of us, most of the time (including astrophysicists and philosophers) just ignore the vastness of the Real and stick to our petty little lives on a human scale: as we evolved to do and as we usually should. Sometimes, though ….

         Well, here I will tell an insensitive but useful joke.

         A kid has grown to be twelve, and his parents think he's autistic or otherwise neurologically or mentally impaired because he's never said a word. Doctor after doctor has failed to find anything pathological in the kid's brain or the rest of his body, but he says nothing, nada — bubkis! Then, one day, at breakfast, he looks up from his oatmeal and says, "This oatmeal sucks." And here you throw in as much as you like of parental amazement that the kid's finally communicated and you get to their demand for an explanation for the silence, and the punch line from the kid: "Well, up to now, everything's been okay."

         Clich├ęs on the value of suffering are mostly cruel bullshit, but this much is true: in times of disruption, when social networks come apart and people find themselves in pain — though sometimes pain from just boredom — in some sense increasing numbers of people find themselves in pain and unfulfilled and alone, then they sometimes (some of them) start questioning and get an inchoate intimation of that abyss.

         And at times like that, times such as our own, you get one answer to that pain in "Fideism" — choosing faith over reason — various fundamentalisms, and, with a small but significant minority, fanaticism.

         Fideism and fanaticism have one actively denying anything that goes against the Faith — any Faith — and are highly effective ways to give one's life direction and a sense of meaning. After their fashion, fanatics and the unquestioning faithful are highly comfortable in the universe. They tend, however, especially the fanatics, to make the human-scale universe very uncomfortable for others.

         Alternatively, one could accept one form or other of secular humanism, which in most contexts I do, but secular humanism requires starting with the idea that human life is somehow special and valuable, and it should be clear by now that believing that is a statement of faith and a leap into not only the Absurd but the "counter-factual."
         Other, and better answers — more intellectually respectable answers, safer-for-the-world answers —include a healthy Existentialism ("Human life begins on the far side of despair") or a calm spirituality or restrained religious faith.

         With atheistic Existentialism one can "face the fact that" we humans "are beasts," if very special kinds of beasts in our neighborhood of the galaxy, and then get on with life — insisting that our being a special kind of beast includes a practical requirement for law and ethics of postulating that creatures with consciousness, starting with humans, have value in themselves and are not to be merely used, like insensate (unconscious, unfeeling, inorganic) things.

         With calm spirituality and some variety of mysticism, one can groove on nonBeing; with a calm and restrained religious faith, one can say with Scott Carey, "To God, there is no zero."

         What is a bad idea, though, is the symbiotic complement of the various religious Fundamentalism: i.e., a very bad idea is the militant atheism that insists on a scientific view of the universe and then refuses to deal with the philosophical implications of a rigorous — in a broad sense of the word "materialism" — materialism.

         You want a really rigorous materialism? Well, the Marquis de Sade is far out of date in his science and was far, far out of his mind — psychopathic serial killer and all — but he was strong on intellectual daring and pushing an idea to its conclusions. "What we call the end of the living animal," Sade notes in a very long philosophic pause from a pornographic novel, what we call death and killing of a human or other animal (or plant) is not "a true finis" — end, finish — "but a simple transformation, a transmutation of matter, what every modern philosopher acknowledges as one of Nature's fundamental laws" ("Manners" section of "Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become [Real] Republicans" 1795). Modernizing the argument: Kill someone, bury the corpse, let it rot, dig it up, and weigh it, and the biomass of the human remains, putrefactive bacteria, maggots and such will show no significant loss.

         If you feel that a living human being is superior to a mass of putrefactive bacteria (and I certainly hope you do), how is that feeling any more than the product of our "small human vanities," species chauvinism, and "stupid notions of pride"?

         I don't think 10th grade science teachers or Neil deGrasse Tyson ought to read aloud excerpts from de Sade's Philosophy in the Bedroom when discussing cosmology, but in extolling the glories of the vast universe of the scientific world-view, they should show sympathy for those who resist a totally secular understanding of the human condition. Many people wish to look at the universe and multiverse and say, "I still exist!" and not have to add too emphatically, "If only in a trivial and vanishingly small way."

ADDENDUM, 1 Jan. 2018: Tyson does get into human smallness, but in a cheerful, upbeat way <>.


  1. There should be a thousand comments here, and at least as many compliments. This is such a sincere probe into existence and the human condition that it should be engraved in granite and placed alongside Lincoln's memorial in DC...or maybe next to Ozymandius' sneakers out there on the quietly whispering desert sands. Thank you, Richard!

  2. An interesting and well constructed set of observations interwoven with emotional pictures. I come away pleased I took the time to read this. Thank you, sir.

  3. I was (am) totally pleased to re-read this great essay and to see as well that the great JR had paused for reflection here before his passing.