The New Picture of the World 1
Earth’s Twilight — Chapter 05.1
Chaos is back
In our current language, Nature, Universe, Cosmos are commonly accepted synonyms to express the notion of a universal Order that stands before us,
and that resolves in its inextinguishable intelligibility the contradictions of our empirical experience. From a secular perspective, they refer to that absolute Mind the religious milieu would call God : Deus sive Natura. We are dealing with, as I’ll try to explain in a following chapter, a god fabricated by mankind out of necessity.
“Primos timor fecit deos”, it was fear to devise the first gods,
once stated a very modern Lucretius. As soon as conscience extended its arch upon the intricate web of physical and psychic fluxes that formed the fabric of the prehuman world, fear was born. In becoming aware of its identity, humanity perceived its extraneity and its fragility within an obscure and hostile environment. And got frightened. It’s a trauma, that of fear, that we keep inheriting from the species and that tends to reemerge each time the symbolic casing inside which we confined chaos rips apart, leaving us facing once again the primordial dismay. Deep down, each of us is still the ‘lost gypsy’ that generation after generation has tried to tame chaos by inscribing it in a supreme Order, of whom the myths and the rituals would be the keys to lock and contain the adverse forces.
And thus the physical environment lost its dreadful appearance and became the benevolent nature generating life; the random wandering of the celestial bodies found its converging center (versus-unum), and became universe. The chaos as uncontrollable chasm of events, as irrational abyss in which all reality is dissolved, became cosmos, order. Mankind exorcised in this manner a world it perceived as an enemy and stipulated with it an alliance, that before the detachment between East and West, would be founded on the mystical sentiment of a common justice that regulated both the human and the material affairs. At the dawn of that detachment, the ‘divine’ Empedocles from Agrigento wrote his Purifications, where Chaos is assumed and resolved within the same moral law in which humanity recognized from the very beginnings the dialectic between its misery and its dignity, the conflict between love and hate, between Fellowship and Struggle.
“There is a great quote of Destiny, an old decree of the gods, everlasting, sanctioned with the amplest oaths: if anyone among the demons (souls) that were granted with age-long life stains its limbs with murderous crimes while following the Struggle, or pronounces false testimony, or shall wander thrice ten thousand weary years far from the blessed, altering through that time the troublous paths of life that generate all kinds of mortal creatures, by then the Air will hunt them onward to the Sea; and the Sea will spit them on the dusty Land; and the Earth will toss them back to the whirling Ether: each element will repel them to the next, and everyone will hate them. I too am one of them, fugitive from heavens and vagabond, since I have joined the raving Strife. And indeed I was once already boy and girl, thicket and bird, and mute fish in the waves”.
Empedocles’ verses cast flashes of obscure wisdom upon our by-standing concerns, us, victims of a ‘justice’ that is taking advantage of the same natural elements violated by our “raving strife”. And in fact we are at the end of the long trajectory in which cosmos had triumphed over chaos, started right back in the scientific revolution of pre-socratic Greece.
No other concept expresses as well as that of cosmos the originality of Western culture along its whole historical curve.
This idea was born in the setting of the Greek polis, as a projection of the experience of the citizen within the articulated organization of its social life. By assuming himself, following Protagoras’ formula, as ‘measure of all things, those that are insofar they are, and those that aren’t insofar they are not’, the Greek citizen used to explain the hierarchy of its social classes by attributing them to rigorous requirements of reason.
It was according to nature, and thus according to reason, if the slave was a slave and the woman was a ‘failed man’.
The occult chaos of passions that would determine the rise and arrangement of the city was concealed and legitimated by a mental transfer of its effects inside the rational picture of the necessities of reason. In the same way the natural environment, once irrational, turned into an ordered system. This conformity, argumented Plato, was due to the ‘congeniality’ between humanity and nature, generated by the same matrix according to a common design, that becomes aware of itself in the mind of the scientist. Deus mathematizat: Gods is the great mathematician.
If, contrary to the West, the Eastern world was never able to reduce to rational order the chaos of things, it’s because of the heavy burden of an anti-will that denied the validity of the Promethean drive to domination.
“Act without personal desire, manage without intentional concern, there is no need to look outside the window in order to know the world”,
we read in the Tao-Te-Ching. The Greek option was instead to get outside and try to colonize the world.
Modernity was the last landfall of that dream. “As for the ancient Greeks, also for the Europeans of the 17th century the cosmos (‘order of nature’) could be compared to the order in the sky, the background stage for the human drama… Today we cannot any longer consider nature to be stable, as the ancients or Newton”. The dream of the ‘cosmopolis’ is wearing out, or better it’s giving itself fully up to the human responsibility, without any exemplar support of a given natural order. The pilings built by reason for mankind to reach up to the skies with domestic confidence are cracking: the dark waters running underneath are mounting and the hidden world, not at all impressed by the planimetries we had laid upon its surface, is tearing them apart with tremendous ease.
The new cosmos we have to get used to “has lost its foundations: after losing God, it lost the perfect Order and now, in its physical infrastructures, has lost even the substantiality of matter. This Cosmos was born from the inconceivable, and is set on the unfathomable. It’s One and it’s fragmented. It destroys itself by re-generating, and the other way around. It carries aporetically in itself the contradictory terms of determination and indetermination, of difference and uniformity, of real and unreal. The more we try to explain it, the more we are blinded by the inscrutability of its enigma”.
And therefore Chaos, ancestor of everything, is back, without completely erasing, it’s true, the heroic effort of our sciences, but narrowing it down as it were, using Heraclitus’ image, a child’s game on the seaside.
The cosmic nook
The ancient image of a child playing on the beach gives us a good picture of the true relevance of humanity within the universe, as the recent astrophysical research has shown.
“We live in a galaxy that is about one hundred thousand light-years across and is slowly rotating; the stars in its spiral arms orbit around its center about once every several hundred million years. Our sun is just an ordinary, average-sized, yellow star, near the inner edge of one of the spiral arms”.
What is left of the grand history of mankind, when we place it on this kind of space-time background? This stage, so as described by the scientists, doesn’t allow any finalist vision or any rational explanation since the universe (we’d better say multi-verse) cannot be explained by any theory that isn’t in turn partial, temporary, subject to falsification. It’s rather, at once, infinite and finite, dynamic and static, since standing on the critical edge between its expansive drives and a gravitational collapse on itself. The two forces balance each another but the expansive one requires a constant level of energy consumption, and it could come a point when the available energy will become insufficient and all matter will be swallowed back by anti-matter, the pure absence of space and time.
The Sun has probably enough combustible reserves to fuel its nuclear reactions for another 5 billion years, but it’s fate is already written, as for the other stars: when the hydrogen supply gets below a critical point, either it will cool down to a dull lifeless dwarf or it will collapse into a black hole.
Only in the recent decades were definitely proven wrong all previous cosmologies, from Aristotle to Einstein, which unanimously believed the universe to be stationary. It was Edwin Hubble, with the discovery of the inflationary universe in 1929, to pave the way to a demolition of the same concept of cosmos. The cosmic ‘nook’ in which humanity finds itself relegated is the observation point from which we started the research on the origins of things, and it’s understandable that it started on the premises of an assumed centrality of the observer. But finalism is really only an anthropomorphic residual. The fact that life’s phenomenon evolved right in this particular nook is an event we cannot attribute to any deterministic predictability, but rather, if anything, to the probabilistic one of quantum physics. Life emerged in this planet, in this solar system, because here it found the suitable conditions for its realization, but the evolution from those original conditions onto plant, animal and now human life, was only a contingent occurrence. We have appeared in a model of universe that could be coexisting with other models, each with a different set of physical and natural laws.
“It’s a bit like – explains Hawking – the well known horde of monkeys hammering away on typewriters: most of what they write will be garbage, but very occasionally by pure chance they will type out one of Shakespeare’s sonnets.
Similarly, in the case of the universe, could it be that we are living in a region that just happens by chance to be smooth and uniform?”
The cosmos is not the entire universe,
and neither the many universes derived from the big bang: it’s only this peripheral region where we find ourselves living, with its particular order and laws that allow us to predict, to some extent, the course of events. What prevents us from believing that the original explosion found a meaning right in the casual development of intelligent beings? We see the universe as we do precisely because we exist. This is the human truth: the evolution that started about 10 billion years ago with the big bang has created countless solar systems, 5 billion years ago has created our own, where, 3 billion years ago, started the biological phase that led to humanity, an intelligent species able to become gradually aware of the processes from which it was born.
But the arrow of cosmological time goes on, looming upon humanity and pressing us in the relentless grip of dynamic equilibrium between expansion and contraction: the immanent code of Apocalypse. Is it possible to extend the anthropological principle to the point of considering humanity as a stage pre-arranged from the very start of the evolutionary journey? An hypothesis of this kind would require to locate humanity at the apex of the transformation produced by the explosion of the original atom and to consider irrelevant the fact that life blossomed in a peripheral corner and in a short time curve whose terminal point is already written in the enthropic destiny of the solar system.
The niche of humanity is Nature, this tiny region of the universe where, around planet Earth, shaped itself a vital belt, the biosphere, that wonderful twine of elements that make life possible.
Nature, hence, is not the universe, it’s one of its infinitesimal portions outside of which everything is deadly, it’s an island surrounded by a chaos that at some point will swallow it up.
Nor is grounded to identify Nature with the Cosmos, a construction of human rationality whose real function is not to reflect a presumed objective rationality of the universe, but is rather to
ensure and preserve the self-organizing processes of the biosphere,
and at the same time to transcend them by positioning itself on its borders, where runs the critical edge between expansive drives and gravitational contractions, and also the delicate line between sense and nonsense in evolutionary terms.
Beyond the biospheric island, inscribed within the solar system, continues undisturbed the tumultuous uproar where stars and entire galaxies are born and die out every second, with no signal coming flashing from other islands and with no hope for humanity to cross the constitutive limit of finite physics, the speed of light.
The star closer to our island, Proxima Centauri, is distant about 4 million light-years, that is 38 million of millions kilometers.
Our solitude has no escape,
and our old picture of man as a king of the universe has been definitely trashed. God (god as a principle to explain the universe) is dead, and with him have died his pseudonyms like Cosmos and Nature.
Probably without intention, science has committed ourselves to an existential penance that could bring along the necessary creatural humility for the new human to arise.