Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Matter of Perspective

Considering the vastness of the universe, the seeming endlessness of time, and the emptiness of space, one might lament that no meaning is possible to human existence. And many have.

And yet, everywhere is beauty, admirable structure, and mathematical coincidence we call proportion. Everywhere in the very same universe.

In one regard, the universe resembles the splash that emerges out of a stone thrown into a pond. And for as simple and as temporary a system as that connotes for physics, it is nevertheless lovely to behold and even mesmerizing to certain eyes.

Scale brings nothing with it. To watch a single drop of water freeze and then thaw again, a whole universe. A computer model of the birth and death of a star, or of a whole galaxy, elapsed over just two minutes, is but the same. A picture may contain as much detail as a camera can pick up, as many bytes of information as a computer may store, but in any case it's not complete. Not even the human mind can completely contain anything that falls to its attention.

The universe is an idea. The name betrays this: across (verse) the one or the whole (uni). Whether it inspires or depresses is a matter of perspective and a matter of choice. Nebulae are the most beautiful things when enhanced by the folks at NASA, but they don't actually look like that. The Sun is too bright for people to look at, but not too bright to enjoy and to miss when hidden by clouds. Rainbows aren't really 'there,' but they speak to us so clearly of many things. Orion isn't really there either, nor was it even quite what it is now back in the days of the Greeks and the Babylonians when it first gained its name. In a million years from now it won't look anything like it does now. By far, most of the universe is utterly hostile to the existence of human life. And yet, it's hard to find a piece of creation that is not intriguing to the human mind and capable of inspiring the human heart - whether this be tornadoes, solar flares, or star-collapsing black holes.

It was all built for contemplation, but I think not for understanding.


  1. "It was all built for contemplation, but I think not for understanding." Dancing pretty close to Fideism there aren't you? I don't have my Ph.D. in Theology as you do, but your assertion does strike me as being a bit 'off'.

    Fr. Tim

  2. Ha. no. I think that we have to have a great deal of humility when we come to define the ultimate purpose of the universe - why did God make it this big and not that big; what's the point of stars human beings will never see, etc. I define knowledge in the way Aristotle would have: knowledge of a thing's (ultimate) purpose. Sure, we can know that atom X has this many electrons and all that, but is that really knowing a thing? Is it significant?

    All this said, it was never my intention to espouse fideism. But, of course, readers don't necessarily come at a piece with the author's background assumptions.

    I think, ultimately, truth is mystical, and I would have to say to properly arrive there, one must pass through the stages of fideism (childhood) and positivism (adolescence?) before one can arrive at wisdom. Though, of course, not losing what was true and good about the earlier stages. What was bad was defining these as complete views of the world.

    Ok, this is now turning into a book. Sure, such a book deserves to be written, but not here in the comments section.

    Thanks, Father!

  3. Ah, does this smack of the whole faith versus science debate? Not sure that was your intent with this piece Colin but here we are. Also I wonder as a Catholic if there is anything wrong using faith and the desire to know God as the original spark and then employing science as a mere tool. I think as humans delve deeper into understanding the fundamental nature of quantum physics and all of its fantastic implications that we will not run from God but will rather see Him. I prefer to see science and faith as complimentary. Maybe I am naive?

  4. Not naive. However, a great deal has been written on the relationship between faith and reason or science over the years. There are some things 'officially' agreed upon - like that they can't conflict, that they have their own spheres, etc., but many things not agreed on - like how can natural knowledge ever reach supernatural knowledge? Some theologians agree with your position that Faith can give you a start, like help you to ask the right questions, etc., and then science can take over from there.

  5. As a Catholic and a scientist, my opinion is that if God had created all things visible and invisible and if the universe had been created for the glory of God, "not to increase his glory, but to show it forth and to communicate it", the study of visible things is a mere mode (among many others) of communing with the Creator. That said, my intention is certainly not to convey the possibility of attaining knowledge of a thing’s ultimate purpose (if that’s how knowledge is defined in this thread) through contemplating about it in the scientific realm (and in my experience at least, I do not know of many people would insist otherwise). Sure, “not even the human mind can completely contain anything that falls to its attention”, but who’s to say that whatever does fall in the spotlight of attention isn’t significant? I may be inclined to contest the notion that human experience isn’t significant. If knowing that atom X has z amount of electrons isn’t significant in itself, then I would suggest that this ‘knowledge’ could certainly be of value in the context of our ways to being in God (‡ at least in the context of some people’s ways, I suppose). Natural knowledge will never reach God’s knowledge; it can merely provide us with the means of communing with the supernatural to varying extents. Neither natural knowledge, nor our ‘knowledge about the supernatural’ will reach ‘Supernatural knowledge’, per se.

    Perhaps somebody would object, however? What are your thoughts?

    Thanks for posting, Dr. Kerr. I appreciate your writings.

    Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.