The Role of Imagination in the Science of the Stars

Astronomer Copernicus: Conversation with God
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Is the history of science a continuous progression from less to more accurate theories of physical phenomena? Or, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, is its history characterized by a discontinuous series of paradigm shifts? In the latter case, gradual “progress” occurs only locally within established theoretical frameworks until, through the sudden imaginative leap of a genius or two, the unthought metaphysical background of the habitualized phenomenal gestalt metamorphoses, thereby disclosing a new experiential world to consciousness. Most philosophers would side with Kuhn over the naive realist, but this is not the end of the story.

Science doesn’t simply clarify and refine already proven theories, as if the work of the modern scientific subject, or knower, was just to strain to see more clearly an already known world, the perceptual structure of which is supposed to be objective, pre-existing his attempt to see it. The positivist looks at the world only through the theoretical framework that he believes has already explained it. The world becomes a neatly defined problem set awaiting logical formulation in the language of a prefered theory.

Kuhn’s approach is essential, at least as a critique of the positivist’s self-understanding of science. The notion of a scientific paradigm is perhaps philosophy’s most important conceptual tool in the Science Wars, since it grounds idealism in experience even while it prevents the reduction of science to the sense-observation of matter. Kuhn studied the Copernican Revolution, which is undoubtedly an example of precisely the kind of perceptual metamorphosis his correlationist account of scientific history is supposed to explain. Copernicus didn’t improve upon the Ptolemaic vision of the cosmos–he entirely re-imagined it; he placed a new kind of consciousness in relation to a new kind of Universe.

But this cannot be the whole story, at least for post-Hegelian philosophers, who seem unable to dispense with the notion that the history of science, or of scientific consciousness, represents the progressive unfolding of Wisdom. Despite the fact that paradigms follow one another according to discontinuous and unexpected transformations of the theoretico-perceptual gestalt underlying science, these shifts can still be understood in retrospect as the expression of some underlying spiritual scheme. Scientific theories are originally the fruit of what Charles Sanders Peirce called abduction, or intuitive mental leaps. These leaps are not merely wild guesses, however; they are able to secure a foothold in reality, according to Peirce, only because the logical activity of the mind and the physical habits of nature secretly correspond and mutually condition one another. This implies, as Schelling put it, that philosophy is a generative (rather than deductive or demonstrative) activity granting participation in the invisible spiritual processes underlying visible nature.

In his wonderfully evocative study of the Copernican Revolution, The Poetic Structure of the World (1987), Fernand Hallyn refers to the study of abduction as a poetics (p. 14). This brings the Peircean approach to science even closer to Schelling, for whom the art of poetry was one of the primary ways that nature becomes more conscious of itself as spirit. Poetics, for Hallyn, is “…a way of dreaming works[…], of conceiving their possibility, and of working for their reality” (p. 15).

“Both Copernicus and Kepler,” he continues,

“sought explanations ordered in a vertical order: the world is the work of a divine poietes, and their project implies that one can reach back through the project to the Creator’s poetics. What they aim to reveal through their own poetics is thus truly…the poetic structure of the world” (p. 20).

The vertical order of explanation is not meant to eliminate the horizontal order; rather, as Hallyn reminds us, the former encompass the latter. In this sense, the vertical dimension interprets the accumulated facts of the horizontal dimension as “the signifying surface of a code [correlating] them to a transcendent signified” (ibid.).

Socrates suggests in the Phaedrus that written texts are a poor medium for the conveyance of knowledge, since they “cannot distinguish between suitable and unsuitable readers.” A text is dependent on its author to rescue it from unfair interpretation. By analogy, in the case of an interpretation of the motions of the planets, the ancient astronomer was at a disadvantage due to the phenomenal absence of its author, God, “the maker and father of the world” (“poietes kai pater tou pantos”)[Timaeus, 28c].

Ptolemy studied the heavens from within a vertical framework, but unlike many Renaissance scientists, he believed the human knower was situated at the bottom of the vertical axis of the world. Knowledge of the Universe from God’s perspective was impossible, since God viewed the world from beyond the world. Copernicus, Kepler, and other early modern astronomers, influenced by the sun worship and promethean attitude of the Renaissance, could be said to have aided the spiritual birth of God upon the earth by geometrically imagining the planets from His solar perspective. In other words, the heliocentric conception of Universe can be read poetically as the result of the incarnation of the divine spirit in human form, or the Christification of humanity. It retains the vertical dimension of ancient cosmology while at the same time locating the transcendent signified in the heart of the Cosmos itself.

The Ptolemaic Cosmos was a monstrosity, as far as Copernicus was concerned. It was a product reflective of the stale scholasticism of an undeveloped soul not yet capable of perceiving the hidden harmony of the heavens. The image of a great clock-work universe was Ptolemy’s before it was Newton’s. The harmony of the world becomes apparent, for Copernicus, only upon recognition of the fact that it is alive and was created for us (“mundus propter nos“). This for us sounds disgustingly anthropocentric to postmodern ears, but we must read it in the context of Renaissance hermeticism, wherein the archetype of the Anthropos is distinguished from the human species, the latter being but a unique and particular example of the former, universal tendency. As Giordano Bruno would later argue, there are undoubtedly an infinitude of planets other than our own populated by potentially wise and good beings. The world is made for them, as much as for us, since both of us can participate in the Anthropic ideal underlying the genesis of the Universe. The Universe, then, is not given to the human mind to understand (the longstanding and rather convincing illusion of the geocentric picture should be evidence enough of this), but nonetheless is at least potentially intelligible to us to the extent that we participate in the Anthropos.

The epigraph of Kepler’s earliest astrosophical work, Mysterium cosmographicum (1596), reflects well this participatory scheme, wherein the scientist remains human even while rising to the level of God:

“I die each day, and I confess it; but while my care keeps me hard at work on the roads of Olympus, my feet do not touch the Earth; in the presence of the Thundering divinity, I feed on nectar and ambrosia.”

Kepler represents an important transition in the history of science. He is credited with having discovered the elliptical paths of the planetary orbits, which stands in contradiction to Pythagorean presumptions concerning the perfection of circular motion. In bringing the divine’s solar perspective of the planets down to earth, post-Copernican science spiritualized human knowledge just as it materialized the heavens. By the time of Newton, terrestrial and celestial mechanics had been unified: the old Hermetic maxim, “as above, so below,” had been vindicated.

In the 20th century, Rudolf Steiner, another a hermetic thinker, expressed a further important transformation in the history of the scientific study of the stars (mentioned above in relation to the notion of spiritual incarnation):

Precisely herein is the secret of the new relation between ourselves and the world of the stars. Through the very fact of our descent into incarnation, we are indeed connected with the world of the stars, and yet we are no longer absolutely dependent on that world. On the contrary, in our age and in the future, we are called upon to take the world of stars, which as an individual we belong to, with us into our earthly deeds, into our earthly feeling and thinking. The transmutation which then takes place all through our earthly life, if we are a person of spiritual striving, thereby becomes a transmutation not only of ourselves but even of the world of stars.

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5 Comments Add yours

  1. Great post.

    That little video shows nicely what many don’t understand about Ptolemy – that he had the math he needed to ‘explain’ his system – but the numbers actually masked the facts because they were simply constructed from the requirements of the visual data.

    I think empirical, positivistic science is prone to a constant tendency toward ‘Ptolemaic’ fallacies due to its obsession with the numbers (especially when the numbers have to substitute for actual observations, as in the theoretical cosmology of Dr. Hawking). Every current paradigm is fraught with the possibility of false assumptions based on the ‘dialectic’ by which observations influence mathematics and vice-versa.

    My favorite example of the folly of pure positivism comes from a pontification by the ‘father’ of positivism himself. Comte is known to have asserted that, by the principles of his system, mankind will never be able to know what the stars are made of – but he said this only a few years before a priest (Angelo Secchi) took a hint from Fraunhofer and discovered meaning in the absorption lines of spectroscopic plates taken from starlight.

    When the astronomer Hubble in the 1920s applied the Doppler red-shift theory to his spectroscopic plates of the external galaxies, he ended up reporting rates of recession which amount in some cases to unimaginable speeds. These rates of recession are not questioned today – but someday a new Copernicus may view these outrageous recession speeds as a ‘monstrosity’ and suggest that red-shift is perhaps subject to distortions at certain enormous ‘limit’ distances.

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