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  • That’s it in a nutshell!

    Posted by Charles Cameron on July 18th, 2012 (All posts by )

    If you arrived here without reading part I of this post — Are science and religion both standing on thin air? — you may want to go read it first. But not necessarily. It’s about whether we can reason about God, or maybe Nothing, as the origin of all things — or whether the universe just popped up of its own accord.

    Obviously, different people have different opinions about all that, and if they’re argumentative types, they argue.

    What I want to do here is to avoid the argument completely, and ask you how you feel.


    I am going to offer you three quotes, by three well-known writers, each of them saying in effect, “that’s it in a nutshell”.

    One of them is a medieval Catholic mystic, one a poet from the transitional period between the medieval-religious and secular-contemporary worldviews, and the third hopefully somewhat representative of contemporary secular thought.

    First, the mystic Julian of Norwich:

    In this vision he showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with the eye of my understanding and thought “What may this be?” And it was generally answered thus: “It is all that is made.” I marvelled how it might last, for it seemed it might suddenly have sunk into nothing because of its littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: “It lasts and ever shall, because God loves it.”

    As you read this post, I would like you to get a sense of how free you feel to breathe. Does it feel constricting, with its religious terminology, its “vision” and its God”? Does it feel liberating, with its sense of another, visionary world, beyond or behind the one that presents itself to our senses?

    And then, hey, there’s the poet William Blake:

    To see a world in a grain of sand,
    And a heaven in a wild flower,
    Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
    And eternity in an hour.

    Does that let you slip past the constraints of religiosity, while retaining a sense of poetry, of mystery perhaps? Or does it still seem a bit fey, more fantastic than real, just, let’s be honest about this, not entirely practical?

    And hoo boy, do I have a third quote for you.

    This one’s from an interview the science fiction author JG Ballard gave to The Paris Review. I’ve dropped out a question from the interviewer, because it would have made for a clunkier read — but I think Ballard, whose The Crystal World I very much admire, comes across “clean and clear” here:

    I would say that I quite consciously rely on my obsessions in all my work, that I deliberately set up an obsessional frame of mind. In a paradoxical way, this leaves one free of the subject of the obsession. It’s like picking up an ashtray and staring so hard at it that one becomes obsessed by its contours, angles, texture, et cetera, and forgets that it is an ashtray — a glass dish for stubbing out cigarettes. … Yes, so the unity of the enterprise is forever there. A whole universe can be bounded in a nutshell. Of course, why one chooses certain topics as the subject for one’s obsessions is a different matter. Why was I obsessed by car crashes? It’s such a peculiar idea.

    How’s that for dystopia?


    And so, my question:

    As you read those three quotations, each of them centering on a universe in a nutshell, so to speak — which one gives you a sense of freedom? which one sits well on your shoulders? Which world do you live in? Which do you prefer?

    Do all three fall under the general rubric of Fantasy and Science Fiction, perhaps?


    3 Responses to “That’s it in a nutshell!”

    1. L. C. Rees Says:

      All three fall under the “general rubric” of Politics.

      Since politics is the division of power and the main rule guiding a winning politics is first to be very strong and then at the decisive point, truth is usually just a synonym for victory. Since power is applied in many forms, from silence to argument to seduction to exchange to violence, it is the decisiveness of the moment when the right mix of power meets the right motive and opportunity that builds up the residue of politics we mislabel as science or religion. While the simplified dynamic behind any inquiry is little more than an attempt to answer who, what, where, when, why, and how, ultimately the question inquiry seeks to answer who rules who, what, where, when, why, and how through a trial of means, motive, and opportunity.

      The most contested issues tend to be those where no side has the means to decisively overwhelm the others. It’s when opportunities open up that the possibility for decisive victory arises: Ptolemy’s geocentric theory was the dominant scientific theory in European science for more than 100 years after Copernicus published his heliocentric theory in the same year that he died in 1543. Decisive victory for the heliocentric theory was impossible in 1543: the power found in the particular arrangement of observations that ultimately undid Ptolemy’s cosmos was unavailable in 1543. Blaming Ptolemy for not decisively establishing Copernican ideas in the first century is like blaming Harold for losing the Battle of Hastings in 1066 because he failed to call in precision airstrikes on the Normans: there was no there there. It took a series of opened opportunities, some of which were lucky accidents, to make heliocentrism victorious and eventually it was the preponderance of power at those decisive moments that turned Copernicus’ heliocentric views into Copernicus’ heliocentric science.

      The escalating fanaticism of supporters of the view that the Earth is undergoing a period of man-made warming revealed by their frequent use of phrases like “its a settled question”, “you can’t argue with the science”, or their attempt to reduce those that disagree with their position to the moral equivalents of Nazis by labeling them as “deniers” is a sign that anthropogenic global warming is not a settled question, that you can argue with their “science”, and that climate change “denialism” is a perfectly reasonable position. Stalemate breeds escalating political intensity as one side of an issue attempts to replace the absence of decisive power in the observations they present in support of their position with a decisive weight of shrillness, skullduggery, or even force. Trying to win a debate by declaring it over before it begins is a time-tested if somewhat time-worn tactic in political contests. You can measure one sides’ desperation for power by the sound volume of its denials that it is that desperate.

      Decisively answering (or conclusively winning the battle over) large questions like anthropogenic global warming, the existence or nonexistence of deity, the optimal way to structure a political or economic system, or the meaning of life requires means that humanity, whether as individuals, groups, or one big happy global family, does not have at this time. It’s important to emphasize, unlike many enthusiasts for complexity or chaos theory and emergent orders, that answering these questions is not impossible. Making the claim that it’s impossible to answer any question is a claim that is equally impossible to prove. No question is impossible to answer, only improbable to answer with the craft that we here possess. The question of large questions are one area where we should take a page from the president’s playbook and vote “present” instead of yay or nay.

    2. PenGun Says:

      There is that which is but yet does not exist. The Buddha nature does not know limits.

      The entire universe can be compared to a tiny spot of oil near the Buddha’s foot.

      There is one thing happening, just one.

    3. dnb03 Says:

      Can not answer due to the prejudice resulting from knowledge of the source of each quote. I think a blind test, just the quotes, would have enabled a purer response. Being a Catholic, I feel most free, most at home, with the first quote.

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