Archive for July 23rd, 2014

The Problem of Modern Cosmology


A perfect picture of Modernity?

I was prompted by yesterday’s post about the anniversary of the moon landing to look again at something I wrote as part of my doctoral dissertation in theological cosmology. I used the Apollo 11 photo above to unearth some of the contradictions inherent in the idea of ‘modern cosmology’. I don’t know how much sense this excerpt will make out of the context of the original argument but here it is.

Defining the modern (and, hence, the pre- and postmodern) is notoriously problematic[1] but it is safe to say that, however the theory runs, Modernity has been obsessed with cosmology. Whether it is Galileo and his telescope, Copernicus and his orbits, Newton and his falling apple, or Columbus and his New World, Luther and his articles, Modernity has been wrestling with the question of cosmology—the nature of the heavens, the nature of the human being, and the way the whole of reality works. In this sense, to understand Modernity we must understand cosmology. The reverse, though, also seems to be true.

The very idea of cosmology has been reworked by Modernity in its own image. From its premodern origins, cosmology was, more than anything, a view of the whole and viewing the whole was understood to pose unique problems and offer a unique privilege. Where, for example, could you stand to have a view of all things? Granted such a vantage point, how could you ever know that “all things” form a whole, a cosmos, rather than just a collection of unrelated items?

Whatever cosmology has been in the past, in the modern age it has been whittled down to become one discipline among others, one science among others. Yet, as a science, cosmology claims as its domain the whole universe, its origin, evolution, composition, and behaviour. In this sense, cosmology is distinct from the physics, astronomy, and other sciences that are enlisted in its pursuit. It is also differs from the other sciences by having a unique object of study: this singular universe with its specific history. Can a natural science achieve this conjunction of maximal scope and particular method? How can a part of human understanding make the claim to encompass the whole? How can a specialization make the unique kind of claims, at once general and particular, which cosmology, even in its modern form, demands? It will become apparent, I hope, that, not only are “Modernity” and “cosmology” mutually defining, they are mutually deconstructing.

I want to pave the way for this claim by examining a striking image (above [2]) of an historic event in the human exploration of the cosmos. Even at face value, this photograph is both modern and cosmological. Here is the age-old dream of humankind ascended to the heavens. Here is the triumph of science and the soaring, human spirit expressed in practical skill.

But this is such a perfect picture of modern cosmology for deeper reasons. Here are portrayed such abstract notions, important to Modernity, as progress, exploration, and power, but also conquest, culture, and nationality. There are fracture lines just beneath the surface. Underneath the enormous, symbolic triumph of the endeavour, you have the extraordinary clash of two worlds: culture and nature; the human and the natural. What could be more emblematic of Modernity’s view of nature than the dead, mineral, airless, sterile face of the moon?[3] And what could better express the modern sense of humanity’s alienation from nature than this fragile, suited, and sealed human body relying on science and artifice to survive the moon’s unthinking hostility.The central vision of the modern era is of subject and object sundered; the knower and the known utterly unlike and only to be brought together by epistemological sleight of hand; mind and matter, one alive the other dead.[4] The fundamental construction of Modernity places the human outside the natural. By doing so it makes possible a certain kind of knowing of things as though all that were human could be left out of the picture. Errors of opinion are sidestepped, certainly—that is the intention of the great modern gamble—but also warmth, value, life. Now science, the official epistemology of the modern age, of course aims to include all such human characteristics eventually. Once the tractable, dead stuff of nature has been grasped and fashioned into building blocks it will be possible to construct life, the living, the human and so understand it in its turn. This is a strategy of delay—a diversionary tactic—and it has been remarkably successful. The aim is to deal with the simple questions first and leave the intractable ones until later. Here is another modern preoccupation, this time with method: if we only knew the proper method, we could understand the properties of all things. Method is born, with Descartes, in the struggle to evade doubt.

By a “method” I mean reliable rules which are easy to apply, and such that if one follows them exactly, one will never take what is false to be true or fruitlessly expend one’s mental efforts, but will gradually and constantly increase one’s knowledge till one arrives at a true understanding of everything within one’s capacity.[5]

Modern method divides to conquer: fact is easier than value; matter easier than mind; nature than culture. In fact, so many familiar methods are made over in the modern image, taking a distinctively modern form: for example, the ancient meanings of science, culture, and cosmology are all changed. But can such diversionary tactics succeed? Can what has been divided and conquered ever be reconciled in a final unity? What does our photograph reveal about the relation between mind and matter in the modern cosmology?

The gap between the two worlds is palpable. Matter, here, threatens mind. It is inhospitable, alien. But mind, embodied as human, leaves its footprints, and they remain. Nothing erodes them except the slow fall of moon dust. The human mark on nature is indelible. Bacon’s dream of nature conquered and forced to yield up her secret treasures has become a familiar, if ambiguous, fact of modern life.[6] Moreover, it is the way that matter becomes assimilated to mind: how the world is best comprehended. You can wax eloquent about the beauty or grandeur of the lunar experience but, appalled or elated, one false step and matter will erase mind in an instant. Values, poetry, feeling are secondary in the standoff with nature.[7] But they do not vanish. Exiled from nature they set up their own realm—autonomous, insulated.

How does the human leave its mark on the natural? In a sense, anyway it likes! Those footprints are inscriptions on a blank slate. What do they mean? The can mean anything—or nothing—at all. Un-moored from nature, human interpretations of meaning are free to splinter. Are these footprints simple, neutral, marks in dust or the imprints of “one great step for mankind”? Nothing expresses the diversity of interpretation as well as Modernity’s idea of culture. Focus for a moment on that flag. What better statement of human culture with all its particularity and evanescence? A flag asserts both belonging and exclusion by marking the double-edged boundary of cultures. Here, on the moon, that assertion is at its starkest. Here is a claiming of space, of land, of territory. Here is a marking out of ownership. The conflictual quality is clear—in a way that territorial conquest or cultural imperialism never manages to be on earth. No home is being claimed with that flag. On earth, there is always the possibility of a transformation that makes space into place, into home, into oikos, the first step in an ecology that weaves humanity into nature however much we might theorize otherwise. Here, however, the claim staked in the flag is for nothing but against everyone else. This flag is about the exclusion of other flags, other cultures, and other humans. There is a triple crisis of signification here.

First, Modernity’s vision of the human is fragmentary with human relatedness looming problematic. With the cultural boundary envisioned as impermeable[8] other human beings are, in theory, either inside with us or outside in impenetrable darkness, either just like us or utterly alien. Human relations of difference cease to have real significance.[9]

Second, the chasm, which Modernity has constructed between the knower and known, makes any relation between humanity and nature problematic. The lunar flag stakes a claim on nature’s space to make it into a place of human significance. But how do you own dead space? How do you create a bond of relationship between the dead and the living? Above all, how do you do it without it being purely artificial and arbitrary—merely an expression of who has the bigger army or better lawyers? The relation of difference between the human and the natural ceases to have real significance.

Third, by bleaching the natural of all humane qualities the significance of nature’s internal relations is jeopardized. What do we mean by “nature’s internal relations”? Science views itself as finding the laws that, at least, describe the behaviour of natural things and, maybe in stronger interpretations, govern it. And in that “maybe” lies a problem: a problem of location and power. A problem of location: where does a law of nature “live” and of what is it made? Sciences’ laws are remarkably like ghosts.[10] Is a law “in” nature itself or “only” in the mind of the scientist (or the scientific community)? Either answer sits uneasily in a modern mind. If laws are in the world what and where are they—our cosmology doesn’t seem to have room for them—and if they are simply in the mind how is their truth to be guaranteed? A problem of power too: if a law describes the behaviour of things why can’t the things themselves behave differently? If laws are not causal powers[11] the internal relations between natural things seem to be arbitrary. Yet, modern cosmology has no place for such causal powers. The relations of difference within nature cease to have real significance.

The flag signals other problems too. Traditionally, what has bound human beings together, the natural world into a whole, and the one to the other, has been a web of relations. The threefold disaster of difference spelled out above spells the failure of mediating relations. The notion of the in-between has been emptied. What stands in-between human beings giving significance to their mutual relation? What lies in-between the things of the world giving them pattern and order? And what connection can there be in-between the human and the natural worlds? We struggle to find categories offer significance to human relatedness, natural laws are of uncertain force, and between the human and the natural lies a self-created chasm. But it was not always so. In premodern times, all three kinds of relation were considered real enough to carry significance. Human society was bound together by relations that constituted a hierarchy—a sacred order. The relations of natural phenomena were governed by active causal powers or by their own inner entelechy. Moreover, the two realms were united in complex relations of real signification weaving together the microcosm of the human body and the macrocosm of the world.[12] Now to the modern mind, the premodern form of each of these realms of relation is distinctly distasteful. We distrust hierarchy, despise teleology, and fear superstition. We should be happy that the advent of Modernity banished these embarrassing ghosts. What was lost in the process, however, was any belief in the reality of relation, the quality of connection, or the chance of cosmic wholeness. How can we regain what has been lost without becoming haunted again by ancestral ghosts? What kind of cosmic connectedness will do justice to old and new?

Perhaps the central, if silent, symbol of the premodern web of real relations was the imagination. Lauded or despised, it still stood in between the worlds.[13] Between mind and matter, it was the glue uniting the knower with the known. Between natural and cultural, it was the complex medium of culture’s natural history. But there is nothing natural about our modern moon flag. Notice how it proclaims its own artifice. This flag flies where there is no breeze, can never be a breeze, by being made to appear to fly, to flap, in an imaginary wind that will never come. It pretends its own reality by imitating its own artifice. Here is the unravelling of the imagination, its death by parody, and the death of the signifying imagination is significant since without it there can be no wholeness, no cosmos.


[1] Perry Anderson, The Origins of Postmodernity (London New York: Verso, 1998) Roland Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989) Richard J. Bernstein, Beyond Objectivism and Relativism: Science, Hermeneutics, and Praxis (Oxford: B. Blackwell, 1983) Albert Borgmann, Crossing the Postmodern Divide (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992) John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon, eds., God, the Gift, and Postmodernism, The Indiana Series in the Philosophy of Religion, ed. Merold Westphal (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999) Deely, New Beginnings John N. Deely, Four Ages of Understanding: The First Postmodern Survey of Philosophy from Ancient Times to the Turn of the Twenty-First Century, Toronto Studies in Semiotics (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001) Dupré, Passage to Modernity Terry Eagleton, The Illusions of Postmodernism (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1996) Michael Paul Gallagher, Clashing Symbols: An Introduction to Faith and Culture (New York: Paulist Press, 1998) García-Rivera, “Cosmic Frontier.” Richard Kearney, The Wake of Imagination: Toward a Postmodern Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988) Lakeland, Postmodernity Levin, The Philosopher’s Gaze Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Explained: Correspondence, 1982-1985, afterword by Wlad Godzich, trans. Don Barry, et al., ed. Julian Pefanis and Morgan Thomas, North American ed. (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1993) Merchant, The Death of Nature John Milbank, The Word Made Strange: Theology, Language, Culture (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1997) Nancey C. Murphy, Anglo-American Postmodernity: Philosophical Perspectives on Science, Religion, and Ethics (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997) Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word Margaret A. Rose, The Post-Modern and the Post-Industrial: A Critical Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) Toulmin, Cosmopolis Stephen Toulmin, Return to Reason (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001) Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, trans. Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis, ed. Joseph Fessio and John Kenneth Riches (San Francisco New York: Ignatius Press, 1983) Ken Wilber, The Marriage of Sense and Soul: Integrating Science and Religion (New York: Random House, 1998).

[2] “Astronaut Edwin E. Aldrin Jr., lunar module pilot, poses for a photograph beside the deployed United States flag during Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the lunar surface. The Lunar Module “Eagle” is on the left. The footprints of the astronauts are clearly visible in the soil of the moon. This picture was taken by Astronaut Neil A. Armstrong, commander, with a 70 mm lunar surface camera.” NASA Photo ID: AS11-40-5875 File Name: 10075262.jpg Film Type: 70 mm Date Taken: 07/20/69.

[3] Merchant, The Death of Nature;

[4] Levin, The Philosopher’s Gaze

[5] René Descartes, “Rules for the Direction of the Mind,” 1628, trans. Dugald Murdoch, in The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, ed. John Cottingham, Robert Stoothoff and Dugald Murdoch, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 16.


[7] See, e.g., “The human mind is a device for survival and reproduction, and reason is just one of its various techniques. … The intellect was not constructed to understand atoms or even to understand itself but to promote the survival of human genes. … Aesthetic judgment and religious beliefs must have arisen by the same mechanistic process.” Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1978), 2.

[8] Tanner, Theories of Culture

[9] A relation of infinite possibility and signification is reduced to the binary categories of “same” and “other.”

[10] Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (New York: Morrow, 1974).

[11] Rom Harré and E. H. Madden, Causal Powers: A Theory of Natural Necessity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1975); Brian D. Ellis, The Philosophy of Nature: A Guide to the New Essentialism (Chesham: Acumen, 2002).


[13] Kearney, The Wake of Imagination.

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