It occurred to me while reading an article in Scientific American about misconceptions people have about cosmology that there are similar challenges when trying to visualize the systems in philosophers like Iamblichus and Proclus. I’m blogging briefly about it because (a) I get to talk about astronomy and (b) maybe it’s useful to others.
(Now that I’ve completely locked myself out of Twitter, I’ve been making a lot of blog posts. These probably would have all been threads. It’s nice to actually have everything together in one piece.)
One of the things people find very tricky about cosmology is the idea of the universe’s expansion. It is not expanding into anything, and things themselves are not increasing in size. Rather, there are some gravitationally bound systems that stay more or less at a constant distance from one another, or where gravitation is exerting some substantial effect (e.g., Andromeda and the Milky Way will collide in the far future). Space itself is expanding. This leads to a whole host of other conceptual difficulties, especially when we think about the universe when it was much smaller than the universe today.
The expansion of our universe is much like the inflation of a balloon. The distances to remote galaxies are increasing. Astronomers casually say that distant galaxies are “receding” or “moving away” from us, but the galaxies are not traveling through space away from us. They are not fragments of a big bang bomb. Instead the space between the galaxies and us is expanding. Individual galaxies move around at random with- in clusters, but the clusters of galaxies are essentially at rest. (p. 38)
The big bang was not an explosion in space; it was more like an explosion of space. It did not go off at a particular location and spread out from there into some preexisting void. It occurred everywhere at once.
This ubiquity of the big bang holds no matter how big the universe is or even whether it is finite or infinite in size. Cosmologists sometimes state that the universe used to be the size of a grapefruit, but what they mean is that the part of the universe we can now see—our observable universe—used to be the size of a grapefruit.
Observers living in the Andromeda galaxy and beyond have their own observable universes that are different from but overlap with ours. Andromedans can see galaxies we cannot, simply by virtue of being slightly closer to them, and vice versa. Their observable universe also used to be the size of a grape- fruit. Thus, we can conceive of the early universe as a pile of overlapping grapefruits that stretches infinitely in all directions. (p. 40)
There is also a fingerprint of the universe when it was ~370,000 years old called the cosmic microwave background (CMB). The Planck Mission has this to say about it:
Before this time, the Universe was so hot and dense that it was opaque to all radiation. Not even simple atoms could form without instantly being ripped apart into their constituent protons and electrons by the intense radiation. The Universe was made of a “plasma”, or ionised gas, which is what the surface of the Sun is made of.
Ever since the Big Bang, the Universe has been cooling and expanding. By around 400,000 years through its life it was cool enough (though still around 3000 Celsius) for the simplest atoms to form, and it became transparent. The light from this time has been travelling through space ever since, and can be detected all around us from here on Earth or in space. We can measure the afterglow of the Big Bang.
The CMB is roughly the same everywhere, with minor variations that are the precursors to the structures that we see in the universe today.
So, with the preliminaries out of the way, where I got to thinking about this lies in the conceptual difficulty of coming to a workable understanding of the Gods in Platonism. Since I’ve been reading so much cosmology over the past few weeks to understand the theorist Peebles’ career, and I’ve also been reading Shaw’s book Theurgy and the Soul, the two collided.
In Iamblichus, the Gods are in all places and all things; there is no space where they are not. This is difficult to understand because if one thinks of other types of divinities ~”suspended from” a God, it implies that there is a spatial extension from higher to lower. (I’m thinking of the Gods → Angels → Heroes → Daimones system, and to a lesser degree the Henads and all of that.) To speak in generics, the problem is the same — how do we talk about everywhere when analogies make things seem as if they are somewhere and moving into some otherwhere?
If we depart from high and low to use the vocabulary shallow and deep, we would highlight a different aspect of what is actually going on, but it wouldn’t be the same, either — shallow and deep emphasize density, where in a conceptual sense, the God is present at the highest density and those in matter at the lowest density, and it’s not precisely what is going on there, either. If we think about the Gods in the sense of the CMB (in a weird way), suddenly that’s less of a conceptual shift, and it’s useful.
There are definitely ways in which someone could take analogies to physical cosmology too far — I’m thinking of people who insist on making references to physics and astrophysics that are 50-100 years out of date in hot-off-the-presses Neopagan books, like the very prevalent one about atoms = solar systems = galaxies when the systems are actually only alike insofar as each possesses a center. To a lesser degree, we’re probably in a flat and forever-expanding universe unless we’ve been misinterpreting the data for decades, so discussions of cyclical universes are a bit risky at this point.
There are non-(astro)physics things that are generally more useful for other aspects of learning the system of the Gods as described by the philosophers — Edward Butler, for example, informed me of a paper by E.D. Perl called “The House that Jack Built” when I was hopelessly lost, and I am very grateful for that act of kindness; the construction helped me understand the system in Proclus a bit better.
People have also made diagrams of Platonic systems from Plotinus, Iamblichus, and Proclus in monographs and other places (see this Google Images search) — someone has even collected them on a Pinterest board. (I’m still not 100% on understanding even with diagrams and really lovely analogy papers, but the only way forward is up, right? 😅) Still, the conceptual jump to collapse all of that together so one isn’t thinking of it happening spatially is a bit hard. Hopefully, the way I’m now mentally modeling it is not outlandishly wrong.