Some Musings on the (Physical) Universe

In late November, I finished writing an article about the Nobel laureates in physics, which focused on providing a citation analysis of each of them after a brief summary of the black hole science that led to their awards. In writing the narrative, I realized fairly early on that I could draw on what Proclus wrote about what Plato wrote about time and the heavens — specifically how Proclus seems to have interpreted them (O! the engrossing history of science anecdotes), with the heavens obviously signifying the parts of the cosmos beyond Earth’s fragile blanket of atmosphere (we’re in the sublunary realm, to adapt the vocabulary that he uses). The point that I made at the beginning was a bridge between the first person to propose something black hole-like (John Michell, a scientist looking at the Newtonian implications for very massive objects), the terminology that was used at the time (“fixed stars” and so on), and ancient conceptions of the fact that, while visible, the perfection of the heavens must obviously be greater than the changeability and strife on Earth.

However, over the past few centuries, we have steadily learned that this is not the case. The matter up there is just as partial as the matter down here (although a physicist could argue that planets containing life unleash entropy faster because life is fun like that and thus maybe things are a bit more calamitous downworld), which, at least for me, leads to the question “what could the heavens signify here?”

Galaxy collision toy model. Jacopo Bertolotti, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons.

The true cosmic horror is just how violent the cosmos is, that everything within it — from newborn stars shocking away their natal chambers and quenching new star-forming to sibling binary stars being ripped apart from one another (one sibling flung out at high speeds and the other trapped in a close orbit or worse) due to gravitational/orbital dynamics around a galaxy’s central black hole. In the deep past, there were the massive emissions from galaxies’ central black holes devouring everything.

ESO/WFI (Optical); MPIfR/ESO/APEX/A.Weiss et al. (Submillimeter); NASA/CXC/CfA/R.Kraft et al. (X-ray). The jets flowing out from the central black hole in the galaxy Centaurus A are traveling at about half of the speed of light. Wikimedia Commons.

To this day, there are galaxy mergers — Andromeda and the Milky Way will eventually combine into one — and the scale of a human life relative to these processes provides us with an illusion of calm. Plato’s Timaeus notes that time and the heavens, if they could ever be destroyed, would have to be destroyed together (38b); Proclus says that this means it’s impossible; and yet time and space are unravelled entirely at the singularities within black holes, an agalma of light, geometry, time, and silence, whose event horizons conceal the mysteries of what happens as matter is shredded into bits and time becomes spacelike, space timelike, as the dance comes to its fatal conclusion. In the paper, I stopped when pointing this out; because it’s social science and not theology, it wasn’t possible to extend this out to “so what now, and what perspective shifts happen as our physical cosmological models change, if anything?” I wasn’t 100% satisfied by that stopping point. It felt like I was doing the Platonists I’ve spent so much time reading a disservice.

NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Original caption from NASA: “This NASA Hubble Space Telescope image of the Antennae galaxies (NGC 4038 & 4039) is the sharpest yet of this merging pair of galaxies. During the course of the collision, billions of stars will be formed. The brightest and most compact of these star birth regions are called super star clusters. The two spiral galaxies started to interact a few hundred million years ago, making the Antennae galaxies one of the nearest and youngest examples of a pair of colliding galaxies. Nearly half of the faint objects in the Antennae image are young clusters containing tens of thousands of stars. The orange blobs to the left and right of image center are the two cores of the original galaxies and consist mainly of old stars criss-crossed by filaments of dust, which appear brown in the image. The two galaxies are dotted with brilliant blue star-forming regions surrounded by glowing hydrogen gas, appearing in the image in pink.”

There is always this other danger, one that Proclus points out right at the beginning of the Timaeus commentary, of prioritizing the material cosmos so much and of being so reliant on data and physical measurements that the Gods and all of the metaphysics are completely ignored. Any account of the physical world cannot be lasting; if we let ourselves stand upon it, we are anchoring ourselves in something as dynamic as an undertow, and as it takes us down, we lose sight of the agalmata and seats of the Gods all around us.

When I think about the higher status Proclus constantly gives the heavens’ matter, I do agree that there must be a purer form of it somewhere, but I am skeptical that we could take that purer thing to be something as sense-perceptible as the agalma of the Moon streaming down through the window to my right or the chair beneath me or the book on the table. There is always this danger that we are just constantly falling back to new models of what the more put-together matter might be

first the bodies orbiting the Earth

bodies orbiting the Sun

orderly beauty of our galaxy and its central point

galaxies accelerating away from us

our unmooring from spatial prioritization beyond that we are at the center of our sphere of what is observable in the universe

abandonment of steady-state theory

likely (now certain) existence of singularities

??????????????

and that is not a very sustainable approach to anything, definitely in line with what Proclus cautions against at the beginning of the Timaeus commentary. It’s just hopping from one false opinion to the other based on incomplete sense-observations of what lies around us. The Timaeus is providing an account and a “likely” story of how generation comes about. What is common to the geocentric model of their times and our current model is that there is a systematic orderliness to how the entire universe operates, and whatever that is, that must be the heavens that is referred to — the piece(s) who are eternally dancing with Khronos and that truly do mark everything out, the parts that leave their traces in everything we see, touch, taste, and feel.

Now when the Father who had begotten the universe observed it set in motion and alive, a thing that had come to be as a shrine for the everlasting gods, he was well pleased, and in his delight he thought of making it more like its model still.

Plato. Timaeus 37c in Plato: Complete Works ed. Cooper.

I think there are other questions, though, that arise from the non-physical idea of “heavens,” namely a holistic understanding of the sacred in terms of what we know now about the cosmos from a polytheistic perspective. This is a good deal harder than a lot of UPG or modern adaptation because there is no ancient author who will provide a citation to tell us how to factor black holes into our model of the sacred; I can say that they are sacred to Apollon until I am blue in the face (or red, if I’m redshifted relative to you because I’m about to fall through the event horizon ,,,) and the most I can provide is intuition and my interpretation of geometry and light with a salute to Pythagoras.

Since stars die, what about the souls of the stars? How do the stellar remnants fit into this? What about habitable worlds? What of the concept of “fixed stars,” and is that to be compared with gravitationally-interacting bodies closer to a subjective reference point? Is Gē, ever at the center, at the center of each habitable world in potentiality or actuality, depending on the solar system’s circumstances? To whom are the Earth’s year around the Milky Way’s center sacred, and do they have names?

ESA/Hubble, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons. Hubble Wide Field image of Quasar 3C 273 in an elliptical galaxy located in Virgo. Quasars are supermassive black holes in highly active feeding modes. According to the Wikimedia Commons description, “If it was located 30 light-years from our own planet — roughly seven times the distance between Earth and Proxima Centauri, the nearest star to us after the Sun — it would still appear as bright as the Sun in the sky.”

These are questions I’ve started exploring in poetry (like the second part of Acts of Speech, which taught me that I want to continue in endeavors like that) and prose more earnestly now even though the underlying questions have occupied me for years. If one writes, one might as well write a hymn, after all.

They are also questions that are in the back of my mind when pressing my hands together for Selene when I see the bright moon at night or for Helios when I open the East-facing blinds and the Sun pierces through the buildings and trees. In the Theology of Plato, Proclus writes, “For it is necessary to venerate even the ultimate echoes of the Gods, and venerating these to become established in the first paradigms of them” (125.5f, trans. Taylor). What is the difference between body and echo, of the visible signs and tokens of each God and the names that we adorn them with like garments that change with the seasons of a language’s life?

I wrote down a ritual for Selene in late October and performed it a few days ago. White linen. Aromatic incense, a sandalwood blend. Coconut milk. Prayers. A glass of water. That hum inside where the mind feels like a rippling current because the ritual works well enough (there are things I want to modify before next time). A sense of standing upon the world when I closed my eyes after sharing the water that I had presented to the visible moon, the heavens so close around me, my tongue with no hymn to utter. (In the spirit of “after the spiritual experience there’s still dirty laundry,” the rest of my life this week has been a dizzying fog of late-stage virtual event planning, so the ritual was a nice counterpoint to how much time I’ve spent putting out logistical fires.) I felt a lot of gratitude for the Gods, especially when the horizontal rain and thrashing wind abated to mostly-cloudy and the moon reclined in a halo of clarity only shortly before I started the ritual. She was like candles lit upon a shrine to mark the Goddess’ presence.

Selene/Luna flanked by the Dioskouroi. Louvre Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

The physical universe is a conflict-saturated place, regardless of scale, but it is also a place of such stunning beauty.

🌌

5 thoughts on “Some Musings on the (Physical) Universe

  1. Thank you so much for this! I’ve been thinking a lot about what you wrote here, and for me, the key point is when you write about the danger of centering the material/physical cosmos, to point that we utterly lose sight of the metaphysical: “Any account of the physical world cannot be lasting; if we let ourselves stand upon it, we are anchoring ourselves in something as dynamic as an undertow, and as it takes us down, we lose sight of the agalmata and seats of the Gods all around us.” Yes!

    I’m having trouble in the paragraph just after that. I’m just not sure what you mean, or what you’re looking for, when you “agree that there must be a purer form of it somewhere.” Can you help me out here?

    Here’s where my thoughts went, which might be totally in line with what you’re saying, or might be completely missing your point:

    Thinking about any of these physical things—whatever they might be—as agalmata, it should follow directly from that, that they will only ever be an imperfect reflection: imperfect in the most literal sense of being incomplete, not final. I think one of the beautiful things about modern physics (and modern astronomical cosmology) is the way it helps to fill in the picture, so that we can see this imperfection at every timescale: from the human, to the evolutionary, the geological, and now finally the astronomical (physical “cosmology”) too.

    And so too, our theorizing about any of these, and especially about physics, insofar as our society looks to physics for (material) foundations. It’s not that we’re barking up the wrong tree with any of these theories, as if there were some other “right” tree that we just haven’t found yet. Rather, it’s that we expect a tree—any tree—to be more than it is, more than a tree ever could be.

    On this view, when we see the imperfections, both in material things, and in our theorizing about material things, this serves to point beyond those things and those theories, to a source of those things and those theories, which exists in a radically different way than they do. In other words, its the escape valve that keeps us from getting stuck in the purely material.

    So when I look at the cascading series of revisions to fundamental physical theories (your chart thing with all the arrows), I see a beautiful reminder both of the incompleteness of physicality as such, of the incompleteness of theory as such. I see a reminder to look at the agalmata, but also to look through them to they higher things they manifest.

    I think there’s a related key in the paragraph of the Timaeus just after the one you quote, where we encounter Time as the moving image of Eternity, and the way that in his commentary, Proclus mentions the two senses of “always”: “the one eternal (aiōniov), the one temporal (khroniov)” (which in turn brings me back to the lines from your poem, “You hold the boundary of eternity, / Aionic, Khronian, untied, turning”). But I’m still chewing on that, too.

    Thank you again for prompting these reflections, and for letting me think this out in your (virtual) space here!

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    1. By “purer form of it,” I was alluding to some things I have heard about quantum gravity, black holes, and what must lie beyond the unravelling of spacetime. There may actually be something that functions like the role that the ancients wanted the Heavens to play (purer, unchanging, perfectly-ordered). In line with what you said about the “right tree” not existing, I am at the point in my thinking when I would doubt that anything directly sense-perceptible could hold that “purer” status. To pull on Plato in a different way — similar in thinking to your bit about looking through the agalmata — there’s that division in the Republic when Plato’s Socrates is discussing the Sun, and I think that also applies here. Whatever the perfectly-ordered Heavens are, it would have to be some principle within the universe that would be the floor/foundation, so to speak, of what is sense-perceptible without actually being directly knowable through sense-perception. Does this clarify?

      Looking at my mention of the floor in the last paragraph, I’m looking back at Proclus’ commentary (at “If, therefore, time is such a ‘dancing intellect’ (choro-noon), then it dances while nonetheless remaining at rest. And because of the fact that it remains, its dances are infinite in number and such as to cyclically return to the same starting point,” Book 4 on Time, 28.15f in the Baltzly translation), so perhaps thinking about the dancer and the concept of a dance hall is semi-apt here (although it then begs the question of how we account for space in this analogy since a floor conceptually includes an idea of dimensional space). And I’m also looking at the bit at 43.5ff where Time is split into several Gods, specifically Fontal Time, which Proclus says proceeds from the Fontal Goddess (with motion-related discussion that again links back to dancing). I wonder if this is also relevant to your comments about aiōnion and khronion.

      Thank you so much for the comment! I appreciate your thinking here.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you! Yes, that clarifies quite a bit. I’m not at all up-to-date on quantum gravity, but the key point about that foundation being beyond sense-perception makes total sense.

        I’m actually just getting to book IV of Proclus’ Timaeus Commentary, so your post and this comment are timely. I should have a much better sense of things after a few more hours of reading! 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for this and other posts on this topic! The sense of wonder I have when looking up at the night sky and marveling at our vast universe is one of the things that drew me to polytheism, and I feel like I almost never see this topic brought up in our blogosphere.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you! I’m happy to be in this niche in the community (and one of the perks is getting to flip through so many beautiful NASA and ESO images), but agreed, the more the merrier!

      Liked by 2 people

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