Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Is the universe great?

Here's an axiom:

Greatness consists in maximal presentation with rarity.

By maximal presentation I mean a feature, or set of features, of some entity which enables it to 'consume' or fill the field of consciousness in which it is disclosed, or to 'consume' and define a description and 'sense' of its milieu. By rarity, I mean a feature of an entity that entails that its level of presentation is only sometimes, and only sometimes wholly, accessible to consciousness and description in a milieu.

While the sky is maximally present, it is only periodically great, such as when it is completely cloudless and as blue as sapphire, since this sapphire cloudlessness is rare. Or, then again, the sky is great when it is all rain, clouds, and lightning--a rare set of factors. Otherwise, the sky is just "the background"--only provisionally great. Likewise, while the Rockies are great for their rarity and maximal presentation, residents of Denver and Colorado Springs quickly take them for granted--again, as mere background. So their rarity is provisional. Furthermore, only when they are viewed from the right distance and under the right conditions, are peaks of the Rockies truly great in their presentation. A man deep inside a cave in the Rockies sees nothing great about the maximal presentation of the walls around him, even though they belong to a glorious mountain outside.

Mt. Fuji is perhaps always great not only because it is maximally present--massive, level, albinous and luminous, seemingly afloat upon the ocean, a metonym for Japan--but also because a clear view of its peak is so rare, even for native Japanese. Mt. Everest is also perhaps intrinsically--and even paradigmatically--great. For, even though local Tibetans see no reason to climb it, whereas stunned Westerners do with an almost cultish fixation, the Tibetans still recognize the mountain as a "Holy Mother," an act of piety which itself may contribute to their disinterest in climbing it. Climbing up your mother and claiming her with a flag is bad form by any standards.

Along the same lines, while Michael Jordan or Babe Ruth were great, they were only great because their maximal presentation as athletes--as those who "redefined the sport" or as "icons of the game"--broke through for all to see with some rarity. Had Babe Ruth hit a home run every time he was up to bat, he would actually lose some of his greatness, despite being maximally present every time (and in sports records). Had Michael Jordan made a sensational play every time he touched the ball, his greatness would likewise decline over time. This is why the excellence of robotic achievements has more to do with the greatness of the inventors and programmers than with the machines themselves. There is nothing great about a car assembly machine, although there is something awesome in its unflagging precision and stamina. And while the rarity of the first such assesmbly machines may have made them great in a certain way, their rapid population of "the car world" led to a decline in greatness inversely to their industry-standard maximal presentation. Jaguars were considered by many to be great cars because their means of production were rarer (more manual and individualized) and those means of productions were not maximally present "in the industry." The same thing holds for why Birkenstocks are considered great shoes.

The question is, "Is the universe great?" I think it's basically tautological to say the universe is maximally present, since it is the definition of our broadest conscious and discursive milieu: it is "where everybody's at" and "where everything happens" and "what everything is a part of." I would also say that an appreciation of its maximal presentation occurs rarely enough to make it great. In the past, the universe was largely taken to be coextensive with the sky, which would, as I mentioned above, reduce its greatness to rare atmospheric or dimly fathomed celestial phenomena. It was not until the past few centuries that humans could fathom just how large and complex the cosmos is. Breakthroughs in cosmology and satellite imagery ignite an awe before the cosmos in a way that wakes nearly everyone from taking the universe for granted. Only when we are faced with a maximal presentation of rare (because newly discovered) features of the universe, do we appreciate its greatness. This is why reading how many stars are in the cosmos, or hearing how long it would take light to travel at "such a wicked fast speed," or etc., typically has a backfiring effect. Rather than stunning us with the universe's magnitude--except on the first hearing, perhaps--, such unfathomably large numbers quickly numb the mind with a gauze of sheer vastness. Such statistics confuse bigness with greatness and do not disclose maximally present uniqueness in the cosmos as marks of its greatness. By contrast, looking at a magazine or website full of pictures of galactic dust pillars, quasars, asteroids, etc. can engage the mind indefinitely. The concrete rarity of these particular structures are what allow the universe's otherwise vague greatness to become maximally present in consciousness.

At this point, however, I propose that this dynamic presents difficulties for naturalism. Briefly stated, if what makes the cosmos great are its concrete features, then what makes the cosmos great are its contingent features. For only the unlimited is absolute; the contingent is always specific, and vice versa. Thus, what makes the cosmos great is its pervasive specific contingency. On naturalism, however, the universe cannot be contingent, otherwise it would require a cause outside itself to actualize its myriad of potential specificities. At the same time, the aesthetic drive behind naturalism is to "give nature its due," to appreciate Nature in all its beauty and greatness, without subjecting "Her" to dependence on "Him." (Is naturalism metaphysical feminism?) This is what most appealed to C.S. Lewis about naturalism before he was a Christian: it made nature absolute, as her vast, churning power, myriad beauty, and ageless immutability seem to suggest she is. Yet I am suggesting that it is the combination of nature's myriad specific beauties and seemingly immutabile presentation which renders naturalism hollow.

When naturalists are presented with indications of cosmic specificity and cosmological contingency, it is a standard tactic for them to reply that the only reason these specificities seem incredible is because they happened to produce us. This is known as the strong anthropic principle (SAP). If the features of the universe had not resulted in our grasp of them, there would be nothing surprising about nature's prior history and constitution, simply because there would be no one to be surprised by nature's nature. Nor is there any grounds for saying "our universe" is less likely than any other--an unlikelihood raised to indicate the presence of a Creator--, since it is just the nature of the case that this kind of universe is but among a narrow range of sets of physical parameters that permit the evolution of sentient beings like us. At the extreme, naturalists have more recently taken to positing a multiverse as the basis for our cosmos. Our cosmos is just one "quantum bubble" on an infinitely vast and eternal "quantum foam." There is literally nothing special about cosmos, since, in a multiverse in which all possible permutations come to be in the course of eternity--and come to be an infinite number of times--, our experience of the cosmos is utterly trivial, a statistical fillip. Theists, thus, are accused of having cosmic confirmation bias, like Johnny insisting that his having his parents is more improbable and marvelous than Mikey having his own. But Mikey and Johnny's existence are equally unlikely ante rem and equally trivial ex post facto.

There are two problems I see with this retort, at least as far as naturalism wants to maintain the greatness of the universe. First, the "just so" SAP-story about the universe evacuates it of any rarity. There is nothing surprising about the universe since it allegedly lacks contingency altogether. If the (fundamental) laws of nature are "immutable" and "absolute," as many naturalists are inclined to believe, then there is nothing to be excited about: the way the world is just the way the world is. Consequently, however, everything is pure background and everything is to be taken for granted, which evacuates the universe of greatness in much the same way that living in the Rockies 'flattens' them. If the universe, in all its grandeur, is just a trvially necessary iteration of an endless series of quantal-informational permutations, what is there in nature to admire as a maximally present rarity? If there is literally nothing special about nature, then there is literally nothing special about nature. As such, paradoxically, naturalism ends up devaluing nature more than any other other worldview.

Second, SAP reduces the universe's maximal presentation to our emergence within it. On my account, nothing can be great without being present to a high degree. An unknown mathematical genius, who never receives any formal training in math, and who never writes down or expresses his work, is not great, for two reasons. First, his miraculous genius is not maximally present in the field of mathematics. He would for this reason also not be rare: unknowns can't be rare, since they are unspecified. Second, he would not be great in his own mind, since, while his maximal presentation pervades his own consciousness in ways that keep him focused on math his whole life, yet his removal from the larger milieu of the world of mathematics gives him no criterion to assess his own rarity. He would not be great "in his own mind," since, for him, his own mind would just be. Likewise, the universe can't be great to itself, without possessing a power of appreciating its maximal presentness--which is the use the SAP makes of us--and can't be great apart from being situated in a larger milieu. By contrast, in a theistic worldview, not only is the universe radically contingent, and therefore radically unique, but also its maximal presentation abides in the knowledge of God as something intrinsically great qua the work of an infinitely great Creator. Among possible worlds, our world is the greatets because it was the one chosen out of a larger milieu of "possible worlds." Possibilia themselves are but the function of God's power, not vice versa. God cannot lift a stone He cannot lift, not because this is impossible in its own terms, as if in some imagined world of Pure Possibility, but rather it is impossible because it is not in God's power to actualize that which He cannot actualize.

Apropos God's greatness, how do rarity and maximal presentation fit in to the picture? An absolutely simple God, it should go without saying, enjoys maximal rarity. Likewise, His eternal sovereignty mean He is maximally present to any state of affairs, even one that is devoid of a created universe. For a triune God is not only present to Himself in a maximally immanent way, but also unique to Himself as the singular ground of all else. There are no discrete "features" of God to remind us of His rarity--no stellar gas clouds and quasars to "observe" in Him--but there are nodes of contingent rarity which do reflect His rarity, namely, our own grasp of Him as the Maximally Present Sustainer of all. God does not need us to appreciate His own rarity and maximal presentation, but He needs us, so to speak, so that we can appreciate His greatness. Perhaps a naturalist will posit that the universe is self-conscious and was once immaterial--viz., that the specific features we see now are great because they were not always and did not have to be in and of themselves--, but this concession collapses naturalism into theism.

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