In this collection of thoughts or essays, I am building towards the idea that the poet, the writer, and the artist are closer to the heart of life than our present worldview in any sense gives them credit for. And when I say life, I mean life…the cosmic mystery of it, I don’t just mean “life” in some denuded and winter-stripped Reality TV sense. I say this, not to shore up the egos of poets and artists (though God knows at times we need it…at other times, it’s the worst thing we could do); I say it because I genuinely suspect it to be the case, and because I care deeply about the creative act and those involved in it, whether as generators or consumers. The final idea I am building towards–though we are not there yet–is that the world itself is a shimmering autopoiesis hanging in the void, a living dynamic principle of self-creation, and art in all its color is not merely a reflection of this, but its very acting out, in the unique capacities of the human creature.
So reader, if you’ve been with me this far, I have a request of you. Please sit down here, yes right here, take a deep breath, pour yourself a drink from that bottle over there labeled “particularly stiff whiskey” or even the bottle labeled “what are you serious don’t drink this,” look me in the eyes and tell yourself that whatever other thoughts blow over today like weather, you won’t let this one escape: when I raised the issue in a previous conversation that the world is not made of stuff, I wasn’t kidding. If you are sitting there with the unconscious assumption that it still is, then you are perpetuating a hoax on yourself that the human race has been playing for centuries, but which actually became untenable a number of decades ago. I will not rehearse the argument again here (see my previous entries) but it is important to restate it before we continue. Forget what you have heard about superstrings…or almost forget it. Superstrings are a mathematical solution to a mathematical problem. They are inseparable from such abstract notional entities as complex numbers and the square root of minus one. Not only are such “things” not to be found down the most powerful microscopes and in the largest particle colliders we could ever create, they simply could not be found there. And if, even purely for the sake of argument, they ever were to found there, the thorniest questions conceivable would rise up along with them, demanding to be answered.
This is where the centuries-long quest for the stuff of the universe has taken us: into a hornet’s nest of abstractions. If you don’t believe me that it’s an abstraction, ask yourself how the recent ‘discovery’ of the Higgs Boson impacted you personally on any practical level, or the life of anyone you know (assuming they are not particle physicists or science journalists). Of course, the hornet’s nest only remains a hornet’s nest if we continue to make the assumption that a “stuff” has to be there. The superstring theorists were not wrong to have hunted their snark, to have found such creative solutions to such a gigantic problem. But their quarry shape shifted on them somewhere along the journey. They know it too…hence their naming of the “quark.” Another sign of this problem is the bewildering array of subatomic and sub-subatomic particles now said to comprise this domain. The alleged behaviors of these “world-building units” now exceed for their titillating strangeness anything that ever swooned a lady in a 19th Century traveling menagerie. Originally, the project of trespassing this shadowy world was intended to clarify nature, not deliver us into the sinister, clownish laughter of a Bradburyesque carnival. In one sense it was the ultimate reductionist fantasy: when we got down to rock bottom, everything would finally make sense in a kind of species-defining Archimedes moment: it would all become clear. Instead, we seem to have wandered farther and farther from the warm heart of life and the soft glow of experience lived from within…the only two things, finally, that we can even be certain exist at all. But at this point we should be feeling some healthy measure of doubt about that quest, and with it the idea that the most important discoveries are to be made in the smallest of the small, or in strangely contrived wildernesses far from creaturely scale, wildernesses where we can only observe at all (in the case of superstrings) using fantastically impossible theoretical particle colliders half the size of the galaxy. And let’s say that we ever built such a monster. Can anyone really believe that there wouldn’t come with it a rhetorical act, just as large, in interpreting whatever we suppose ourselves to glimpse there, ricocheting around in its chambers of eternity?
Returning then, to the central matter of my topic, we have a strange attitude when it comes to creativity in the world. We are happy to acknowledge that human beings can be creative, after a fashion, but we have a curious tendency to deny this to the rest of nature. Like a Strange Attractor in possibility space, this denial has coalesced around two distinct traditions in the history of science and religion. The first is to place all real creativity in the lap of a Cosmic Flash believed to have happened unimaginable epochs ago. In theological tradition, this of course is the Creation, the summoning of the world into being by God, the secular version of which is the Big Bang. However, this cosmic creativity is (usually) conceived of as a one-off event. God set the whole thing in motion, and then absconded into remote darkness, like someone setting a firework and bolting for the shadows. What follows thereafter is the acting out of a set of “natural laws,” supposedly conceived at the universal inception, or else as eternal structures in the mind of God. I’ll return to this idea of natural laws in just a moment. The other vision of creativity in the natural world extends from Darwin and Mendel. Here, animal forms and their governing genes have a certain creative ability to evolve on the fly. In other words, arising form isn’t literally constrained to a Universal Creation at the dawn of time, but emerges from contingent circumstance in the playing out of the universe. Bats don’t need to have sonar conceived from all eternity in the mind of God. But when small flying mammals colonized caves, this was a contingent circumstance for the emergence of sonar. However, although on first appearance this version seems to concede a radical creativity to nature which, in the theological version, is limited only to God, on closer inspection this isn’t really the case. The “creative” process by which life discovers new forms and opportunities in Darwinian materialism is that of blind chance and necessity. In its own peculiar way this does nothing more than assume the thing that it originally sets out to explain, namely the ultimate source of creative possibility. “Chance” is a mechanistic concept, in effect another one of those natural laws set in motion and left running from the start of the universe, bringing us back by a curious detour to the same problem. The mechanistic world view, in my opinion, does not really have the tools to comprehend, or even to cope with, the radical concept that creativity is an ontological reality and not just an appearance, and hence does the only thing it can, which is the attempt to squash the creative process through the Victorian sausage machine of a grinding mechanism. As I pointed out in an earlier segment though, no mechanism anywhere has ever demonstrably achieved the things that life and creativity are capable of achieving every day.
So we seem to be caught between two stools, an eternal mind of God where all the true creativity inheres, or no God at all (because the universe is a mechanism, which came into existence mechanistically and proceeds mechanistically). Both of these positions seem to me to be dancing as hard as they can to avoid the possibility that creativity is pervasive and authentic and perpetual. The fact that this may be a more challenging alternative does not give us license to eschew it. Then there is this difficulty of natural laws, which raises additional problems for both of the above positions. The idea here is that while there may be many passing forms in the universe, underlying it all there are certain eternal, non-negotiable principles we call natural laws. Either these laws were “decreed” by God, or they are simply “natural” laws, decreed as it were by nature. The analogy itself is already in hot water from its inception, as laws are entirely an invention and convention of human beings. They have no other known (non-rhetorical) context than this. Certainly, mindless mechanisms cannot decree laws, so this does not provide an explanation of why these things are the way that they are, and not some other way. The natural constants, for instance the charge on an electron (1.60217657 × 10-19 coulombs), would generally be considered among these natural laws. What determined these values? Are they really inflexible? Or do they in fact vary and drift over time, even if only to a very small degree? If they are eternal and inflexible, then why do they have the particular values or properties that they do? In the theological picture, the charge on an electron was an abstract idea in the mind of God, prior to (or at least otherwise outside of) the creation of the universe. But it is very difficult to know what is meant by “an abstract idea of the charge on (as yet nonexistent) electrons,” if indeed it means anything at all.
The mechanistic worldview fares little better, because to say that the charge on an electron is a “natural law” is to say that it is not simply an on-the-fly development during the lived-in evolution of the cosmos. But if it isn’t, then again it must have been there before the cosmos, or in some abstract sense eternally, which returns us once more to a scenario that is really just a secular version of the mind of God idea. What does it mean to talk about the charge on electrons before there were any electrons…before there was anything? We begin to sense that this whole idea of eternal natural laws is a strange kind of hokum. Nor is the concept rescued if we attempt to say that the cosmos had no “before,” that time came into existence concomitantly with the universe. Even if that is so, and in all likelihood it is so, it doesn’t explain what we mean by an abstract electron, abstract nuclear fusion, or abstract fluid mechanics. It seems preposterous to suggest that these things have a definition somehow outside of their creative, ongoing enactment within the universe.
The problem becomes yet more serious with that set of phenomena which, by convention at least, we describe as the living world. Were the “laws” of cell division, plant pollination, genetic drift, the mating calls of the whip-poor-will, and the morphological development of the wombat embryo somehow already in place before the big bang? Or even just after the big bang, when the only physics at play was the superhot wonderland that didn’t yet even allow for the heavier elements of the periodic table? This statuesque notion of the universe seems fiercely at variance with what we actually see and encounter in life. Science does not normally view these biological things in the category of “natural laws” (mainly due to its historical blind spot for anything other than reductionism). But what if they are exactly that? Waiving for the moment the question of what natural laws really are, and whether they are laws at all, what if chromosome segregation and morphological development, the mating ritual of the redback spider who sacrifices himself to the female in order to prevent other pairings, the homing instincts of pigeons, and the creative aptitudes of human beings are in fact in the same essential category as the ‘law’ of gravity and the elementary charge of an electron? That is to say, what if “laws” are actually emergent responses of a deeply fecund and quasi-sentient creative principle permeating nature that coalesces into forms and behaviors as the opportunity arises, not at the beginning of the universe but as the cosmos progresses in real time? Today. Tomorrow. Moreover, what if this is in fact a driving force of what life itself secretly is, not just life in general, but your life and mine, that story or poem you are writing right now, that music you are making or listening to, the choices you are forming this very second? The owl opens its eyes and the night flows out of her, like the words and forms that well up in ourselves, out of the blackbody depth that glistens with infinite potential.
But we wouldn’t want to consider that, because if we did the entire grinding edifice of the last one hundred and fifty years, the dehumanizing, alienating, suicide-spawning, environmentally ravaging, mental-illness-causing, consumerist headless-chickenism; the universe of meaninglessness and gray-sweater-hopelessness and utter cosmic futility, might just find itself poisoned right back at its reservoir. And if that thought percolated, there is even a risk that we might end up living in a softer world of greater compassion and connection, of breathtaking possibility and beauty beyond what is really quite likely to be our wildest anticipation, where nature is a partner and an embedding and not an enemy, and where we ourselves and all animal life are no longer a mere cancerous polyp on the dermis of existence, but living avatars of a scintillating dynamic principle that births from its quintessential nature everything from the iridescent flicker of a hummingbird’s wing to the Ulysses of James Joyce, from the geometry of a snowflake to the radium flash of cosmoses in birth.
And ye gads, that would be terrible!
MARK SWEENEY, May 26th 2013.