By Paul J. Ennis
I'd like to take my time here to briefly outline the spirit of inquiry that both the artist and philosopher represent. It is, I would wager, a spirit that manifests in the taste for the broadest questions and it has two significant aspects I wish to discuss.
By this I mean that the broad questions are often accompanied by a strange duality. One expressed in the ambiguity that is intrinsic to belonging to a species that is in one aspect capable of astonishing cognition achievements and in another prone to puzzlement about how the fruits of these achievements all fit together.
This recursive relationship with understanding is timeless and it has appeared constantly in those fields that often brush up against the big questions: art, philosophy, theology and science. These are the fields that best reveal the ever-so-slight line separating human ingenuity and frailty. They also share, in their own unique manners, the motivation and desire to gain traction on an often-times inscrutable reality.
Of these four fields one stands out in recent history for its remarkable intellectual acceleration across all its sub-disciplines and I am speaking, of course, about science or, more appropriately, the natural sciences.
Of especial note is how they have remade our temporal self-image by situating us within deep time. They have given form to expanses of time that had hitherto been empty in their specifics. It seems natural now, but you don't have to go far back into our history to puzzle someone by speculating that dinosaurs went extinct roughly sixty-five million ago.
Our species once felt small under the gaze of deities but, whether one has faith or not, it is now sheer number-ranges that belittle us: billion-year phases where events occurred that had nothing whatsoever to do with us (and likely many more such phases to come).
Natural scientists are rightly valorised for reconstructing how it went before we appeared and are to be commended for giving us a degree of insight into what will happen when we disappear. And also for revealing possibilities concerning our more immediate future.
What they present us with are images. Images that contribute to our self-image, our self-understanding.
Deep time images represent a significant cognitive expansion stretching our temporal understanding far beyond that grasped by our ancestors. Such conceptual scales have long existed, but now our narratives are scientifically rooted – no longer merely speculative.
Not speculative but nonetheless unseen. In this manner aesthetic vision necessarily functions as an intermediary in a manner not dissimilar to how artists once gave theology sight.
Furthermore, in the process of discovery we find visualisation a constant source of cognitive fuel in the natural sciences. It is amidst the species that Darwin begins to piece together his narrative. The origin of the species is fomented in a sketchbook.
Now, the story of discovery is one where various disciplines have lifted (and sometimes hindered) one another and there is no doubting that our current gains have come from a slow march. And that is because the story of discovery is also one of schism.
That competing ways to contextualise the world often conflict is inevitable. And each side throws scepticism at the other; pointing out a piece of the puzzle the other has overlooked.
Of especial note is how scepticism functions remarkably well in our age of unprecedented access to and generation of knowledge. Abundance can lead one to assume that with so many alternatives, so many perspectives, that it is all relative, so to speak.
The light touch of relativism leaves many a hand print in such an atmosphere.
And supposing one overcomes relativism then another troubling paradox awaits. Expansive knowledge of the universe, from micro- to macro-, cannot but leave one with an acute sense for the contingency of things. The more one knows how things work the less obvious are the reasons why.
This is a slippery slope for an animal that thinks and has an innate striving to discover significance. On billion-year time-scales how can one not feel the strain of arbitrariness?
Cognition is, then, a gift and a curse. Through evolutionary chance we have reached a point where even cosmological scale can be reflected upon.
Our abilities even extend to picturing ourselves from afar allowing us to catch sight of ourselves as a pale blue dot loitering in space. This is certainly awe-inspiring, but quite explicit evidence of just how small we really are.
This seems to threaten a total loss of meaning. Our traditional categories were, broadly speaking, often anchored to a sense of purposefulness.
However, deep time alters the definition of purpose, naturalises it, and presents the challenge of reinventing, rather than discarding, meaning. This does not mean we will do away with contingency or rediscover a foundation for existence, but it opens up the possibility of gaining a pragmatic foothold upon reality.
It is the scale of the required reinvention that perhaps helps explain the entrenchment of anti-scientific forms of thought.
One response has been to develop critiques designed to undermine our confidence in the scientific narrative. We hear that if science openly asserts its own willingness to revise then why take any of its postulations as true? Or that perhaps the sciences simply reflect an epochal bias.
Neither position is especially helpful when waged uncritically. A healthier response is surely one that attempts to develop a rigorous sense of meaning that complements, rather than denigrates, the immense cognitive revolutions of contemporary science.
This involves nothing less than marrying the two images with which we encounter the world: the manifest image we have developed over millennia (our usual self-image) and the scientific image with which we have accelerated our grasp of the structure of the universe which includes ourselves as a natural entity within it.
Today we will, I suspect, look at the universe from the middle ground: not quite manifest, not quite scientific. Using a little bit of both.
This is, in the spirit of the times, to reflect according to new fundamentals, to new conditions. To think in line with the vast vistas of cosmological and evolutionary scale.
There is no doubt that this cold universe, when one settles their eye upon it, is anxiety-inducing.
The temptation to localise, to live solely within one culture is a powerful one, but it is also half-blind.
Generating coherence in a world where two images exist side-by-side is a difficult task, but a commendable one.
The technique is to creatively fuse them, in the best rationalist spirit, and then hopefully to discover pockets of meaning that allow us to know our way around, to borrow a little from Sellars.
That there is meaning in a fundamentally contingent universe is both a source of immense bafflement and plain fortune. That there are two divergent images is not some moral catch-22 where one must decide whether they are with the scientists or the artists or the philosophers.
Be with and listen to both.