Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Spaceship Earth Does Not Move

The movements of the stars have become clearer; but to the mass of the people the movements of their masters are still incalculable.
Bertolt Brecht, The Life of Galileo

Spaceship Earth is not Static

Stand up and look down at your feet.

I’m going to assume that you’re not travelling, which is increasingly likely these days. But in any event it doesn’t change the main point. The ground beneath your feet is not moving; at least not in relation to your body. The sky above, outside, is not so fixed.  The sun and moon and all that other stuff up there travel above us on their daily and annual and other cycles within the cosmic system. But the ground is different. It’s a fixed base. This fixity is important both literally as it’s where your feet are planted, and metaphorically too, as it’s a foundation for our experience. Experience begins with and on the earth.

Yet squaring this experience with what we know creates something of a snag. It’s not what’s happening in reality. Spaceship Earth is not static. Scientific observation tells us that the motionless planet of experience is actually hurtling through space; spinning not only around its axis but also around the sun. Freud recognised the trauma that this scientific knowledge potentially causes and spoke about the two outrages to humanity that modern science provided; a third being presented by his own psychoanalysis:

Humanity, in the course of time, has had to endure from the hands of science two great outrages against its naive self-love. The first was when humanity discovered that our earth was not the center of the universe, but only a tiny speck in a world-system hardly conceivable in its magnitude. This is associated in our minds with the name “Copernicus,” although Alexandrian science had taught much the same thing. The second occurred when biological research robbed man of his apparent superiority under special creation, and rebuked him with his descent from the animal kingdom, and his ineradicable animal nature. This re-valuation, under the influence of Charles Darwin, Wallace and their predecessors, was not accomplished without the most violent opposition of their contemporaries. But the third and most irritating insult is flung at the human mania of greatness by present-day psychological research, which wants to prove to the “I” that it is not even master in its own home, but is dependent upon the most scanty information concerning all that goes on unconsciously in its psychic life.”

Crucially, the scientific Copernican Revolution of modernity not only involves the astronomical modelling of the cosmos but also a shift in world-view. What emerges is a theoretical awareness, developed also by Galileo and Descartes, that fundamental features of nature can be described as a system; mathematically. Hence the world, by virtue of its capacity to be modelled mathematically, is understood to be separate from human consciousness and is independent of thought.

Copernican Revolutions

Actually, the so-called Copernican Revolution has two meanings. There is its literal sense in the emergence of a modern, scientific and heliocentric world view. And there is a metaphorical use in philosophy. In this second sense it is often used to name the so-called transcendental turn taken by philosophy from Immanuel Kant in the late 18th century onwards and which the philosopher Quentin Meillassoux has recently named Correlationism. This Correlationism (of which Meillassoux is critical) claims that any thought about the world independent of that thought is impossible. That is, we can never know what the world is like in-itself. This philosophical use of the Copernican revolution as a metaphor originated from a comment in the second preface to The Critique of Pure Reason (1787) where Kant proposes to do for metaphysics what Copernicus had done for cosmology, namely effect a sudden revolution leading to a paradigm shift in thought itself. In On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres (1543) Copernicus proposed a heliocentric system that reversed the commonly accepted Ptolemaic geocentric model of the universe. Kant states that whereas previously it had been assumed that knowledge conforms to its objects he will develop a metaphysics that begins from the supposition that objects conform to knowledge. From this emerges the transcendental turn that modifies metaphysical questions directed toward things in-themselves, which is claimed to be impossible, into questions of how knowledge of the world is possible.

However, this is the violent contradiction that leads to these ‘outrages’ of modernity. So, whilst science allows for the possibility of a mind independent of reality, philosophy insists that thought about that reality in-itself is impossible. The metaphor itself is paradoxical as it positions humans at the centre of their philosophical systems yet at the edge of their scientific ones.

And yet, to not accept this and to deny scientific revolutions positions one as a crank, crackpot or conspiracy theorist. The snag is going to be, then, how to reconcile those two domains: knowledge and experience. And there, perhaps, we have a model of what work the artwork can do.
[From an essay on Niamh McCann's work]