Sunday, July 06, 2008

Embracing the seventh art

The medieval university curriculum was divided into two parts -- the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic), and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). One might argue, and many do, that these seven liberal arts might still constitute a satisfactory education. And certainly, what the medievals understood about grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry and music has not substantially changed. Rhetoricians can still be inspired by Cicero. Einstein learned his geometry from Euclid. We listen to medieval music with undiminished pleasure.

But astronomy has been transformed utterly.

What gave medieval studies their beautiful coherence was a commonly accepted understanding of the physical universe and our place in it. The cosmos was a sphere, contrived to a human scale, and we were at its center. The Earth was a unique stage provided by God for the drama of sin and salvation.

When the poet Dante Alighieri took his 14th-century readers on a tour of the cosmos in The Divine Comedy, it was familiar territory. Every medieval student was well grounded in the Earth-centered spheres, the five elements (earth, water, air, fire, and ether) in their concentric realms, the great chain of being (with humans poised between matter and spirit, partaking of both), and the correspondences between the macrocosm and the microcosm (the universe and the human body).

The central coherence of Dante's world view was ripped asunder by Copernicus. The Divine Comedy can still be read as sublime literature, but it has nothing to do with 21st-century cosmology.

Modern astronomy has discovered extraordinary things about the universe and our place in it, but many of us don't want to hear it. Psychologically, we still believe the whole shebang is centered on ourselves, and that cosmic history and human history are the same, pretty much as Dante imagined it.

And so the older, defunct medieval cosmology lurks behind everything we study, like a rotted-out foundation for the modern university curriculum. It is because we don't take modern cosmology seriously that the contemporary curriculum lacks coherence.

If we could restore a course in cosmology to the core curriculum, what would it consist of? What are the key things modern astronomy has discovered about the world that are different from the cosmology of Aquinas and Dante?

1. The universe is big -- very, very big -- and we are not at its center.

2. The universe is old -- very, very old -- and we are recent arrivals.

3. The universe evolves -- galaxies, stars, planets, continents and oceans, living organisms -- and we are a perhaps not atypical blip in the universe's story.

It is a measure of our coming of age as a species -- and of our distance from the Middle Ages -- that we are able to separate the universe's story from our own, and gaze courageously into the cosmos of the myriad galaxies rather than remaining fixated on our own navels. Finding ourselves in a universe without a center, we are challenged to make our own center, by loving the place we are in and every creature in it.

And what of God, who in the medieval cosmos presided at the apex of creation, plucking the strings that made the whole universe resound with music both sweet and sad? Has he absconded along with the cozy human-centered cosmos?

Science has nothing to say about that, but certainly theologians must work within the context of contemporary cosmology. Perhaps, as Annie Dillard states in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, "God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly of its hem."

Further Reading

The image above is the Hubble Ultra Deep Field Photo, the deepest we have ever seen into our universe. Except for perhaps one or two, the spots of light are galaxies, not stars, each containing hundreds of billions of stars. The photo covers a part of the sky you could cover by the intersection of crossed sewing pins held at arm's length.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.