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The ultimate representation of the primitive, of what the civilized call the dark ages of prehistory, is the image of tribal people cowering in fear and abasement at a reoccurring and entirely predictable phenomenon of the clockwork universe, the eclipse of the sun. Even civilizations with some form of recorded history but limited application of the scientific method are denigrated for their tendency to attribute this phenomenon to a sentient being. Creating a class of priests whose job it was to pretend they were capable of negotiating with the celestial entity generating this mystery was social hucksterism of the worst kind, no better than a carnival barker’s or a confidence man’s. Worse, in fact, because the whole class sustained itself on these falsehoods not at the margins but at the center of those societies, for hundreds and sometimes thousands of years.
All well and true, perhaps… The science of eclipses is beautiful in and of itself, a dance of geometrical objects in four-dimensional space. But eclipses are a far more complex phenomenon than any simple clockwork analogy can comprise. The nature of the sun, for all the force of observation and analysis brought to it since the emergence of the scientific method, is still mysterious, and many scientists readily admit this. They chase eclipses to pursue that mystery, perhaps with the hope of eliminating it. At the same time one senses in many of those who have written of the phenomenon an unspoken love for the mystery itself. The beauty of something we didn’t create, and can’t fully recreate at any scale, and yet which shows a mastery of the logic (some) humans have discovered in nature and learned to apply with a degree of skill.
But there is another side to the perception of nature as an actively sentient force, and you could say it is currently in eclipse, and we are not necessarily better off for it. That is a recognition of humility. A profound understanding that these forces are supremely determinative, at least compared to us. We may talk and talk and talk of freedom, and freedom has meaning when we oppose it to the social oppression we create in our own species, but still we are not “free” to alter one millimeter of the path of the moon’s shadow as it races across the earth.
Although, we might begin to imagine such power – I mean, I suppose we are technically capable of destroying the moon someday. Would that be a demonstration of our freedom? If some geo-engineering eco-modernist convinced the world’s elites that destroying the moon (or eliminating half its surface, say) was needed to reduce tidal surges from a rising ocean, and thus protect real estate values, would the rest of us “free” humans have any choice but to watch the sky on the announced night and marvel at the great power that humanity’s possession of the scientific method has given (some of) us, as we blew that once-living deity to smithereens?
Also descending into conceptual eclipse is the idea that there is any reason to sustain the web of life here on earth for its own sake – that it has any reason to exist other than to protect and serve us. We are (according to us) earth’s culminating creation. “We are as gods,” says eco-modernist Stewart Brand, “so we better get good at it.” Never mind that with their Panglossian projections, the eco-modernists are attempting to put solid climate science at the service of an ideology of infinite economic growth that one fine day may be understood to be as factitious as alchemy or perpetual motion.
In The Medea Hypothesis, Peter Ward posits that earth is actually predisposed to eliminate complex life, and our human intelligence is the only thing capable of “saving” it – by saving ourselves. This in spite of the fact that we are now responsible, single-handedly and utterly without forethought, for initiating the sixth mass extinction in earth’s history. So, if you agree with Ward’s hypothesis, you could just as well say we are simply implementing the planet’s directive; why change anything now?
“This is the most dangerous period in human history,” warns Stephen Hawking, “because we have the capability of destroying the planet without the capability of leaving it.” He calls for redoubling efforts to ship out. Our ultimate human destiny is thus to degrade, exhaust, emigrate and colonize forever? Because the civilization that produced Stephen Hawking did that “successfully?”
It’s not just science-deniers who foment social madness, and now more than ever, it seems important to state and restate that science in service to ideology or profit is equally capable of bringing on the dark ages. The Bomb. Drone warfare. Chemical and biological weapons. How many scientists are gainfully employed in constant improvement of the science of mass destruction?
Has the triumph of the scientific method and the tools/toys it has put in our hands so prolifically created a global society more ably guided by rational argument in the service of a genuine ethics, characterized by more equality (or even real meritocracy), a deeper and more broadly-shared physical and mental wellbeing? It’s a painfully self-answering question.
How about less violence? Even if linguist Steven Pinker, another Panglossian, tries to make the case via simple body count that violence has been reduced as a result of the advance of scientific civilization, structural violence is not just wars, and deaths are not the only datum to tabulate. Imprisonment, military occupations, police harassment, religious intolerance of difference and state intolerance of religious, ethnic or sexual difference are all forms of structural violence, and just because people survive to procreate doesn’t mean they don’t experience it.
In the wake of a scene from the recurring nightmares of history in Charlottesville, it’s a good time to remember that white supremacists had (have) scientists too.
This isn’t a futile call for a return to a pre-scientific age. There is no “back” to go to; events on the macro scale proceed in one dimension only. It would be pointless to yearn for a past we could never recapture even if it had actually existed as we romantically imagined it. What we are called by our circumstances to do is to learn to see, really see, in the present. To step outside the ever-more totalizing sphere of media long enough to read the signs – not tea leaves, or constellations perhaps, but yes, the movements of flocks of birds can still tell us something. And not whether a military engagement will be won or lost, but the prospects for another kind of engagement, a war that isn’t and never was, a war – for survival. Meaningful (because we are an animal that requires meaning) survival. Skill without wisdom cannot survive long, much less thrive indefinitely.
Those millions who gathered in the zone of totality to look to the sky on Monday (the “most watched” eclipse in human history) – what did they actually see? Did their regulation glasses and the little hand-held pseudo-intelligences we are all equipped with now enhance or trivialize the experience? As the gigantic shadow rushed over, many could be seen holding up their tiny tools to capture the uncapturable – because no video stream can replicate awe. When all that’s left of those lives is a flickering pulse in cyberspace, a collection of light waves on a screen, what will have been the meaning of that moment?
And when the screens inevitably go dark, and the whole story of our species is a thin layer of sediment on an unrecognizable continent? What will have been the meaning of our “freedom,” our power?
Eclipses pass, the sun re-emerges from shadow. All is in constant motion, nothing is still, no point of rest in all the universe. Night comes and we can’t stop it. The day returns and we did nothing to make it return. The great dance is happening on a scale we must at some point acknowledge and contextualize ourselves within. The zone of our agency is something to limn carefully and continually, because our collective dance is always along the edge of a cliff of our own making now. And our tools won’t keep us from straying over, if we gaze exclusively at ourselves against the backdrop of an unknown and unimportant sky.