Astronomy, Mysticism, and Mechanism

Astronomy, Mysticism, and Mechanism

Astronomy has always been linked with mysticism. The gods of the sun, moon, and stars; the belief in astrology; the supposed geometrical perfection of celestial motions; the Empyrean Heaven; the spiritual meaning of celestial phenomena; the awe inspired by the “starry heavens” (Kant); the assumption of a superlunary realm of being beyond earthly existence: all these and more have accompanied the human upward gaze. Why is this? It is often suggested that ignorance is the source of such astronomical mysticism: it comes from a pre-scientific view of the world steeped in superstitious religion. But that can’t be right, because we don’t find such perennial mysticism attaching to studies of the earth: geology and geography don’t carry mystical overtones, though no doubt they too were steeped in ignorance. Why then is the sky a source of mysticism but not the earth? The answer is surely plain: it’s because of how the sky looks, especially at night. The moon alone is a remarkable visual object, but the stars add a new dimension of what can only be called visual splendor. It is the aesthetics of the night sky that prompts astronomical mysticism. The very idea of God (or the gods) might well be caused by the appearance of the night sky (also the appearance of the sun during the day). This must have struck our remote ancestors with great force and invited the mystical doctrines long associated with the study of astronomy. Add to that the enigmatic character of what we see and mysticism is only natural. Astronomy is thus the original site of mysticism; nothing else comes close to its mystical potential. Not physics, not chemistry, not biology, not psychology, not philosophy.

            But the history of astronomy has seen a steady erosion of mystical doctrines, often accompanied by strong resistance. No more music of the heavens, no more harmony of the spheres, no more perfect circular motions, no more sky gods, no more imperishable realities, no more mathematical spirituality, no more astrological meaning. We now think of the universe as consisting basically of matter in motion—as a kind of huge machine. That is, mechanism has replaced mysticism. Photographs of the planets reveal barren surfaces–desolate, lifeless, completely devoid of spirit. It’s all just rocks. Now we tend to see the earth as beautiful, incandescent, an oasis of spirituality—or we try to. The heavens have lost their magic: there is nothing remotely godlike about Mars and Jupiter. Even the earth is just “the third rock from the sun”. So, there has been a process of disenchantment, disillusionment: nowadays when we gaze up at the stars, we cannot help thinking that there is nothing special up there—just more matter in motion, some very hot, some very cold. Our sense impressions are contradicted by our scientific knowledge. The universe has become more humdrum, less fascinating (except to professional astronomers). Astronomy is now a science like any other, not a spiritual adventure or source of mystical frisson. Astronomy is now a branch of geography. Cosmic vastness is no compensation for an essential lack of spirituality. And that is how it should be, science being what it is.

            The result is that we are left with a black hole in the human psyche. Mystical feelings now have no home. Astronomy was their original home going back many thousands of years, but that home is no more: mystical feelings have been evicted. We can still look up at the night sky and admire its visual magnificence, but we can no longer think of it as we used to; now we see it as a meretricious spectacle, its appearance belying its reality. That gorgeous shining moon is really just a barren pitted rock that happens to reflect the sun’s light at night. Life has lost one of its oldest charms. Now we glance up and quickly turn away: nothing much to see up there, just bits of dead rock suspended in cold empty space. Of course, the old mysticism lingers on to some degree (will astrology ever wither away?), but it has become diluted, stifled, a shadow of its former self. It is hard to deny that modern astronomy, a marvelous human achievement, has destroyed a vital aspect of human emotional life. We can still enjoy the visual beauty of the heavens, but that mystical aura has been laid to rest. There is now nothing mystical in nature to latch onto. The mystical has been swallowed up by the mechanical.

Colin McGinn