In our modern 21st century world, we often seem to take for granted that we have a fairly complete understanding of the physical laws governing the Universe and that we have, with a few exceptions, explained the way things work in the Cosmos. We sometimes look back at the Ptolemaic view of our world with amusement, which placed the Earth at the center of it all. Many of the conceptual ideas about the nature and structure of the physical universe in the medieval world seem almost quaint now, and illustrations like the one above often included signs of the Zodiac and other mythological references which gave the Universe a much more mysterious and esoteric character.
A current exhibition at the Getty Center in Los Angeles takes a look at the medieval view of the universe in “The Wondrous Cosmos in Medieval Manuscripts.” A recent review in the Wall Street Journal by Peter Saenger (April 19) highlights a few of the items on display, one of which caught my eye as an interesting starting point for appreciating our own view of the Universe.
“The Sphere, Newly Translated into the Vernacular,”c. 1537 – Johannes de Sacrobosco (1195-1256), England, “Sphaera volgare novamente tradotta,” Image from manuscript courtesy of the James Ford Bell Library, University of Minnesota
“An Astronomer,” is an illustration from a medieval astronomy textbook written by Johannes de Sacrobosco, from an edition published in 1537 entitled, “Tractatus de Sphaera.” Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles
According to a description on “https://apps.carleton.edu/museum/”
“This volume is an important medieval astronomy textbook originally published ca. 1230, which demonstrates the Ptolemaic, or geocentric, theory of the universe in which heavenly bodies orbit around the earth. Sacrobosco’s text was in use for centuries; between 1472 and 1650, over 60 editions appeared in several languages. The frontispiece illustration presents the astronomer himself in monk’s robes. He is surrounded by the instruments of his discipline, including the quadrant and astrolabe, drafting tools, and – in the top border, an hourglass and pocket sundial for measuring time.”
Image credit: NASA / Hubble team, via http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/hubble/science/farthest-galaxy.html.
We may view these medieval ideas with some amusement today, particularly since we know well from the advanced tools in Astronomy that we now have available to us, like the Hubble Space Telescope, which has allowed us to make a “quantum leap” in our understanding, but even some 800 years ago, when Sacrobosco articulated the Ptolemaic view, it was generally accepted that their view was accurate and explained what they observed quite well. As the currently dominant species on the planet, we may believe that we are now in possession of a comprehensive and accurate view. No other known species has appeared to even approach such capabilities as Homo sapiens thus far, and our capacity for a richly textured subjective experiential awareness today appears to have advanced far beyond our predecessors.
What is so clearly different about most every other known species on Earth is that no matter how gifted they are in their perceptual or cognitive talents, it does not appear that any of them possess our comprehensive, penetrating, and complex awareness of our limitations and gifts. There are a few with exceptional perceptual talents that far exceed our own, and several species with many similar capacities that seem to indicate at least some level of awareness, but as yet, nothing truly indicative of a human-like consciousness.
This is not to say that we are somehow better or more important than any other species, only that our experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our ability to express it, and contemplate it, and influence it, and to deliberately and purposefully alter the world as a result of it, is not evident in a clearly discernible way in any other part of nature. There are a great many species on our planet with amazing perceptual differences from us, and which can perform at levels no human could hope to do, and you are right to appreciate these differences, and not to suppose that just because we have an apparently significant cognitive advantage, that we always get it right or do things better. One look at the totality of the human presence in the world and it is clear we often make mistakes, in spite of that advantage.
What is even more revealing, in my view, is not only our inclination to associate meaning and purpose to many of our experiences, but that we tend to dismiss many of the experiences we have as being chance and circumstance, when there truly is meaning and purpose to be gleaned from them. Deepak Chopra once wrote in detail about human life at the cellular level, and spoke eloquently about how our cells and systems within our bodies are often telling us things that we ignore or dismiss as indigestion or something, when in fact, our human cells, evolved over millions of years, have not as yet evolved enough to doubt their own thinking. Our human cognitive system sometimes seems to embrace doubt where there should be none, and, at other times, moves confidently into circumstances where doubt would be of genuine value. The benefit bestowed upon us by higher cognitive capacity, can also prevent us from perceiving the value of the natural world, and from embracing the perceptions of our fellow creatures, whose instincts are not mitigated by doubt.
It is my view that our richly-textured, experiential subjective awareness of our existence, and our development as a cognitive species, as significant as our advances have been, may appear equally “amusing” to our descendants 800 years from now. Our evolutionary endowment, achieved as cognitive temporal beings in a physical universe, in no way guarantees our continued dominance, and unless we expand the realm of what we consider possible, we may not achieve the level of understanding necessary to sustain our existence here on Earth.
As much as I have studied and contemplated the richness, diversity, and astonishing complexity of the human brain, and as clearly as one can conceivably comprehend it in context of life on Earth, our human consciousness has not only pointed out our perceptual limits physically, but provided humanity with access to an awareness that transcends the physical universe, opening up our hearts and minds and spirits to a richness beyond perception.