Monday, April 20, 2009

A Sense of Scale


It seems utterly superficial to state the obvious: much of what we have come to know as the mystery and uncertainty of life can be explained by what happens in the realm of the invisible. Think of all the intricate workings of the human body, from neurons and synapses to capillaries and ionic membranes, to intestinal organisms whose proper functioning is vital to our very life: all minute, microscopic, invisible. Indeed, the quality of our existence is often affected by the degree to which these hidden mechanisms work to their intended purpose.

Yet in spite of our dependence on the microscopic, we commonly walk our daily existence with our heads in the clouds, not only living out our lives as discrete, autonomous, sentient beings, but actively pursuing the possibility of an increased human presence in space, pondering the future fate of our planet, and exploring the very origins of the universe at large. Meanwhile, the atmosphere of our planet, and the complex weather it produces, is driven by the statistically-determined thermal motions of myriads of minute gas molecules seeking equilibrium with its surroundings. Hurricanes, tornadoes, floods and famine are driven by the hidden workings of the microscopic in motion. Our finely crafted machines orbit high above, making images of the macro-patterns of atmospheric motion, like a pollster sampling a populace, discerning large-scale patterns of behavior in the microscopic en masse, providing us with tangible evidence that at the root of macro phenomenon lie the hidden intricacies of the invisibly small.

This remains a fundamental mystery of life, how such macro-scale phenomenon can be found to have originated from the seemingly random and isolated behavior of individual microscopic entities like bacterium or gas molecules. There is implicit the sense of some mysterious group consciousness that is found to envelop a macro-aggregation of minute discrete activities. This obviously becomes a metaphor for human society that seems also to operate with the effect of a group consciousness, which we alternately attribute to either some mysterious, all-powerful universal influence or some darker conspiracy. What if, after all is said and done, the rules of society are predetermined like the motions of thermal molecules in the vast vortex of a hurricane, so immense that the overall pattern is impossible to discern at the level of the individual component? What if the workings of large-scale phenomena are determined by the invisible world of the minutely small?

The manner in which thermal energy is dissipated within a gas cloud – individual molecules repeatedly jostling their neighbors in a seemingly never-ending exchange of energy – seems to resemble, to an eerie level of accuracy, the constant ebb and flow of culture, custom, trend and fad that we have come to know as contemporary human society. Movements of knowledge, art, literature and commerce flow through the fabric of time like ripples on silk, or currents in the atmosphere, driving the evolution of human society in patterns that we can only discern and classify, after-the-fact, as history. Upon direct observation both seem equally unpredictable. This paradox of understanding is bifurcated into two equally tenuous directions, the one being observing culture like the hurricane’s cyclonic activity, marveling at the symmetry and primal beauty of such immense events and forces applied in such geometrically satisfying patterns; the other being the direct isolation of individual phenomena in such a maelstrom, measuring with exact certainty their energy and position, yet remaining in absolute ignorance as to how aggregates of the minute can produce eddies and vortices that span oceans and continents or centuries. Our understanding breaks down across the plurality of scale that is the tangible world. We are left with the sense that, somehow through the aegis of some process distant, mysterious and ephemeral, the whole of experience is found to be greater than the sum of its parts. The logician in the crowd would surmise that, either we have not adequately understood all relevant components to our experience, or that their relationships are not interconnected in a linear fashion that is predictable with any certainty. To the theologian we are treading on sacred ground.

Yet I keep returning to the idea of the eternal and the timeless being found to be within the order of the microscopic, rather than the astronautic. God is in the details, so to speak. The smallest things in life, individual moments and thoughts and insights, twinges of painful emotional release or the occasional creative break-through, appear as isolated, minute components which become summarized into a broader context that we come to know as experience, whose combined effect becomes our memory, our history. Life, in all its complexity, is found to be made up of minute atoms of individual experience, each a precious moment that soon fades away into the eternal dawn of new moments, each equally fresh and new. Just as our bodies are living organisms composed of countless individual components interconnected with untold complexity, so too is our experience composed of countless brief thoughts, observations, sensations and insights. As our physical bodies inhabit space, the span of our life inhabits time. We are truly four-dimensional beings.


I cannot remember when it was that I first considered the expression “angels dancing on the head of a pin” as being literally true, as if, instead of fabled larger-than-life super-beings of an order outsized from our ordinary experience, they are literally minute, germ-sized, and smaller than the merely wee or Lilliputian, far smaller than the fabled elfin fairy of lore. We are reminded of the evil scourge of disease that has decimated whole families, villages and continents throughout recorded human history. Often, such pandemics were associated with some original source of evil, perhaps originating out of some spiritual deficit within the target community itself. The Black Plague, punishment for the combined sins of an evil and unrepentant people. But what if those horned demons of disease were in fact literally the micro-organisms of the bacterium or virus itself? What if the invisible realm of the spiritual, alluded to through so many religious traditions, was in fact invisible because of its minute size in comparison to our scale, rather than existing on some separate, invisible plane? Angels all around us, floating on the very air we breathe, our bodies composed of whole assemblages of such beings. Perhaps the microbiologist and the theologian have more in common than we might at first suspect.

These thoughts are not easy to accept for one, such as myself, steeped in the theology of contemporary American religion. Especially with the advances in our understanding of the cosmos in the 20th century, contemporary religion has accepted a view that the Divine, being all-powerful, omniscient and Omni-present, is somehow “up there,” beyond the stars and quasars and galaxies and black holes, larger than we can possibly imagine. The “Big Guy.” It is a revolutionary concept to consider that the realm of the spiritual, even the supernatural, could happen on the order of the microscopic. And why should it not, for even in the secular realm we are commonly familiar with recent advances in engineering, physics and biology, all of which deal with principles and phenomena on the order of the microscopic and smaller still. We have come to understand that the mechanisms behind the entire objective world, from the cosmic to the genetic, operate at minute scales of size; why should this not be also true within the realm of the subjective, as well? Do not the synapses and dendrites within the brain’s cerebral cortex also function on the scale of the microscopic? Thoughts, hopes, feelings, emotions, dreams – these all exist within the microscopic, unimaginably complex mechanism of the central nervous system. How small is a dream, if one could but measure it? What does it weigh, if one could but weigh it?

I know many people – more and more it seems – who take some sort of medication for allergy symptoms. And what drives the mechanism of allergic reaction? Minute particles, floating on the air, invisible to our normal vision. Yet we take it for granted, on absolutely certain faith, that what we are experiencing is tangibly real, and therefore requires medications of the most sophisticated kind. We accept this without question. This amazes and perplexes me, how we can accept without question the effect of the microscopic, invisible world on our physical bodies, yet we simultaneously fail to see the effect of the microscopic and invisible on our subjective experience.

The illusion of reality that we take for granted undermines the near-infinite granularity of incredibly fine detail that surrounds, encompasses and constitutes our very being. In our four-dimensional nature this extraordinary granularity of detail also extends into the temporal realm, as well. Artists, poets and photographers have attempted to capture a sense of this throughout the centuries, slicing ever thinner slivers of space and time to examine under the microscope of aesthetic reason, yet never arriving at a concluding resolution. The progression of aesthetic investigation comes to resemble a set of Russian nested dolls, one inside the other, each layer of new discovery unwrapped like layers of an onion, revealing new insights and discoveries that lead only to new questions, not answers. Perhaps that is what drives us, as a species, onward: not the possibility of old answers, but of new questions.