Sunday, May 07, 2023

The Fright of Infinite Spaces

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.

—Pascal, Pensées, 206

It's well known that the Milky Way in the Star Trek universe is surrounded by a barrier, as shown in the original series episodes "Where No Man Has Gone Before" and "By Any Other Name". But I recently learned that there is also a barrier around the far-away Star Wars galaxy too. But why? Why a galactic barrier?

Is this simply a storytelling trope, the modern version of Aristotle's prescription that drama have unity of place? Perhaps that's part of it, but it still seems somewhat gratuitous. Why is it hard to believe that the true barrier between galaxies is not a hard limit, but simply vast distance?

I suspect the real answer lies deep in the heart of man.

The significance of vast distances struck me at last year's Thomistic Institute Science and Christianity conference (March 4–5, 2022 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History). Some of the talks juxtaposed our modern scientific picture of the universe with passages from Scripture on creation, not just the act of creation, but also the relationship of creation to its Creator.

In particular, the beginning of Fr. Thomas Davenport's talk alluded to the way God's activity is much more immediate in the picture presented by Scripture, in contrast to the picture presented by science, in which God's activity is mediated by long chains of secondary causes (13.8 billion years, etc). This tremendous distance seems to present something of a difficulty for belief: God's Providence seems distant.

In such a universe, a gnosticism of a sort might seem reasonable. Recall that in the ancient Gnostic religions, the Creator of the universe is not the true Divinity, who lies behind the universe. Man, conceived as originally and purely spirit, is thrown or imprisoned in the material world, not a natural part of it. Nature/creation is sundered from the true God, and man must reject nature to align himself with the real God and true goodness. In the 20th century, Hans Jonas discovered the hidden parallel between ancient Gnosticism and modern Existentialism/Nihilism, which might be called neo-gnosticism. The so-called scientific picture has no place for man, such human concepts as teleology (purposes) supposedly playing no part in nature. As in Gnostic religion, humans are sundered from nature.

Akin to this gnostic alienation from the universe is the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft, whose effect comes from the terror of the incomprehensible. But Lovecraft's universe is rather too malevolent (along with its denizens) to represent the apparent indifference lying in the vastness of the scientific universe. Perhaps that indifference was too horrible for even Lovecraft, though it might also be that the horror of the infinite empty quantity is simply so inarticulable that the closest neighbor is the quality of evil.

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (H.P. Lovecraft, "The Call of Cthulhu")

At the very least, science by itself leaves us in a state of ambiguity: does nature bespeak God or not, and where do I belong in all this ambuguous vastness?1 Pascal's Pensées elaborate:

205 When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, the little space which I fill, and even can see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant, and which know me not, I am frightened, and am astonished at being here rather than there; for there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here? By whose order and direction have this place and time been allotted to me? Memoria hospitis unius diei prætereuntis [Wisdom 5:15, Latin vulgate: remembrance of a guest who tarried but a day].

229 This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal stood on the cusp of modernity and the modern rethinking of the universe. It might be healthy to look back to the ancient world and take a lesson from the psalmist in reflecting on our smallness and the world's vastness:

When I look at thy heavens, the work of thy fingers,
the moon and the stars which thou hast established;

what is man that thou art mindful of him,
and the son of man that thou dost care for him?

Yet thou hast made him little less than God,
and dost crown him with glory and honor.

Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands;
thou hast put all things under his feet...

(Psalm 8:3–6)

The reality is that in complaining about the size of creation, we're complaining about the size of the dominion given to us humans. The deeper problem is that we don't appreciate the goodness of the universe. There is an infinite distance between nothing and any finite reality. Maybe it's because the need to survive has wired us to always be so occupied with the next problem that we rarely take time to contemplate the tremendous good we have, that we've been given. It's a crisis of gratitude: we don't appreciate what we've been given, so we have little sense of God's continued presence and providence.2

Science as practiced today doesn't help matters. One big limitation of science is that it projects human knowing onto an unimaginably vast world. We only know the "scientific universe" in terms of experiments in the lab. This approach originated with Galileo's insight, which Newton completed: the unification of the sublunar and translunar realms. We describe the motions of stars and planets in terms of the motions of mechanical bodies on Earth, especially those we study under the controlled conditions of the lab.

We project our own emptiness and chaos on the vast world and then recoil on beholding our reflection.


1. Collective Soul's 1993 song "Shine" asks this question, "Where do I belong and where do I find love?", poignantly.

2. A great book on this subject of God's providence and presence that I rejoice in having found though only recently is Providence by Réginald Garrigou-Lagrange.