Posted by: Harold Knight | 03/27/2011

OK. So I’ll write about Frankenstein.

(A wandering about in my own mind—a bad neighborhood where I should not go alone.)

A couple of years ago taking a walk around my neighborhood, I meandered to the construction areas of the two new neighborhood Dart Rail stations. I live more or less at the 90-degree corner of the right triangle formed by two direct paths from my apartment to the new stations—the square of the hypotenuse equaling the sum of the squares of the other two sides—I’ll bet you didn’t think I’d remember that fifty years on from Mrs. Blough’s geometry class.

Why I went that direction, I’m not sure because I was looking for quiet and solitude, not the noisy hubbub of a construction site. I had walked in one of my favorite neighborhood spaces—the lawns and gardens around the buildings of UTSouthwestern Medical School—and was on my way home. Unexpectedly I had an experience of immanence (online dictionary definition, “taking place within the mind of the subject and having no effect outside of it”) at the construction site that at the time I interpreted as transcendence. (I don’t know about that now.) I was cursing the construction, the materials, the noisy machinery, the whole process. After all, I had been communing with nature in the grass and trees and flowerbeds of the medical school only minutes before. How dare this “unnatural” construction impinge on my solitude?

From nowhere (obviously that’s not true—from some corner of my brain) came the unprepared and uninvited thought that all of this cement and steel and gasoline exhaust was as much a part of nature as the grass and flowers virtually across the street. Certainly nothing in that noisy (and, I thought, disruptive) mess came from spontaneous generation. It all came from the natural world (iron ore, slag, crushed granite and limestone, sand, water, carbon, and other stuff from the earth—C, H2O, Si, Fe, Ti—you name it). An experience of immanence.

A couple of days ago PBS TV (at least our local station, KERA) aired a two-hour installment of NOVA, a history (more or less) of telescopes, beginning with Galileo and ending with the most amazing devices, both earth-bound (the Mt. Wilson Observatory and its descendants) and inter-planetary and beyond (the Hubble telescope and its siblings and progeny). There I was, once again, spending two hours in front of the T and V mesmerized by talk of super novas, black holes, rogue planets, brown dwarfs, galaxies. I learned something new—the word “galaxy” comes from the Greek Γαλαξίας—meaning “milk”—so humankind has been calling our galaxy the “Milky Way” since pre-history. Mars, Inc. didn’t make up the name.

One can’t be an atheist or an agnostic or a religious fanatic and not be interested in that stuff. Well, one can, but that means one is happy to be ignorant and un-self-conscious. We’re made up of that same stuff from the earth those horrid loud machines are made of, and all of it came from out there somewhere. And besides, the dark matter that holds it all together may be one big lump and we’re all simply molecules of it running around inside this self-contained entity we call the universe, and none of us really exists at all. Perhaps my little experience of immanence was really a glimpse of transcendence. Only perhaps.

Don’t accuse me of some kind of Wordsworthian romanticism about nature—or of anything else. I’m just wondering here. Wondering about, well—About (wandering about?).

I wonder (and have done so most of my life) how we all came to be aware of (or to make something up about) transcendence. Believe me, I can make a bibliography of articles and books I’ve read about the evolutionary processes that (supposedly) made our brains susceptible/receptive to the idea of something out there/in here that transcends our conscious understanding of the world. I wonder, for example, if I (not speaking for anyone else) would be able to understand all of this

. . . by placing transcendence in a binary pairing with immanence. . . . Permanently linked to immanence, transcendence now becomes prophetic: “transfiguration and redemption can be achieved within, not beyond, the realms of technologies, human agency and material culture. . . an apprehension of the sacred and divine would be expressed through the medium of embodied, contingent experience” (1).

Apprehending the sacred and the divine is not necessarily my purpose (here or ever). I am, however, willing to consider as possible that the

. . . relation between transcendence and immanence operates thereby as a zero/sum game, with the development of transcendence interpreted as transcendence of this world, within this world (2).

Transcendence may exist only as part of immanence, as part of this world, within this world. If so, it would be easy to assume we know the transcendent when we contemplate the immanent. For example (one of my leaps of logic here), thinking about the “beautiful” in the world could lead one to believe that

God the Creator is an Artist, and therefore understanding how and why scientists study nature, God’s artwork, can be aided by using the philosophy of art. . . God is an artist and scientists are both artists and art connoisseurs. The great scientists seek beauty and create beauty in science and rely on beauty as a signpost for truth. . . (3).

It’s necessary to remember that immanence “tak[es] place within the mind of the subject and ha[s] no effect outside of it.” It seems to me that when science (or any other of our spectacular human achievements) begins to rely on beauty (which is, a subjective—an “immanent”—experience) to find truth, reality takes the back seat. I’m picking on science because my classes are reading a novel about the pitfalls science’s relying on “immanence.” Victor Frankenstein is motivated by his belief that scientists “penetrate into the recesses of nature, and shew how she works in her hiding places. . . “ and that his penetration is laudable because, “The labours of men of genius, however erroneously directed, scarcely ever fail in ultimately turning to the solid advantage of mankind” (4).

Frankenstein’s genius, as everyone knows, leads to the creation of life, life that is monstrous, and Frankenstein becomes

A sorcerer’s apprentice who fails to mother his ill-begotten offspring, [and] the optimistic Frankenstein is transformed from victor to victim; and the book is about the folly of playing God, the need for moral responsibility in science, and the ambiguities of progress (5).

Does the dark matter?

Does the dark matter?

And so my wandering about brings me back to the Dart Rail. I hope I can follow my own thinking, much less explain it to anyone else. The science that makes light rail trains out of C, H2O, Si, Fe, Ti and all that stuff perhaps is “to the solid advantage of mankind.” However, for me (I can’t speak for anyone else) any thought that my experience of immanence translates into the transcendent—in any way but in my own mind and experience (in any field, scientific or otherwise)—is likely to lead me into apprenticeship to some sorcerer, most likely my own mind.
(1)  Scott, Peter Manley. “We Have Never Been Gods: Transcendence, Contingency and the Affirmation of Hybridity.” Ecotheology 9.2 (2004) 199-220. Quoting: Graham, Elaine. Representations of the Post/Human: Monsters, Aliens and Others in Popular Culture. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
(2) Scott, Ibid.
(3) Walhout, Peter K. “The Beautiful and the Sublime in Natural Science.” Zygon 44.4 (December 2009): 757-776.
(4) Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Introduction by Diane Johnson. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003 (First published 1818), 34.
(5) Knight, David. “Higher Pantheism.” Zygon 35.3 (September 2000): 603-612.



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