Monday, September 17, 2012

The Possibility of Other Worlds

The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493
I've been thinking through a few of the ideas of John Buridan, the 14th century philosopher of the natural world and the cosmos via Aristotle in preparation for a talk next week-end with a colleague in Biochemistry about perceptual models for things we can't perceive.  Taking up the call of the BABEL conference of "performing [our] respective methods in proximity to one another," we've been speaking together over the past few weeks. At first with no task at hand, instead working in and out of the process and the moments of fervor of our fields.  Eventually finding a dizzying common ground in the attempts of our respective fields to build perceptual models for what is beyond perception.  The visual empiricism boat sailed in science long ago and most of the things that Dan studies exist far below the "crust of the visible world" (to quote one of my favorite lines from Stephen Millhauser's spectacular short story about a miniaturist)  The world of biochemistry is filled with phrases like "molecular time" that I keep turning over in my head; it has analogies of scale that remind me of Brian Doyle about the hearts of hummingbirds and the hearts of blue whales (if you've never read this piece, oh please do); it dances with staggering numbers that rally to create three-dimensional models we might actually think through. It traffics in metaphor (itself characterized as an "inter-subjective bridge between two world views" in Jonathan Hsy's wonderful post ). Medieval art valiantly, exhaustively, fleshes out one perceptual model after another for what triumphantly escapes human perception: God, death, power, Arthur, love... and so on.  Every medieval image exists within a perceptual model: ritual, touch, taste, gift...another endless list.  Enter John Buridan and his treatise On the Possibility of Other Worlds where he argues about their existence.  The text is at my office, and my grasp of Aristotelian cosmological vocabulary is fleeting, but there is something there about a generative God because all things of good form reproduce themselves.  And so why not another God with another set of creations?  Why not an entire existence outside our own?  He spends some time being fascinated by the parallel universe, its earnestness and lack of consciousness of our existence.  I think that's important, the articulation of an other world that does not think on our own.  I have seldom in my life lived out so many disparate worlds, worlds that cannot possibly perceive each other: my birthday, my father, my full professor file, Don Giovanni (Mozart - with Oliver and Mac), teaching.  My southern relatives are ready for my dad's demise, as it is being referred to.  They have so many perceptual models for death - first of all, it's never called death, but instead, going home, or down the river, or taking the walk.  Analogy becomes anamorphosis; anamorphosis is given new image by analogy.  Even trying really hard to think about it, to understand that my dad will leave this world, my perception fails - I can accept it, see its contours and their shape: the gentleness and the quiet and the merciful absence of suffering. Nonetheless (a really apt word here), I can't conceive of it. Not really.  But I can think about the possibility of other worlds, the wonders of time and scale, and the relentless efforts of the human heart to make perceptual models for what it can't perceive.

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