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Sci Tech

The Return of the Invisible World

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Jacob Epstein's Sculpture .St. Michael's Victory over the Devil.
Jacob Epstein's Sculpture .St. Michael's Victory over the Devil.
(Image by Dave Hamster)
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One of the major differences between pre-modern and modern life would seem to be the existence in the former of an invisible world. Dip into Homer's Iliad and hear about gods flying every which way; look at a Medieval or Renaissance painting and see God, angels, devils, and even long-dead Church Fathers filling the sky. Despite the different types of supernatural beings and different theologies, both pagan and Christian worlds had in common a belief in the existence of a host of creatures which were not part of the everyday sensuous experiences of Everyman. In the human imagination (especially in dark forests or at night and in dreams), these ghostly spiritual beings appeared indelibly--but not in broad daylight, not in the palpable objective world, neither then nor now.

During the late Renaissance began the Scientific Revolution which wiped out, or at least marginalized, this invisible world. Indifferent to God and to the supernatural, science focuses exclusively on the natural, material realm. The invisible world came to be associated with superstition and fantasy, and neither God nor angels have played any major role in most of the philosophy, literature, and painting from the eighteenth century down to the present. Reality was, for a couple of centuries, largely limited to what one could see, hear, smell, touch, taste.

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But then something curious happened. The same scientists who, unwittingly or not, killed the old invisible world ushered in a new one. They talked about atoms--those little things which explain the physical realm but which no one can see. By the late nineteenth century, they had found such invisible things as vitamins, protein, viruses, elements, X-rays, carbon monoxide, radioactivity, sub-atomic particles, etc. One reason that people are not alarmed over the scientific finding about climate change and its source in non-renewable energy use is that the process is not palpable or visible in that communal bubble called "everyday life."

These entities were of interest mainly to scientists, but the advance of applied science then ushered in movies, radio, television, and computers. Think about it. A symphony performed in 1940 by an orchestra almost all of whose members are dead can be heard via radio or recording machine or even seen on YouTube as if the performers were present. A drama staged many decades ago is reenacted on TV, in movie houses, or streaming device. But no one and nothing substantial is present: The performing artists, the concert hall or playhouse, the applauding audience--all are long gone, leaving behind mere flickering ghost-like images and sounds, somewhat like faraway dead stars in the sky still shining on us.

And now, to cap everything, comes cyberspace, capturing the attention of people the world over. Unimaginably vast amounts of information, illustrations, references are stored in this realm. And yet how real or material is any of it? Turn off the switch or suffer a power failure, and everything vanishes, leaving not a trace behind other than some indecipherable, uncommunicative software residing in lobotomized computer or smart phone.

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Clearly, then, an invisible world has almost always been part of the human condition. Only the contents of that world have changed. Alleged figments of the religious imagination have, in our largely secular public realm, been replaced by scientifically generated images and ideas. Instead of religious faith or spirits, we have faith in electrons (themselves, of course, invisible as well) as the driving force .

We are sure that this invisible cyber empire exists because our scientific mode of thinking discovered it and insists on its reality. But since most of us non-scientific people take scientific findings for granted, how different--psychologically--is that really from belief in the invisible world of the Middle Ages, which was generated by the religious imagination--by a different and not necessarily inferior reading of reality?

Or, to vary the question, considering all the mind-boggling discoveries of twentieth century physics and astronomy (on top of the discoveries since the Scientific Revolution of the seventeenth century), it is clear that either scientists live in a delusional world of their own--or that we normal people, fixated on common objects and routine events and visible reality, do.

 

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For 51 years Professor of English at Yeshiva University. Author of 13 books and over a hundred essays.

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