Orpheus & Stephen Hawking

Physicist Stephen Hawking, in his new book, argues that God (or a god) is not necessary for physics theory, with regard to the origin of the universe (or multiple universes). Curious image of the wheelchair-bound savant, surrounded by near-infinite invisible strings of M-theory, declaring his un-belief in theology (& God). Here is one of the most highly-respected exponents of contemporary scientific rationalism, stepping from experimental science into the realm of philosophy & religion (as Einstein & other physicists have done before him).

If this represents an authoritative viewpoint (though certainly not the only one) of Science on a crucial & controversial matter, what about Art? Is there an approach to God and theology from this direction?

Clearly Art (just as with Science) does not allow for a single authoritative opinion on this question. It's not the proper work of the artist (nor of the scientist) to manufacture opinions on what is, finally, a mystery, unavailable to proof. On the other hand, opinions and personal predilections are unavoidable regarding God's existence or lack thereof. It seems to me that Hawking's statements fall into this category. They are opinions. His statement, quoted in news articles, to the effect that God is unnecessary in the light of "M-theory" - in which universes emerge naturally out of "nothing," as a simple consequence of the laws of physics - this is certainly no proof; it's not even an argument. It skirts the question : where did these laws of physics come from? Whence comes the "logos" (word, order, ratio - law)? According to another authoritative (& theological) opinionator (the Gospel of John), "In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was God, and the Logos was in God. He was in the beginning with God, and all things were made through him." Another free-standing opinion.

What, then - beyond a reasonable detachment (or division of intellectual labor) - might be Art's relation to theology or belief in God? It seems there are two ways to think about Art : as a means or an end. As a means, the application of art gives elegance, practicality, usefulness and appeal to all sorts of made things. That is, it makes them beautiful. As an end (in what's called the "fine arts"), art involves the production of objects which are beautiful-in-themselves : whose main purpose is to reflect and express beauty.

We have been musing, in this incipient blog, on relations between the figure of Orpheus, poetry, music, harmony, beauty. I'd like to oppose (facetiously) the image of Hawking, surrounded by the hypothetical string-threads of M-theory, to the image of Orpheus, strumming the taut strings of his harmonic lyre. Scientific rationalism as opposed to artistic imagination. Disenchantment vs. enchantment. (I say facetiously, because, put so baldly, it sounds like a washed-out version of old binaries from the Romantic period... but I guess I'm not quite ready to forego this contrast.)

The end of a good scientific theory is useful elegance, which is beautiful in its own (scientific) way. The end of a work of art is a sense of harmony & rightness (whether happy or sad, comic/tragic, or some Shakespearean gumbo-combination) - the beautiful in itself. Art achieves this end by way of both imitation (mimesis) and expression - in which identifiable things or events or ideas are harmonized and synthesized into one beautiful whole. Just as the scientist harmonizes disparate facts within an elegant theory, so the artist harmonizes disparate elements into a beautiful representation. These are two distinct acts of synthesis.

But I would say that at the root of the distinction between "Hawking" and "Orpheus" lies the issue of consciousness. Science proceeds by way of the abstraction and measurement of universal forces and material. In the realm of such analysis, even "consciousness" or "mind" becomes an abstraction : reduced to one factor among others involved in the theoretical harmonization of phenomena. Art, on the other hand, represents the workings of consciousness suffusing every dimension of human experience. Reality here is inseparable - inalienable - from conscious action & reception. Philosophical idealist George Berkeley is the unacknowledged patron saint of every artist. And with art, there is no consciousness without personhood. Consciousness is not an abstraction or a force; it is the personal presence of "mind" (which is, in a cosmic perspective, of course, a mystery). Thus art is inescapably personal and dramatic. Even the abstract designs of, say, Islamic art are produced within a context of dramatic personal affect, in that the prohibition of imagery in Islam is considered a part of the submission to the will of Allah. (Strict iconoclasm is nothing if not dramatic.)

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam had a word for consciousness, by way of art & poetry, synthesizing and suffusing our comprehension of reality in general : he called it "hellenism" (or "domestic hellenism"). In his essay On the Nature of the Word, he wrote :

"Hellenism is the conscious surrounding of man with domestic utensils instead of impersonal objects; the transformation of impersonal objects into domestic utensils; and the humanizing and warming of the surrounding world with the most delicate teleological warmth."

(Henceforth to be known as Acmeist Osip M-Theory.) The notion of some kind of "cosmic humanism" - wherein consciousness is recognized as the (mysterious) origin, end and foundation of the cosmos - is obviously not a "proof." It is not even a theory. To assert its existence is no more or less valid than for a physicist to assert the contrary. Yet whenever the scientist (Hawking) dares to reduce consciousness to an abstract law, then the artist (Orpheus) is bound to emerge again, in defense of consciousness.