I am grateful to Ken Jordan and the folks at Reality Sandwich for introducing my book The Night Sky: Soul and Cosmos. Some sections from it will appear in three installments. This is the first.
The Note that Opens the Book
The 2014 revised edition of The Night Sky completes a nine-book project that began without a blueprint and ran for about thirty-six years while I investigated four main topics—medicine, cosmology, embryology, and consciousness—each from a combination of scientific, anthropological, historical, and esoteric viewpoints. My premise is that science is telling us half or less of what it is doing. Yet because its blueprint is so ingeniously contrived, the things people do with it so significant, and the effects they achieve so critical to our lives (especially on a planet that now far exceeds its carrying capacity), practitioners of science have the illusion that their enterprise has been uniquely validated and that it holds its own base—they believe their cover stories. Most of the public believes them too. In truth, science mainly proves that what we don’t know about the universe is far more than what we do.
My plan has been to track the fringe between what science can get at and what it can’t, the shape of its boundaries as well as their near frontiers. I am looking for science’s actual meaning, its unspoken credos and subtexts: what it is telling us and what it is not telling us, especially what it is not telling us about what it is not telling us. I am also taking a shot at what the universe itself might be telling us.
Science’s “incompleteness” dilemma is ontological and multi-tiered, and the various paths into (and out of) it are also multi-tiered, each in its own way. Of course, science will not admit that there is anything, in principle, that it can’t get at.
The universe that science can’t get at it is the universe of our being, e.g., our basis as cosmic witnesses, our responses to our eerie egoic awakening in an undisclosed place. This is a huge territory, and one barely touched by psychology or neuroscience, though they travel long, proxy distances and file voluminous reports. The real universe has joys, sorrows, aesthetics, paradoxes, pranks, humor, envy, love, play, rage, and empathy, as well as a whole lot else, none of which are in science’s playbook in the way that they are actually in the universe.
Philosophers make a valiant attempt to get at a universe that includes us, but I have never been a logician. Professors of philosophy (and their partisans) were on my case big-time in college and graduate school, as they should have been once they grokked the difference between what they were teaching and I was doing. They thought that I was getting away with murder while giving myself a free ride to go anywhere. I was and still am, but most of them were getting away with murder too (under academic privilege) and using it to go nowhere or around in circles.
We don’t have to source the universe that science can’t get at because we are it. It expresses itself through us despite our muddles, trespasses, and peremptory objectifications. It dwarfs science and philosophy as we dwarf science and philosophy, for there is no description of the universe that is not itself based on an indescribable situation: meaning itself. Plus there is no account of the universe that does not have a sovereign by-product. Just look around at pretty much everything, or at least everything that wasn’t here before we arrived. Even most of what comes out of science no longer bothers to give it the time of day.
My goal is literary more than philosophical insofar as the word choices and meters of Matthew Arnold, Emily Dickinson, William Butler Yeats, William Faulkner, Charles Olson, Ed Dorn, Annie Proulx, Orhan Pamuk et al. set my own high bar. It is esoteric because I draw on induction, meditation, and clairsentience and run them alongside formal analysis as its necessary complement. However, just so you know from the outset, I have little use for organized religion’s substitution of a personified God for natural laws. I also want to make clear that there is a difference between the precepts of Dzogchen lamas and indigenous shamans and the imaginal raves of pop conspiracy theorists. Yet both are facets, each in its own way and by its own bootstraps, of the universe. Science is too, of course. That’s the whole point.
The Opening Pages of the Book
from “The Night Sky in the Human Universe”
The starry heavens are where our species grasps its existential situation, for night gathers the infinity of our unknown origin (and destiny) into a black, radiant field that envelops the Earth and is at once the most blatant clue to our origin and a shroud that foils any true clarification. It doesn’t matter what happened; something did and we’re inside it—and now it’s the backdrop, the absolute, non-negotiable statement for us and everything else. The night sky holds the shape of time, the scrim of existence, the link between self and cosmos. Yet it is rooted in Earth and Earth alone (or in other “Earths” where there are other nights, other skies—same deal). Whatever a creature’s planet of origin or evolutionary back-story, its life is as originless and boundaryless as the universe; in fact, is coterminous with the universe.
You don’t need astrophysical information to experience the vastness and multidimensionality of the night: it is a direct transmission. It doesn’t have to tell you what it is; you get that by looking at it. What astronomers and astrophysicists took millennia to arrive at can be derived, in essence if not in precise vector, composition, or scale, from the sheer presentation.
Think about it: it’s just there, this incredible canopy tatted with scintillating lights that are dead serious, glinting as if they know what they are doing (and you don’t), and they don’t give a rat’s ass that you don’t. You can’t wrap any story or mission around it. You can’t make a deal with it. You can’t conciliate it or get it to compromise with you. Just smash damn—get out of my way. I’m going to roll out my carpet regardless—there, see—now here it is!
And there you are, little one. Match that!
The Sun may be direct and “no nonsense,” but look at the shit that follows its daily lap across the zenith. The gold, then indigo fade of dusk melts onto a different stage and script entirely. Naked busty dancers parade across the proscenium with heads of caribou and elephants; it couldn’t be any more startling. Awe, terror, humility, curiosity, wonder, worship are the sole appropriate emotions.
The hieroglyphic-embossed abyss is not an abstraction, postulate, or simulation; it is a first-hand event. To witness it is to take an instantaneous reading of reality itself. It is to view a real-time signature that transcends any astrological or astronomical conversion. Direct apprehension of the macrocosm is the “looking-glass” over which modes of empirical analysis and lenses were later placed. Consider: a single real duck puts all cartoons of Donald and other proxy ducks to shame. The actual sky imposes itself no matter how many replicas and souvenirs we make of it or fancy carpets and cosmetics we lay over it.
Look at that bottomless pool on the next moonless occasion. It is the situation. It commands courage and neutrality to take it in on the spot and realize where you actually are. Nowhere!
Everything else is secondary. If it isn’t paltry and trite upon consideration, it will be soon enough. City lights and party lights will dim and be extinguished forever, but the night will be there, just about forever, or until the end of common time.
Yet the night sky is profound and protean enough to be not only “shock and awe” and extravaganza but also a Rinzai kōan and an altar.
Just as the Mother is the unquestioned All for the baby, the drop-dead background upon which it depends for its very existence, for safety and knowledge, so the sky is the cosmological and existential matrix of human identity. You don’t have to know what infinity is to grok that the night is about as close to it as you’re going to get here. The texture and depth of the chasm, beacons twinkling in its velvet mesmer, silently intone: “Here I Am. Here It Is. You see me, but you don’t. You know me, yet I return a stranger each nocturne. I am not your friend, but without me you are friendless. You are there, and I am here, and well that’s about it.”
Even today, as we view the galactic gallery, the night sky says from every level and far reach, “Here I Am; Here It Is.”
This is as true for the Pawnee priest for whom the stars are spirits whose glyphs his ancestors emblazoned on animal hides as it is for the late American suburbanite who barely registers—”hey, stars, yeah cool; why not”—between auto and front door. It is true as well for scientists to whom they are relics of objects that continue to burn elsewhere or burned out millennia ago. Each time we ask that colossal lit onyx, “Baby, where is your heart?” it responds by asking us the same question.
We may ignore the cosmological weight of the stars, but this does not change their fact. When we stare into the lustrous ebony, we feel the chilling brevity and smallness of life, yet we also feel the something else that feels that. The unconscious shock of a flaming eternity without ignites a corresponding eternity within. It is this second thing that makes all the rest possible. It has the power to draw us beyond petty concerns, idle compulsions, temporal goals. We get a Zenlike slap of what we are and what this is and are stunned. It is often a terrible revelation, but our heart opens.
If you stop in your driveway [writes amateur astronomer Dana Wilde] and let the starlight work on your eyes for more than a few seconds, your brain starts to produce not only an apprehension of beauty, but it also starts to break that apprehension into further feelings such as awe, then eternality, and an inspiring and eventually frightening or comforting sense of a vast unknown. The night sky begins … to feel like a tremendous dream world of untold powers—explosive, burning, enormous—and of glories and potentials, and for some people at least, a sense of intelligence.1
This innate phenomenology bubbles up regardless of one’s education, culture, or belief system. Our awareness of being in a universe is casual, blunt, and intimate in a way that astronomy can neither ameliorate nor tame. Shamans and warriors quail. Engineers and astrophysicists—the war chiefs and “made men” of modernity—pretend to be blasé, but they flinch too. After all, that’s one humongous machine!
Even without a formal ritual of submission, of bowing and chanting and confessing ignorance, humans bow and chant unconsciously every time the night sky exhibits its power, magic, and intelligence.
There is no person who has ever lived, no president or pope or prisoner, no tough guy or starving child, lovers on a hill or soldier at post, who has not gazed up into the night sky and wondered.…2
Why else are you reading this book?
Australopithecus, the South African man-ape, or one of his forerunners, cast Gaia’s first minded glimpse at the celestial vault and probably noticed its replacement of presence with absence faintly lit. S/he might not have identified each night explicitly by precedent, but s/he honored its implicit return. The scene shift had a message, a meaning; its glittering tableau was an ultimate wall fronting everything—a mysterious intruder, yet an ineluctable complement to the existence of self. The night sky was dazzling and superior, a far, far greater thing than s/he could hope to be. Yet, in another sense, it was exactly who s/he was. S/he formed a sympathetic bond with the stars (or the essence for which stars stood).
Hominids who inherited this legacy over the next three or four million years deepened its reflexion. The stars were preordained, not a job from which they could vacation or a conundrum they could decline. As convolutions of their cerebral cortices crumpled over one another, adding sulci and synapses, their capacity to hold a recollection from night to day to night quickened, and so did the starry tablet. A stream of insights and constructs forged a grotto of stars into a cosmology smelted by embers, a cave wall of illuminated figures, then a papyrus spackled with talismans. Assorted rituals sealed the marriage, so now we can barely gander what preceded a system a few million years old before it even began.
Over generations the night sky inspired tribes to reach as far into the unknown as their minds and cultures permitted, to create the most complex objects and systems of which they were capable: gods, prayers, myths, numbers, clocks, calendars—and temples and observatories to house them. Constellations were among our species’ original attempts to impose order and meaning on the stark profundity of nature. All astronomical systems repeat the desperation and danger of that initial act. After all, once Pandora’s jar was opened, it would never be shut.
We continue to work full-time at riddles of Creation for, if we do not work at them, they work at us anyway. Folks attempt to write the sky these days in svelte Helvetica or gaudy postmodern Grunge, but for centuries we inscribed it in Gothic and Arabic, Sanskrit and Greek, in charts and legends, ballads and symphonies, in tautologies, parables, formulas, grids of varying scale, and importunate prayers. Even now, well into the reign of astrophysics, we have not made peace with the universe. We have no reliable context for the sky nor a means for coming to terms with its semblances. This fundamental disturbance drives us through myriad symbols and systems in search of a marker, for any term of closure or grapnel in the void.
The Night Sky is classfied under astronomy not because my topic is the heavens but because the heavens stand for my actual subject: the Creation. While everything we know and experience is the Creation, the stars ride the stallion lowest to the saddle. Their existence means that infinity was interrupted once to create a finite system.
The universe may be random and algorithmic, but it is reciprocal down to each crease and pleat. Tides, winds, glaciers, and cells turn out to be star effects. Flowers, worms, and honeybees are asterisms too. All share the stellar field’s texture, luminosity, reticulation. Stars appear where they do for the same reason that wind blows, grasses sprout, cells divide. These laws are more than inviolable; they are the sole basis for emanation. Venous patterns on a maple leaf, insect larvae writhing in an arboreal cavity, interstices of frost on glass, limestone drips in a cave, as well as the syllogisms of Spinoza, madeleines of Proust, Ave Maria of Bach, and dreams of Sun Chief all stand in correspondence to star-stuff, as each ostensibly originated from it in the rare sieve of the solar disk.
The sky is layers of cells involuting as they furrow into their own basins, each membranous fold a sky to the foetus emerging from the cocoon of a previous molecular configuration. It is paramecia flashing onto a lens like comets. It is the planetary mantle, each stony grain of which cracks open to show another gem—the starlike field in which it originated. It is inside the mind of man, so many times and on so many tiers that he hardly knows whether he is coming or going but seems to walk down the hallway of an invisible house in an unknown city, each time. Poetry, philosophy, governance, and industry are all stellar systems. That we know the stars is the stars.
At the deepest reaches of matter, the shape of the sky repeats. The infinitesimal realm may not literally fission into numberless miniature interstellar zones, each its own tiny orbital system, but an atomic nucleus with its protons and electrons is the quantum phase of a planet with moons. If subatomic particles are protean stars, their distribution is a surrogate night. Like the sky, the atom is a scalar, vibrating confluence, which long ago bumped its chord molecularly into galaxies and solar systems.
Darkness and light are fundamental, and not in some offhand way or because this is merely another engagement. The former is primal texture and innate profundity, while the latter is the ground luminosity from which beingness itself arises. This polarity established heaven and earth, for each is the womb of the other:
In the light there is darkness,
but don’t take it as darkness.
In the dark there is light,
but don’t see it as light.3
This is too basic to be mere paradox; it indicates that existence itself is paradoxical. There is no light, however primordial, that does not cast the shadow of its own intrinsic mystery, and no shadow, however deep and fatal, that falls without a light source somewhere. That is the basis of stars and interstellar space.
* * *
There are many “universes.” We see the one that the universe is willing to disclose to us. More accurately, we have emerged from the cosmic process as what we are, so we perceive what “being what we are” reveals—no more, no less. You can’t see or measure or even deduce the whole universe from here. Taken in essence and at its word, a unified field theory is an absurd notion, a futile ambition, yet at times a working chutzpah: all the fundamental forces and elementary particles represented in a single diocese by post-Einsteinian physicists.
We can assay the manifold shapes and currents passing through this precinct, but other vibrations and states of existence that give rise to those are beyond our ken—and those include, of course, their context: beingness itself. Why not? Our experience of the night sky is an inextricable part of those starry heavens. Yet fish know more about water than we know about the universe.
The actual universe is a fathomless whirlpool of views, encompassing all the creationary events, templates, aliases, surrogates, meanings, models, and cosmologies arising within that vortex, none of which draws a bead on its own actual position or place in the procession.
While astronomy is critical to our knowledge of the universe, its sponsors operate under a delusional liturgy that distorts their “facts.” They assume that an experimental analysis of “matter” is all that is needed for a complete description of nature. In truth, scientific models are dubious stand-ins for reality. Our cosmologies deviate most from their own stated agendas when academics adopt the roles of priests and pretend to get to the bottom of things, to scale the universe materially. Sage physicists like Messrs. Newton and Einstein laughed at the notion that closure might ever be considered possible. They were delighted, as stopgap ciphers inside a fluctuating equation they were scrivening, to know anything at all. Not so Stephen Hawking and latter-day cosmologists and sociobiologists who presume, if not to know everything, to know where everything is to be found.
How can creatures formed by a current, emergent at the blind bottoming of its waves, then portray the overriding event down to its merest rill and wobble? Of course, they can (and in fact they should)—anything less would be lazy and dishonorable—but, once the will-o’-the-wisp proved impossible to crack they should have treasured—even acclaimed—the remainder mystery rather than pretended that the little man had nailed that one too, next please!
Philosopher and mathematician Kurt Gödel demonstrated in the 1930s, logically and mathematically, that there must be an unknown separating the real universe from the perceptible one. His theorems proved that no system can demonstrate its own closure or consistency. German topologist Felix Hausdorff, another mid-twentieth-century mathematician, proposed that any model of the universe must necessarily include an unknown because we cannot reason from empirical consequences to transcendental premises, of which black holes and dark matter are only the outer vestibule. We know nothing final and can know nothing final, even by science’s cider-house rules, for our selective transition from chaos to meaning represents but one conceivable cosmos. For a more eclectic definition of the night and its aliases, I turn to the author of “The Purloined Letter” and “A Descent into the Maelstrom”:
“[B]y the term “Universe” . . . I mean to designate the utmost conceivable expanse of space, with all things spiritual and material, that can be imagined to exist within the compass of that expanse.”4
In other words, All That Is.
Throughout this book, I will treat our starry backdrop as one slice of the Big Salami. The word “universe” sometimes indicates the slice and sometimes the Salami itself.
The Closing Pages of Part I
from “Language, Mind, and Astrophysics: The Phenomenology of The Night Sky”
There are actually four independent interdependent night skies in this book. The first is the ceaselessly transforming night sky of culture, psyche, and science. Under this rubric I collocate Micmac and Babylonian night skies, Greek and Mediaeval night skies, and the successive skies of astronomy and astrophysics, because they all come into being at the same ontological level.
The second is the recognition (by way of physics and neuroscience) that these multicultural starry fields are all mirages engendered by chemical and electrical synapses in membranes. They may exist, but we, the ones who report a tree falling in the forest, do not.
If the first night sky is a many-layered drapery, the second is the proximal source of its draping, and the third is what is being draped: the unknown night sky that, according to science, does exist, whether we “see” it or can measure it, or not—that is, whether we think we exist or not. We can never absolutely know that night sky, while being us, but it is real, and its depictions in maps of philosophers like Einstein, Whitehead, Wittgenstein, and Bohm, as well as in numerous point-set, algebraic, and geometric topologies, probably approach what its realized expression would entail.
The fourth is the night sky that exists if we exist—that is, as more than phantoms of epiphenomenal steam and its delusion. It is not actually a night sky, but really it is, for it is the source context, the backdrop, the Rainbow Body, of our absolute beingness. It shifts as we shift, bringing into being the first night sky (above), illuminating it while shining through it as a candle inside a Halloween pumpkin imparts deeper essence (both its own and that of the pumpkin). But that too is an opacity through which an even more intrinsic light is shining.
When a multicentric phenomenological universe fuses with our astrophysical universe, there will be no way to continue to uphold the present thinned-out, bullshit commoditized sky as the be-all and end-all, the epitome of a cosmos and the sole basis of our empirical gaze. This book will be irrelevant, for daily experience will tell the same story, only a hundred times better.
We are at the present excruciating impasse for a reason. Without personal views experiencing their own existences, without centers of awareness establishing portals of selfhood, without limitations to each of those centers providing discrete contexts in which to develop their own meanings, without inner skies meeting outer skies, All That Is would miss the crux and pith of its own being. The purpose of cosmogenesis is to create us, to make us and all the other platforms and perspectives of reality, each centered in and experiencing itself as that, each believing in the truth of its existence, each subliminally supported at its core by each and all of the others. That’s the Cosmic Gift.
And that is why there is such a profound operating difference between an internal field and an external field, why there is a state like subjective identity.
The scientistic, anthropocentric point of view devalues the very thing that All That Is has spent trillions of light-years incubating—individually witnessed experience—even though science knows that the most it can grasp of the cosmos anyway is an illusion. Scientism does not begin to deal with why the universe created the human operating system and platform in the first place. But its nihilism is a part of the universe’s evolving cosmology too. Looming nothingness and sworn abnegation are merely another exquisite portal through which to view the extent and grandeur of Creation, the shell that generates this inner radiance in all its scrumptious delicacy and tension.
Once we recognize that, the whole basis, texture, meaning, and look of the night sky changes.
Yes, look again. As a soul this time. As yourself! You see the center of your whirlpool, the axis out of which you are emanating, the vortex that completes itself every instant in the stream of thoughtforms across your own spaciousness arising everywhere you imagine or go. This is the best offer you’ll ever get.
That unpedigreed crow sitting on the telephone line across the street has no sense that its consciousness of the universe is any less all-encompassing or valid than mine. Nor should it. One ardent bug on one planet speaks, by its existence, for the entire cosmos, all the galaxies and all stars. It says what it has to say: I Am. From there, everything follows like clockwork. In fact, no humble creature speaks either more or less for the universe, whether that creature is Plato or a sea urchin in the Pleiades. “I Am” is everything.
Get it. I am trying to make “you” real to you, not in my terms but yours. I am trying to make the universe real to you. The universe and everything in it. Including you. That’s what the astrophysical “night sky” doesn’t do, until of course it does.
Antientropy is the true cosmos, generating much of the missing gravity and mass in the universe. Its nakedness and mortality are our nakedness and mortality, and those who experience its Rite of Vigil, like Hopi and Osage priests, never return to the old corral.
1.Dana Wilde, Nebulae: A Backyard Cosmography (Troy, Maine: D. Wilde Press, 2012), p. 21.
2.Curtis McCosco, “Harmonics of Emptiness,” note on the revised draft of The Night Sky, email, 2013.
3.Shunryu Suzuki, Branching Streams Flow in the Darkness: Zen Talks on the Sandokai (Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2001), p. 111.
4.Edgar Allan Poe, “Eureka: A Prose Poem,” 1848 (either p. 92 or p. 118 in online collections of Collected Works).
Teaser image by Hubble Heritage, courtesy of Creative Commons license.