Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Dark Abyss of Time: Modern Cosmic Imaginary

Nineteenth Century Unbelief:

• The story of the nineteenth century unbelief is distinct from eighteenth century unbelief

due to a “surge of piety” which took place between the two.

• This second turn to unbelief was wider and deeper than the first due to the shift in their

Cosmic Imaginary and the way “nature” figured in their moral and aesthetic


“The unbelieving outlooks were more deeply anchored in the lifeworld and background

sense of nineteenth century people than the analogous views of their eighteenth century

predecessors.” 323

The Change-Over: The transformation of the Cosmic Imaginary

In our modern cosmic imaginary there is a sense that things “fail to touch bottom

anywhere” (p. 325). The defining sense of vastness and the unfathomable makes us unable to

relate to the previous cosmic imaginary defined which was defined by its limits.

“It is no longer usual to sense the universe immediately and unproblematically as

purposefully ordered, although reflection, meditation, spiritual development may lead

one to see it this way.” 325

Two Categories of change-over on the level of theory:

1. Increased dimensions of the old cosmos which was previously limited in space by

outer spheres and in time by Biblical story.

a. Wide and Deep: our idea of the universe expands to the degree that we view our

galaxy as merely one of countless others and our inner frontier becomes equally

as unknown as our universe through the discovery of micro-constitutions.

b. Time: the extension in view of time from a view of the cosmos being roughly 6,000

years old separates us from the “process of our genesis” which makes the past

dark and unfathomable.

2. Increased consciousness of the universe as dominated by the sense that things

evolve. Understand that the world has developed from an earlier state and that life

forms, particularly humans change and evolve.

How this change-over was possible:

(Not a story of one theory merely replacing another. “The science doesnʼt simply

determine what imaginary develops in the place of the earlier one.” 326)

Two necessary components:

1. The availability of alternative frameworks: these were already there through certain

views of Lucretius, Descartes and the beginnings of modern mechanistic physics.

2. The waning of the hold of the older cosmos idea on the imagination: through

disenchantment and breaking away from idea of higher times, faith was necessarily

weakened. There was now a “felt need” and people couldnʼt help but think this was

undermining their entire faith.


• The 17th Century apologetics felt that they needed to prove Godʼs existence through

the design of things since enchantment was undermined by mechanism.

• Many held more rigidly to the Biblical details

• Mystery was no longer tolerable in the creation, that is, no intra-cosmic mystery,

although it was still tolerable in the designs of God. The mystery remained in Godʼs

will. This was a shared feeling on both sides of exclusive humanism and orthodoxy.

Key Figures in the Transformation:

“Not just our theories changed, but the spontaneous, unreflecting understanding which

provides the context for these beliefs has also altered.” 347

Burnet and Vico: Not simply on one side of the face-off

1. Burnet: Broke away from the fixed, unchanging world toward evolutionary history, but

came from an orthodox perspective.

a. A new sense of deep time that claims things are evolving. (Seen through ruins)

b. Nature as “sublime.”

i. The old cosmos imaginary viewed the wilderness as uncultivated and

demonic, while maintaining an idea that God could be met there, out of


ii. Disenchantment and the buffered self was able to transform the horror and

fear felt towards the wilderness into a pleasing horror.

Moral Meaning: Finds a higher purpose because buffered selves are in

danger of narrow self-absorption. Need something beyond ourselves.

Hence, wilderness can empower us to live better where we are. Within

context of the felt inadequacies of modern anthropocentrism.

2. Vico: pioneer in developing a theory of a pre-human, bestial stage, but also wrote

with orthodox intentions.

a. A new sense of deep time that claims leads us back into darkness, a “dark

genesis,” before the light of our current condition.

Within the context of the felt inadequacies of the shallowness of anthropocentrism, they

couldnʼt simply go back to a sense of depth in an eternity that was no longer felt. (343)


Taylor makes a distinction between sense and belief by claiming that all people sense that the world is defined by its vastness and being unfathomable, but people can still believe that the universe was created by God which is not according to this sense. Is this sense really as deep as he claims it is? People live according to their beliefs, but it seems odd that these beliefs would be in opposition to how they sense the world to be. It seems almost as if the vast and unfathomable world is a scientific belief, and not a sense.

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