The Ancient Modern
Science and Culture / Joshua Alan Sturgill
It’s a bit of a secret, though openly discussed by physicists, that physics has been stalled out since the 1940’s. What science has been giving us over the last half-century are more machines to test more theories. And not even more theories, but more theoretical application of old theories. Just when physics was supposed to reach a state of perfection by answering the question “what is the physical world?”, the whole project collapsed. Matter was discovered to not be material at all.
If you’re as old as I am (I went to elementary school in the 80’s), you were likely taught a model of atomics that was already disproved—but it was simple, so it was promoted as “introductory.” The effect was, largely, to assure you at a young age that science understood the world and was perfectly worthy of your trust. You’ll remember the model: atoms as tiny solar systems with electron planets revolving peacefully around a nucleus sun. Lots of little “things” obediently responding to “forces.”
But in the 1940’s, it had already been discovered that matter was not a matter of things. Where matter comes from, and how it works—and why it works on a large scale at all (the human scale)—is still a mystery. This is the “secret” of the current modern project: modernism has absolute faith in its truth-finding institutions (including science), and is waiting for scientific breakthroughs in the same manner as an Evangelical Christian awaiting the rapture.
If there’s a conspiracy going on, it isn’t going on behind the scenes. As I said, physicists openly discuss the problem. The conspiracy is one that the culture at large has wanted to perpetuate. You and I don’t want to be bothered with the fact that science doesn’t know what it’s doing. We are content that more bits of the planet should be turned into more sleek machines while we wait for the Good News that we are saved.
Meanwhile, we are refining and re-manipulating what we’ve already invented. I’ve often heard it mentioned that from 1900 to 1950 the world/society/culture exploded with changes. But since 1950, “progress” as died back to a crawl. Consolidation is going on, but not invention. Television, electricity, telephone, automobiles: all invented before 1950. Since 1950? We’ve consolidated them, and now your car has a GPS.
Along with our inventiveness, our optimism and compassion and philosophy have faded. Folks are starting to figure out there’s a problem. The audience was spell-bound because, once upon a time, the magician pulled a rabbit out of his hat. This was a clever trick, an impressive use of mirrors and trapdoors. But the audience believed it was magic—or rather, the audience didn’t care how it happened—and is now demanding more rabbits and more kinds of rabbits and unlimited rabbits.
But the magician smiles awkwardly and tells a joke to stall for time while his assistants are rushing around trying to find new trapdoors. The magician assures the audience that more and better is on the way, but meanwhile the hat sits empty on the stage.
What I’ve said is neither original nor very shocking. But, I think it bears considering, or re-considering as often as possible. One of the reasons we must keep the stalling of physics in mind is that we have handed our culture over to the scientists and they’ve put it up on a shelf where it is collecting dust.
I am not opposed to scientific progress, but I fear this loss of culture. Culture is what gives our life purpose, direction, enjoyment. And culture is something we make in the immediate, not something piped into the screens of our living rooms. I would suggest that we stop waiting on science (and allowing it to “care” for us while we wait), and take up again the project of making culture. How is this done? My experience has brought me and others to the conclusion that culture is revived by a return to poetry and agriculture, and to their correlatives: music and architecture.
To return once again to small communities (not isolated, but more or less defined) that engage in storytelling and gardening is to bypass physics altogether and return to metaphysics. The first and best part of metaphysics is contact and participation. To study how a plant “works” is physics—an important and useful thing. But to cultivate a garden is to go beyond physics and encounter life. To have a conversation is physics. To compose a poem (that is, to cultivate a story) is metaphysics.
The garden-growing and story-telling community survives and thrives. This community is not waiting for science to provide it with its future—though it is in the best possible position for appreciating and critiquing science. The metaphysical community, participating in nature and making culture—already has the best of what physics claims to provide.