Monday, April 13, 2015

The Invisible as Real

As a boy, my favorite, most chilling movie was "The Invisible Man," and, when I was even younger, I loved invisible ink and, of course, pretending to be invisible by hiding, disguising myself, or simply closing my eyes, as if my self or person would magically disappear.

The relation between magic and science is part of the fascinating new book, INVISIBLE, by Philip Ball, a British science writer, who uses literature, myth, philosophy, and other fields to illuminate his study.  As in his book on the building of Chartres cathedral, Universe of Stone, Ball writes beautifully for the lay reader.

The idea that power resides in the unseen world is basic to all religions, and the world of magic becomes the inspiration of science: they are not opposites, Ball indicates. It is good to learn here that science cannot destroy the invisible, which is real, which is the enduring reality we all strive for.  In this way, the invisible is like silence, not the absence of sound but a presence in its own right.

As Kathryn Schulz sums Ball's insights in The New Yorker:  "In a universe that is vast and mostly matterless, in which the invisible exceeds the visible by a staggering margin, the extraordinary fact about us is that we number among the things that can be seen."

So much for B. F. Skinner's claim that the goal of science is the destruction of mystery. Mystery is all around us and in us, and examining the invisible opens up questions about the invisible as presence. Clearly, what is unseen is not just de-materialized or disguised.

The invisible may keep itself hidden but it makes itself felt, Schulz says. This is literally how the universe works: "An invisible mass alters the orbit of a comet; dark energy affects the acceleration of a supernova; the earth's magnetic field tugs on birds, butterflies, sea turtles, and the compasses of mariners."  The entire visible world, that is, even all that cannot be put under a microscope or other visual device, is made possible by the invisible.

"Our planet, our solar system, our galaxy, our universe: all of it, all of us, are pushed, pulled, spun, shifted, set in motion and held together by what we cannot see." (Schulz)

Wow!  Just think of all "big things" we cannot see: germs, viruses, molecules, gravity, the earth's interior, the depths of the ocean. It is humbling to learn that scientists can only see a fragment of the universe--and nothing of its purpose and meaning. Hence we have philosophy and religion to show us the wonder of our world and ourselves.

As I learned in my introductory philosophy course, our ideas, feelings, personalities, souls, and selves--most of the things that really matter--are beyond our seeing but nonetheless real, as abstractions are real. Despite the efforts of science to dispel the invisible, it is, like God, all around us and in us and beyond all knowing.

The topic of the invisible leads from magic to science and then, it seems to me, to mysticism: an immersion in the mystery of things beyond the realm of science.

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