The sfumato that is everywhere (and nowhere)

A theological blog  4 – vi – 19


There is sfumato everywhere (and nowhere).


There is no God somewhere beyond the sky who manufactured the universe, just as there was no mechanic armed with a slide rule and a cordless screwdriver who manufactured the Mona Lisa.  But there was a great artist who conceived it and used all his technical skill to paint it, and even still today Leonardo’s mysterious sfumato, that strange smoky blurry clarity of meaning that seems unique to him, teases us with the sense that there is somehow something more behind the picture, this most unique of pictures, than we can see or grasp.  Perhaps it is Leonardo himself.  A writer I’m very keen on is a neuroscientist called Antonio Damasio, particularly his first book Descartes’ Error.  Damasio’s theme is that from the point of view of brain science thought and feeling, ideas and emotions, are inseparable.  We feel 2+2 make 4 as much as we think it.  In my view, science got off on the wrong foot in the early seventeenth century because it separated the two.  The trial of Galileo with its barely hidden threat that scientists who didn’t toe the Vatican line would be burnt alive – and boy do I have a love/hate relationship with the Catholic Church – killed Catholic science, with the consequence that it moved north into a Protestant thought world, where God is the great manufacturer somewhere beyond the sky and matter is just inert lumps of stuff pushed around by invisible laws decreed by God.   Old-fashioned atheists like Richard Dawkins who are still as Protestant as they come although now post-, still think – though bless wonderful Richard, not feel –  within that thought world.  Ultra-Protestant Bacon’s scientific method starts with value- free collection of data.  But Bacon’s collection of data is anything but value-free.  It’s instilled with the idea that matter is just lumps of stuff and nature a recalcitrant bitch that needs to be tortured to get her secrets out of her.  More about my intense hatred of Bacon in future blogs.  But Catholic thought has never thought like that.  It is essentially sacramental, matter is animated because God is deep within it.  The seven sacraments are special cases, and the eucharist a very special case.   But only a special case, in no sense a miracle as so many Catholics think, just realising in a particularly thoughtful way the way things are.


Science now thrills me because I think that now it’s getting over the trial of Galileo and all its baneful consequences.  At its heart is the basic proposition of quantum physics that at the level of the subatomic matter is both particle and wave. How can it be?  You can’t be something who can only go through one door at a time, as is the condition in this life of all of us, and at the same time be able to go through two doors.  That’s lunatically absurd.  But, after exhaustive experiment (Bacon would have like that) it seems it is undoubtedly the case.  At the particulated level particles are in a particular place, a here, and at a particular time, a now.  But at the level of wave everything is a unity.   Here and now and yet everywhere and nowhere.  Two electrons that have once been in contact with one another (entangled the physicists call it) can communicate instantaneously with one another even though separated by the whole universe. That’s even more absurd.  It abrogates the corner stone of Einsteinian physics, that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.  Hawking says that his mathematics shows that the universe wasn’t created but simply appeared out of nothing.  Out of nothing?  That’s ultra-ridiculous, nothing can come of nothing as that not so wise man King Lear tells us.  If you hit a ball to the boundary in a cricket match (can’t quite decide whether I’ll fantasize I’m Joe Root or Jos Buttler today, because we are all small boys really, children playing with pebbles on the shore left by the retreating tide of the great ocean of truth, as Newton said) in a cricket match the electrons in the ball go to the boundary, well of course they do they are in the ball, but on the way they visit everywhere in the universe. Somebody explain how please.  It seems there is sfumato everywhere, so impenetrably mysterious is science now and yet so clarifying.  And Dawkins isn’t, in spite of himself in my view, a feelingless Baconian torturing nature to get her secrets out of her at all.  He’s emotionally thrilled at the wonders of life that biology is now revealing to us and he thrills me too.  I love Dawkins.  That out of date seventeenth century Protestant gap between thought and feeling is closing.  (I’m exhausted so will continue in next blog.  But what I want to point to is the comparison between what science is now discovering and what mystics have always taught.  They too think that in the end thought is baffled by truth and that both in the end and the beginning everything is nothing.  In my end is my beginning, as the poet says.  Damasio tells us that feeling is inseparable from thought.  Mystical theology is the feeling that is inseparable from science’s thought. That’s a thought.  Next time, next time.


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