Pearly Gates of Cyberspace

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* Book: The Pearly Gates of Cyberspace. A History of Space from Dante to the Internet. By Margaret Wertheim.



Michel Bauwens, 2004

In her introduction, Wertheim stresses that the medievals had a space for the body, but also a place for the soul, both unified in a coherent description of the universe, i.e. The Great Chain of Being. However, after the advent of the dominance of science, i.e. after the split by Descartes of the res cogitans from the res extensa, there remained only physical space; though considered as 'infinite', it was a deeply monistic space, that no longer had room for the soul. Again and again, she stresses the wholistic vision of the body which was always part of the picture. She describes the invention and social utility of Purgatory, its intrinsic humaneness, since it is a place of redemption where souls can make progress. It was also the invention of a new space of being, just as cyberspace is. Concerning Heaven, she discusses the contradictions of a resurrected body in a realm beyond space and time.

The next chapter on the emergence of physical space starts with Giotto (13th cy), who introduced 3D objects in flat space, leading to full-scale three-dimensional and perspectival paintings in the 15th cy.

This was a major mindshift since it introduced physical space:

   - I. from the perspective of a body in space (i.e. the self of the viewer)
   - II. seen from the physical eye and no longer from the Christian soul

Soon painters and viewers learned to play with perspective, i.e. you could take on different virtual positions, there by training the Western mind in the existence of physical space. Galileo would finally win over the European mind to his defintion of the featureless three-dimensional void, as the ground of reality. It is a defeat for Aristotelianism and the end of the spiritually infused medieval conception of space. It is the beginning of the ascent of science to cultural pre-eminence.

Just as the late medievals had a dualism of body and soul, they also had a dualism of terrestrial and celestial space, with the latter being a metaphor for the divine heavens. Their cosmos was therefore not homogenous, spaces were qualified.

But what if the new perspectival logic of terrestrial space, with space being homogenous and equal to itself everywhere, would extend to celestial space. What would this mean for heaven ? This was a key philosophical issue of the 16th and 17th cy! Again and again, it was the painters and artists who paved the way for the new scientific conceptions. Indeed, whereas Giotto had still painted heaven and earth as dissimilar, Raphael painted them both in a unified space.

Wertheim then discusses Nicholas de Cusa who as 'two hundred years in advance' in his thinking, and Copernic, who was, despite his heliocentric revolution, still very much a medieval thinker. It was in fact, Jonathan Kepler, with his laws of planetary motion, who finally destroyed the distinction between the earthy and celestial spheres. Finally, seeing the heavens as a concrete physical space, with material bodies, was a giant intellectual leap from medievalism and it would eventually lead to Newton's union of both spaces through the law of gravity. Kepler's genius was to abandon the mystical circle, with the ellipses. All of these developments would also lead to the disappearance of angels from the celestial sphere, to be replaced by concrete aliens of flesh and blood, as described by Kepler in his 'Somnium', which contains the description of a trip to the moon with its lizard-like creatures, and so perhaps this was the first s-f book in history. Kepler's celestial space no longer had place for immaterial angels. Heaven was no longer a spiritual space. It was Galileo who, through his telescopic observations, proved Kepler riht, and would therefore be associated with this seminal change in western consciousness (Copernic and Galileo stole the show from Kepler, unjustly according to Wertheim). The telescope also showed the mutability of space. Accepting physical space and heliocentrism was much more easier than accepting the idea of a 'infinite' space, pioneered by the Nicolas De Cusa and further defended by Giordano Bruno. Indeed Christianity had always insisted on the presence of form as a sign of the Creator. It abhorred formlessness and the void. To which Bruno replied: "an infinite God can only be satisfied by an infinite act of creation. After this, theologians started to theologize about infinite space and voidness became acceptable.

The next major proponent of infinite space was Rene Descartes who believed that this vision came to him as a divine revelation of an 'Angel of Truth', followed by a series of dreams. The message was that mathematics would be key to unlocking the keys of the universe. Newton then finally showed that gravity was a unifying law that applied on earth and in the heavens.

While both Descartes and Newton were strongly religious, the latter equating God with Space, half a century later, their conceptions would be secularized. The new western worldview is, according to Wertheim, not dualistic, but in fact, profoundly monistic, with only one space and no room to use the spiritual realms. Thus, it was also a major loss for our culture.