Augustine, the Nature of Infinity and Humanity’s Quest Into Space

By Bob Arnold

The theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine (354-430 AD) was one of those rare historical personages who successfully grappled with the issues of the nature of infinity: the so-called ontological paradox.

What has this to do with humanity’s current quest to colonize space?

I hope to convince you that the life and writings of Augustine are entirely germaine to that mission so eloquently and passionately encapsulated by John Kennedy nearly 50 years ago: “We choose to go to the moon and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Today’s astrophysics community itself is in a manifold crisis in understanding the nature of the physical universe every bit as profound as at the time of Johannes Kepler when the use of numbers and statistics kept the heavens locked into mere astrology devoid of an understanding of physical causes. Just as scientists in Kepler’s time became lost in statistics and models which merely illustrated mathematical effects without any care for causal principles, so too have today’s mathematical physicists found themselves trapped in similar false paths of thinking.

As scientists have attempted to trace back time to the most remote epoch of the detection of light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation, we have found that discrepancies have arisen for the very age of the universe itself. Moreover, we have no explanation for the rotation rates of galaxies supposing the existence of so-called “dark matter” to make our mathematical models work. Lastly, the rate of expansion of the universe, noted as the factor “lambda,” is inexplicable without reference to “dark energy” (yet another mathematical creation whose existence or non-existence is fundamentally impossible to prove). Indeed, there are yet many other unresolved paradoxes that seem to question why there is a directionality of flow and polarization of universal radiation and even fascinating discrepancies in the fine structure constant itself.

Now what has this to do with the topic of this article? 

First, it must be brought to your attention that Augustine of Hippo was an extremely learned man who broke from a religious sect of Manichean who were active during the last days of the Roman Empire. Like the Socrates of Plato’s dialogues, Augustine radically challenged the prevailing doctrines of the nature of the composition of the universe.

Eight hundred years before Augustine, Socrates was put to death for the crime of questioning why the gods of Olympus were depicted as having human failings when that was incompatible with the notion of perfection assumed to be an attribute of deities. The ugly fact then being exposed by Socrates was that this hedonistic, contrarian nature of the Gods was used to justify the arbitrary rule of a chosen elite over the Greek people. Socrates’ constant proofs of the existence of a higher lawfulness to which even the Gods were bound was an existential threat to the political structures of oligarchism and empire then coming to dominate Ancient Athens.

A 15th century rendering of St Augustine features the church leaders’ piety alongside scientific instrumentation and books on geometry with which he promoted the study of God’s mind via the co-exploration of nature and the human mind

Augustine’s conversion to Christianity came at a time when the Roman Empire was sacrificing Christians in the arena as a spectacle. One of Augustine’s letters in fact came out against suicide of these early Christians as a means to avoid being publicly tortured. Like the corrupted Greeks earlier, the Roman Empire worshipped their own pantheon of mythological gods and maintained their own priesthood and elite rulers based upon that model.

The Manichaen sect which a young Augustine had joined believed that good and evil were co-equal universal forces or substances forever locked together like light and dark. Under this logic not only was good not more powerful than evil, but one had to assume that Goodness arose from a different cause then evil (implying the non-existence of a unifying One creator of the universe). In his Confessions (Book V) Augustine describes the problem in the following way:

“For hence I believed Evil also to be some such kind of substance, and to have its own foul and hideous bulk; whether gross, which they called earth, or thin and subtle (like the body of the air), which they imagine to be some malignant mind, creeping through that earth. And because a piety, such as it was, constrained me to believe that the good God never created any evil nature, I conceived two masses, contrary to one another, both unbounded, but the evil narrower, the good more expansive. And from this pestilent beginning, the other sacrilegious conceits followed on me.”

The psychological effect of this belief system was deadly to anyone wanting to upend the real evil of the Roman Empire’s continual looting and destruction of its conquered satraps. It needs to be recalled that Christianity was the only prohibited form of worship by the decrees of the Emperor Diocletian.In order to overcome the dualism of the Manichaens, Augustine declared that evil is not of the same substance as the good and not even a substance at all, but rather it is the effect of a willful choice made by humans to deliberately turn away from the good such that evil has no claim to self-subsistence but is merely the effect of ignorance mixed with free will.

Describing this concept in his dialogue with Evodius in Free Choice and the Will, Augustine states:

“Perhaps it is because they turn away and are separated from education, that is, from learning. But whether it be this or something else, this much is surely obvious: since education is a good thing; and education (disciplina) gets its name from the act of learning (discendo), it is not at all possible to learn evil things. For if they are learned, they are contained in a discipline, and so the discipline will not be a good thing. But it is good, as you yourself admit. Therefore evil things are not learned, and we seek in vain for him from whom we learn to do ill; or if they are learned we learn to avoid them, not to do them. Thus to do evil can only be to depart from the way of learning.”

Plato’s famous dialogue regarding the universality of human reason, The Meno, set the stage for what Augustine exemplified as the new dispensation. If a mere uneducated slave boy can recreate the most profound geometrical proofs independently of anything other than an internal dialogue, the cult of the Pantheon of the gods must crumble and give way. The Promethean intellectual fire that the school of Athens lit would not be doused over the centuries, but be reignited time and again in a ever more qualitatively powerful incarnations.

A detail from Raphael’s School of Athens featuring Plato at odds with Aristotle. While Plato affirmed truthfulness and causality to be transcendental principles located only in the spiritual realm of creative Ideas, Aristotle was a devout materialist who demanded spirit be subordinate to “matter” and change subordinate to “non-change”.

If the world at the time of Augustine was capable of being governed by a new dispensation whereby all humanity is considered to be able to participate equally in light of being made in the image of the one true God, this means that the Empire’s controlling religious ideology must end. This directly brings up the ontological paradox that I referenced at the outset as well as the nature of investigating how the universe is composed.

Is the universe itself regulated by fixed and unchanging laws just as the control over mankind’s affairs apparently is by a caste of rulers and their priesthood? Or rather does the universe itself undergo continuous change toward more order rather than winding down like a mechanical clockwork? And finally if there is an all powerful God who made the universe perfectly then why can such change even be possible? Wouldn’t that changing nature mean that God wasn’t perfect? 

Augustine addressed this paradox in his great City of God by positing that pure truth must be hidden from mankind due to our limited and finite existence. However these truths may be uncovered as the totality of human history unfolds. In fact doing so allows us to participate in the ongoing perfection of the universal ordering. Augustine’s “corollary” to Paul’s poetic declaration that we see “as through a glass darkly” must be remembered here: the Creator is not a clock winder or dead letter. The universal ongoing evolutionary potential is necessarily hidden from humanity’s purview even as we co-evolve in a great fugue of discovery. 

Here is one good quote from City of God Chapter 7

“He who resolves to love God, and to love his neighbor as himself, not according to man but according to God, is on account of this love said to be of a good will; and this is in Scripture more commonly called charity, but it is also, even in the same books, called love. For the apostle says that the man to be elected as a ruler of the people must be a lover of good.”

Thus it is that the colonization of space is as necessary in bringing about a new age of reason in order to investigate and resolve the unknown yet lawful nature of the universe of today. Deeper analysis shows us that we are not at the mercy to a perpetually unchanging and entropic cosmos winding down to some supposed future “heat death” as today’s mainstream mathematicians tend to believe but rather quite the opposite.

If we resolve to take up the challenge of overcoming the cultural pessimism which has engrossed much of western civilization by furthering that mission, then we will participate actively in that same process which Augustine fought for many centuries ago.  

Robert Arnold has far ranging interests in scientific research, politics, literature, music and art. He has maintained a blog especially dedicated to the often-misunderstood Edgar Allan Poe for the past 15 years. 

One Comment Add yours

  1. Roy A Booher says:

    The arguement is all well and good, but it presupposes not only that the universe already exists, but that some how what we call good and evil, has anymore of a logical basis than calling one plant a weed and another plant, not a weed.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s