Friday, October 06, 2006

The Contingency Conjecture.

If a man dreamt of a great pile of stones he would dream of such a pile as the Cheesewring”; so writes a Victorian antiquarian of the tor which teeters on a Granite outcrop called Stowe’s hill on Bodmin moor. I took this photo of the tor, which is as tall as a house, whilst holidaying in Cornwall. In the past there has been uncertainty over whether these formations were natural or man made: “.. this wonderful pile of stones .. but whether the work of nature or not I know not”, writes one antiquarian. It seems, however, that this monument is the product of the erosional effects of wind and water after acting many thousands of years on a granite dome that took many thousands of years to cool from a magma plume, which in turn took many thousands of years to well up from the mantel. As another antiquarian writes: “The Cheese-rings were probably constructed by nature herself, in one of her whimsical moments”. In support of this, my inspection of Stowe’s hill revealed several of these bizarre features in various stages of formation: from vertical granite faces with a few horizontally eroded grooves in them, through deep horizontal fissures and completely dissociated boulders, to the precarious piles of rocks, like the one I can be seen standing on in the second picture. However, having said that it is difficult to disprove that these natural features may have not have occasionally been “enhanced” by human intervention – in fact there is a small pile of stones behind the Cheesewring, just visible on my photograph which is a human addition made around 1900 in order to prevent the natural pillar from tumbling. There are small bowl like depressions carved on the top of some of the boulders and these were also at first thought to be artificial enhancements pointing to their use as natural alters for the placing of offerings, but these features too are now believed to be natural pits created by eddying winds carrying abrasive dust.

Whether these tors are natural or not it seems that the ancients did put them to use: a dry stone bank, a work that may date back to the Neolithic period, encloses Stowe’s hill. But with the absence of any historical record, it seems impossible to determine with any certainty just what the prehistoric people who created Stowe’s pound, as the enclosure is now called, were thinking of and just what they did at this location. As is often the case when a rationale for prehistoric human activity is difficult to uncover, archeology refers to Stowe’s pound vaguely as a “ritual enclosure”. All we can do is use our common human connection with these forgotten cultures to make some shrewd guesses about the purpose of what may be the Neolithic equivalent of a cathedral.

What did these early people think of these strange natural piles of rock? A clue may come from the uncertainty expressed by some antiquarians over whether these were natural or man made formations. These antiquarians were working with a background intuition that stones are very unlikely to organize themselves into neat stacks of rock – that requires the intervention of intelligent agency, or so it seems. The apparent artificiality of these strange configurations made these stones stand out from their surroundings. The ancient peoples who venerated this site perhaps also had an intuition that certain organized works are difficult to account for in terms of natural processes thus prompting these people to ascribe these works to some a-priori intelligence. But what kind of intelligence - Human or Divine? Given the ostensibly fantastic form of these rock configurations together with fact that a sense of the Divine is never very far from the preliterate mind, then I would hazard a guess that Neolithic people ascribed these tors to a very direct supernatural intervention. This belief would have heightened their awareness of the Divine in way that singular events, like unusual healings, do in modern Christianity. The Old Testament tells us of the traditional role of high places, like Mount Sinai, as locations for communion with the Supernatural. This historical precedent may give us some insight into just how the Neolithic mind would have regarded the tors of Stowe’s hill; as high places, which came complete with offering bowls and therefore a providential resource for communion with the Supernatural.

I don’t suppose Neolithic culture ever did get to grips with the idea that a vast apron of granite was slowly eroded away until these isolated rock pillars were all that was left. On the contrary, imagination is first likely to envisage the rocks being piled on top of one another by some agency and then left. In fact did the ancients ever conceive the landscape with its variety of formations and different types of rock as anything other than one of natures givens, specially handcrafted by divine agency? The idea here is that things are at first made and then left until kingdom come - a notion that is not far removed from what some six-day creationists suggest actually happened.

The actual nature of Divine creative agency, it seems, is far subtler. We now know that the features we see in the world around us have a form that is inextricably bound up with their history of formation; in fact, form can often be regarded as a kind of trace left by the passing of history. We also now understand that natural processes are quite capable of producing highly organized and complex forms, forms that on the face of it sometimes seems to require the direct intervention of sentient intelligence. Perhaps the most amazing product of natural action is the generation life in the womb. As far as we can yet tell the process of cell division and differentiation whose end result is a complex organism, is governed in its entirety by some incredibly advanced construction algorithm. You might think that randomness is not present in this process, but it is: the mix of molecules building cells, are plucked from solutions of randomly diffusing particles which then lock into their places, not unlike a highly biased form of evolution.

In spite of the marvels achieved through natural processes it is logical truism that we can never find ultimate logical necessity in these processes. If we have learnt anything at all from physics and algorithmics, then it is clear that there will always remain an irreducible giveness about our world. It is not possible to so simplify the logical form of physics until there is no initial content and there will always remain a hard core of givens – in terms of the compression metaphor, it is not possible to so conceptually compress the logical content of physics until its givens are conveniently compressed out of existence. Leibniz alerted us to the concept of sufficient reason, but it is now clear that the cosmos cannot supply its own sufficient reason – at least a finite cosmos cannot.

The contingency conjecture suggests that the cosmos is a work of art, a realized possibility that need not exist, rather than a logical necessity. Artists create works of art not because those works are required by some obliging theorem but because they are possible creations selected from the myriad of all possible creations. Contingent forms lie dormant in a mathematical space of unrealized possibilities until the work of a creator, whether human or other, brings them forth.

Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is, in all likely hood, misconceived, but he may have got one thing right: he instinctively perceived that the Divine substance, unlike our own contingent world which requires creation, needs no creation because it is in some sense self-justifying; that is, some kind of contradiction is entailed if one tries to imagine its non-existence, although a proof of this self referencing affirmation of the Infinite may defy our understanding.

In a rather cloudy intuitive way the ancients who used Stowe’s hill may have also instinctively perceived The Necessity of the Divine Substance and yet at the same time they were all too aware of their own contingency. The fragility of their lives underlined this contingency – they well new that they need not exist, and that no fundamental law was transgressed if their lives and even their cosmos should end. In short they understood that they were in debt to someone or something. Above all, they owed their creation and continued existence to an act of creative grace transcending the natural order. That’s why they needed a sacred space in which to pay homage and creative providence had provided it for them.