Looking Up At Infinity

Ross Andersen ponders how generations of people have come to terms with the vastness of the sky:

When we peer into the sky’s abyssal recesses, its blank blues and deep starlit voids, we dish_shiva catch a glimpse of infinity, and, as [philosophy scholar Thomas] McEvilley says, ‘the finite mind has difficulty processing infinity.’ The psychology of this phenomenon was described best by Pascal, the 17th-century mathematician who said the starry sky made him think of time’s crushing enormity. It made him see that human life is a microsecond, beset by two eternities, past and future. ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me,’ he said. And who can blame him? To look at the sky is to be reminded that oceans of space and time lie beyond the reach of our minds. Who can help but feel small under it? By showing us the true scope of the unknown, the sky forces us to confront the mysterious nature of human experience. It puts us face to face with the most basic of truths — that we are all, in some sense, existentially adrift.

Humans have devised several strategies to tame this unnerving quality, none more popular than worship. It’s easy to see why.

Making the sky into a humanlike God is a shortcut to making it legible. If you believe that there is a man in the sky, you can interpret its unpredictable cinema, its colour shifts and stormy whims, as symbolic messages, communications from the cosmic creator. You can graft human traits and desires onto the sky’s impenetrable infinities, and soothe yourself with the comforting notion that the great unknown resembles you in some important way. This philosophical trick is hard for the order-seeking mind to resist, because it leads to a coherent picture of the world. And so, since antiquity, sky gods have gushed from the human imagination, and several of them survive to this day.

In the West, this practice goes back to the dawn of civilisation, to the Sumerians, whose most exalted deity was the sky god Anu. The Ancient Greeks followed suit by putting Zeus, the sky-father, atop Mount Olympus, and so did the Romans, who worshipped Jupiter for centuries before converting to Christ. Eastern polytheisms had their sky gods, too. Shiva, the supreme god of Shaivism, one of Hinduism’s most ancient denominations, is often described as ‘the cosmic man’. He is typically depicted wearing a crescent moon on his head, an ornament meant to symbolise the waxing and waning of creation during time’s eternal cycles. He wears, in other words, a talisman of infinity.

(Image: Shiva with Parvati, c. 1800, via Wikimedia Commons)