Sunday, August 1

Time, Temporality, Teleology, and Telescopes


Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer: there is nobility in preserving it coolly and proudly through long youth, until at last, in the ripeness of instinct and discretion, it can be safely exchanged for fidelity and happiness. -- George Santayana

As I write this, I am sitting in front of our beach house near Cape Kumukahi, the easternmost point on the Big Island of Hawaii, watching the blue-white surf roll in from somewhere out beyond Infinity, and reading in the Tribune-Herald, the local Hilo newspaper, about the ongoing controversy over the building of the new Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) atop Mauna Kea. As with the building of the other 13 telescopes on the summit of the extinct volcano, the permitting process for TMT has been, from its very inception in 2011, a tug of war between environmentalists and native Hawaiians, on the one hand, and the Big Island astronomy community, on the other. Bracketing off environmental concerns for the moment, you would be tempted to view the tension between the astronomers and the native Hawaiians about TMT as just one more typical example of all science-religion conflicts. But you would be wrong.

TMTWhat makes this particular science-religion conflict unique is that, unlike controversies between, say, conservative / fundamentalist Christians and science, the disagreement between the TMT proponents & the native Hawaiians has nothing to do with facts and data. Conservative evangelical / fundamentalist Christians disagree with the facts of evolution and cosmology: they say the earth is 6,000 years old, not 4.5 billion; they say early homo sapiens sapiens and dinosaurs were contemporaries, not separated by at least 65 million years; they say the relationships among the various species are purely geographic, maybe even purely coincidental, not genetic / genotypic; etc. By contrast, the native Hawaiian creation story -- the sacred Kumulipo, actually a chant of 2012 lines -- while not strictly scientific, of course, does nevertheless (1) exuberantly and explicitly acknowledge, on a remarkably sophisticated level, (what we would call) the genetic / genotypic relatedness of all species (reflected in the similarities of the very names of the organisms in the Hawaiian language), and (2) articulates the creation within a time-frame roughly comparable to the vastness of evolutionary time. A modern Darwinian might well, probably would, quibble with the details -- e.g., the Hawaiian creation chant is also teleological -- but she would feel much  more at home in the Hawaiian creation narrative than in its fundamentalist-Christian counterpart.

What renders the conflict between the TMT and native Hawaiian communities much more subtle, and therefore much more difficult to deal with, is that the TMT controversy centers, not on "facts and data", but on the nature and the implications of the sacredness of place. The 14,000-foot summit of Mauna Kea is probably the most hallowed place in all the Islands. One is quite welcome to enter, but only, as it were, with fear & trembling (in Rudolf Otto's sense of mysterium tremendum et fascinans) and with (perhaps literally) unshod feet. Anyone, Hawaiian or not, who stands amid the great telescopes on top of the Mountain feels this. (Diane and I have taken some of the bus / van tours one can take to see the telescopes at the summit, and always observe that, even though the tourists are chattering away on the way up the mountain, they spontaneously subside into an abrupt awed silence at the top.) Regardless of your religious tradition -- if any -- the summit of Mauna Kea is arrestingly numinous. It is a "liminal" place where Earth meets Sky, where this world meets the next, where gods meet humans, where History meets Eternity, on the earth but not altogether of it. A visitor to the summit of Mauna Kea may not know this, may not even believe this, but will almost certainly feel it.  Diane and I still do.  Every time.

MaunaKeaFor the native Hawaiians, the primary consequence is that it is sacrilegious to use Mauna Kea for any merely temporal or pragmatic or ad hoc purpose ... like, for example, as a site for a telescope complex ... or for even one telescope. The European equivalent might be setting up a neon-illuminated hot-dog-and-beer concession in the middle of Stonehenge, and using the Heel Stone as a barbecue grille. Many native Hawaiians who oppose TMT agree with the danger of ecological damage that they say inevitably accompanies telescope construction. But for them, even that concern is secondary. Instead, the primary concern is not degradation, but desecration.

For someone like me, a denizen of western / European culture, civilization, and values, the telescopes and the sheer curiosity about the Universe they tangibly embody do not detract from, but greatly enhance, the sacredness of the Mountain. Perhaps there are other intelligences out there looking at us, perhaps even looking for us, using their own unimaginably advanced versions of the Keck / Subaru / ... etc. ... instruments on some unimaginably remote Mauna-Kea-equivalent of their own. But, being a westerner, the numinosity I associate with the summit of Mauna Kea resides inside me, not in the Mountain itself. I occasionally speak otherwise, but strictly as a concise metaphor. When the West "un-enchanted" Nature, beginning in the early 1600s, the gods, to whatever extent they survived at all, moved from without to within. But native Hawaiians still inhabit the former Nature, or at least feel a profound and life-shaping respect for and relationship with it, where sacredness still resides in the Mountain itself. For reasons of logic alone, this hard-core Cartesian inward / outward dichotomy is probably irresolvable.

Big_Island-Hawaii-Intro_345x225Value judgments as to which is "right", or even "better", are impossible to make from a neutral standpoint. Such valuations always beg the questions of "Right for whom?" and "Better for what?" whose answers are always already culturally biased. There are upsides and downsides to both. Absent some way to transcend the "within / without" distinction as to the locus of sacrality, the issue will be settled in a de jure sense, no doubt ultimately in TMT's favor, by the courts, which, on multiple appeals over the years, have consistently ruled in the telescopes' favor. The TMT will be built and will see "first light", perhaps as early as 2018, more likely 2020 or 2021. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge is always attended by a certain loss of innocence. Even so, I want TMT to be built. I will celebrate when it is finished. But with only 2 cheers, not 3. With tears as well as champagne. So -- assuming we have a choice -- is Knowledge better than Innocence, or is Innocence better than Knowledge? My answer: yes.

O kau ke anoano, ia‘u kualono ... "Fear falls upon me on the mountaintop" -- Kumulipo, line 566


1 Comment

Leave a Reply