Friday, January 2, 2009


There is something particularly impressive about astronomical objects, such as nebulae and galaxies. Take the Orion Nebula, a stellar nursery, 25 light years across. Yet, a nebula is, as the name indicates, just a big cloud. It is hard to say that it is necessarily much more beautiful than cloud formations in earth's sky lit up by the setting sun. But the astronomic object is more impressive.

Are we wrong to take astronomical objects as particularly impressive? Or is size something objective? (Would the universe bet at all different if everything got a million times bigger, with the laws of nature changing in a compensatory way?) Or is it, perhaps, the impressiveness has a relational component, and things that have much more mass-energy and spatial extent than ourselves are appropriately seen as more impressive? But if so, then when we are impressed by an astronomical object, we are impressed not just by how the object is in itself, but how it is in relation to us. The latter seems phenomenologically somewhat wrong: being impressed by something takes us outside of ourselves, and hence should not be a way of seeing things in relation to ourselves.

Or perhaps astronomical objects are no more impressive than terrestrial ones, but the mistake in our perceptions is not in our finding the astronomical objects more impressive than they are as much as in our failure to find the terrestrial objects impressive. Perhaps we should find the earthly clouds in many ways as impressive as we find nebulae, and grain of sand in many ways as wondrous as a planet? (In many ways, but not in all. For, after all, a planet has much more complexity than a grain of sand, if only because it is made up many more atoms.)

I generally suspect we don't love and appreciate the things around us enough.


Heath White said...

Off the cuff, I would say that astronomical objects are relative to us in the sense that ethics is relative to us. If we reproduced differently, marital fidelity would not be the issue it is. But we reproduce as we do, so fidelity is the issue it is. And it is not wrong to call marital fidelity--for us--a big moral deal, categorically. Likewise, if we were much different than we are, nebulae would not be as impressive, but since we are as we are, nebulae are really impressive for us. And it is not wrong to say that they are impressive "categorically".

Alexander R Pruss said...


I don't think the analogy works. Suppose fripples reproduce in such a way that fidelity is not an issue for them. Suppose the fripple says categorically: "Fidelity is not a big moral deal," and we say categorically: "Fidelity is a big moral deal." If these claims are categorical, and do not have suppressed qualifiers, they can't both be true.

So, what should we say about humans and fripples and fidelity? Surely we should say: "Fripple fidelity is not a big moral deal while human fidelity is a big moral deal." And that's something that both humans and fripples should agree on.

So the solution, in the end, is that the apparently unqualified claims are in fact qualified by making reference to the natural kind that the agents fall into. And since we are after all talking about actions, it is unsurprising that our claims may need to say something about who the agent is, since the nature of an action may depend on facts about the agent. It is wrong for me to print money, but it is not wrong for the mint employee to print money. Or, to put it differently, the printing of money by someone unauthorized by the government is wrong, and the printing of money by someone authorized by the government is not wrong. Likewise, infidelity by a human is gravely wrong, while infidelity by a fripple isn't.

But "The nebula is very impressive" does not seem to be about any agents in the same way.

We could say that what we mean is "The nebula is very impressive for humans." But, as I said, that seems mistaken. Or we could mean "The nebula is very impressive(h)", there being a family of impressive-type concepts, with angels using one ("impressive(a)"), and us using another ("impressive(h)"), and fripples presumably using yet another ("impressive(f)"), but with the members of the family having some kind of a resemblance. This would allow the concept to be categorical. But I think this multiplication of concepts is unsatisfactory.

Anonymous said...

A parallel observation (from my teacher DeKoninck) in the series atom, molecule, stone, star, galaxy, nebula each one is a macroscopic infinitude compared to the previous one.

Huge objects give us a concrete sense of extreme disproportion, and so there is a sort of analogy between the way sense stands to huge things and the way intellect stands to the most intelligible things. I'm reminded of St. Augustine who said "in those things whose greatness is not measured in bulk, it is measured in power". We can make real transitions from what is great to our senses to great in intellect. But I'm not speaking to the question you ask.

Pretty nebula, though

James Chastek

wj said...

Kant says that "We call that sublime which is absolutely great"; but in his account of the dynamical sublime this greatness seems in part to consist in the fact that, in the face of a sublime object, our sensible powers of intuition and imagination fail us, and this must have to do with its size relative ourselves. Indeed, it is the conflict between the phenomenological experience of a greatness that exceeds one's own capacities of imagination and intuition, and the recognition that one's powers of reason are still more great, that produces sublimity itself. So the "relative" size of an object is important, since its greatness is measured in relation to our sensible powers to apprehend it.