The Architecture of Modernity & the Joy of Science

Ages, places, and nations sometimes have characteristic architectural forms. Sometimes these forms, like vinyl-clad McMansions, or the decrepit and vaguely totalitarian National Mall, tell you things about a culture that its members would rather not know, and surely most places and times have an architecture of that kind. Other forms are characteristic not only of some virtue or vice in a society, however, but its self-understanding. The greatest of these forms was probably the cathedral in the high and late Middle Ages, which was simultaneously an expression of the aesthetic, economic, and political aspirations of a community as well as an act of humility before G-d, echoing the incarnation by uniting G-d and man. Nowadays we capitalist Westerners have our own entrant, which is of course the skyscraper.

Skyscapers are like cathedrals in another way: they contain a place within the building that is natural to treat as sacred. In the cathedral this space was the center of the cross formed by the nave and the transept, and in the skyscraper it is the highest floor of the building. What we use this space for can tell us about ourselves, I think. Observation decks are therefore a symbol of modernity, and an important one. They are open to the public and serve no purpose other than to gratify the mind and the eye with the sight of the city spread out below. This gratification, I suggest, is one of the many ways in which modernity is actually more Christian than the Middle Ages.

Nothing like the scientific method was found in antiquity, and what glimmers of it appeared in the Middle Ages were feeble. The systematic use of the method, institutionalized in journals and laboratories, is characteristically modern, but the psychology of the scientists who employ it represents a Christian ideal. Many scientists seem to feel a passionate, personal joy at the ordered reasonableness of the universe, or more specifically, that it is reasonable, but its reasons are never exhausted. This joy is a species of the joy in being qua being that Aquinas, speaking for the Christian tradition, claimed to be the proper disposition of all Christians toward the created order.  You have to know some scientists personally, I think, to realize that scientists are like this, because scientists themselves are not encouraged to articulate it, though sometimes you do hear statements in the press about how a new finding is “really darn cool.”

Being happy merely to see and to understand, as scientists are, is the feeling responsible for observation decks, whose most intellectually incurious and aesthetically stolid visitors thrill with joy as they marvel at the works of Man and discover how familiar neighborhoods tessellate. Though surmise about the psychology of ages past is hazardous, I’ll venture to guess that the civilization of the modern West has privileged and encouraged joy in the way the universe works more than any civilization in history.

I write all of this by way of introduction, since this is my first post at the League and much of my blogging will be characterized by choleric and occasionally intemperate hostility towards liberal democracy and industrial capitalism, such that you might mistake me for a Front Porcher in an ordinary gentleman’s clothing. So, while I am interested in the alienation of man from himself that is peculiar to modernity, I don’t forget that modernity has created new possibilities of experience we would do wrong to abandon. I also believe that the joy I described above animates the best bloggers on the internet, and I hope it will characterize my own blogging here.

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27 thoughts on “The Architecture of Modernity & the Joy of Science

  1. Mr. Schaengold, I look forward also!
    Modernity, Hegelian alienation, T.S. Eliot etc.
    I’m not sure about you being a “porcher” though. I’m thinking a Lawler PoMoCon where as the erudite professor says things are “getting better and getting worse.”
    But we’ll look for the symbols of modernity where we can find them and your “observation deck” put a smile on my face. But we are dealing with contemporary disorders and challenged by the derailment that is the “climate of opinion” and in that department I’m not sure that you’ve not been seduced by some professor who’s argued for Hegel’s (or some) system of science as salvific.
    I trust you’re not some prophet come to place the transcendent ground somewhere among the immanent hierarchy of being….?

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  2. As a scientist, I feel compelled to comment on the characterization of how “scientists” might feel about something. While certainly, I find a sense of joy and wonder at the nature of the universe as viewed from my observation deck in the ivory tower, I’m not sure I would say that the universe is “ordered” or “reasonable”. An old, deterministic view of physics that predates quantum mechanics may have seen the universe as ordered or reasonable. After the discovery of the principles of quantum mechanics, though, the universe (at least for very small particles) was found to actually run on randomness and chaos. The “order” that we see on an everyday basis is actually the product of the average properties of 1023+ small particles each behaving in a chaotic and random way. That even some semblance of our notion of “order” or “reasonableness” can come out of such chaos is the true wonder of the universe (and perhaps even modern society). I would be careful about having too much faith in that knowledge, though, as we have only begun to scratch the surface of all the wonders that the universe holds.

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    • Thanks for your response, Aaron. I’m not a scientist myself, of course, but my understanding is that the behavior of particles at the quantum level is random but not disordered, and on the Many-Worlds interpretation, is in fact fully deterministic. But even in non-deterministic interpretations, the behavior of the particles remains profoundly lawful, inasmuch as it can be described mathematically with probability amplitudes. Of course it’s precisely the wonder of that order that it seems inexhaustible — that there is no prospect of finding the bottom.

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  3. “The systematic use of the method, institutionalized in journals and laboratories, is characteristically modern, but the psychology of the scientists who employ it represents a Christian ideal.”

    Strange then that scientists mostly seem to regard the universe as chaotic, rather than ordered. Also, you cite no evidence of this rather wild and woolly claim about a “Christian ideal” being what scientists feel. Which scientists? When? On what evidence? I note that you managed to ignore e.g. Archimedes and Herophilus in your dismissal of antiquity. Also, when you describe the institutionalized version of science as “characteristically modern” – when, precisely, does modernity begin for you?

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    • “I note that you managed to ignore e.g. Archimedes and Herophilus in your dismissal of antiquity”

      Not at all. These men employed nothing resembling the scientific method, unless that method is just the application of reason to empirical questions, which seems broad enough to include practices from nearly all civilizations. Not to say they weren’t brilliant. My favorite is Eratosthenes, personally.

      “when, precisely, does modernity begin for you?”

      Sometime between September 25, 1555, when the Peace of Augsburg was signed and the principle of religious toleration between European states was established and January 16th, 1556, when the emperor Charles V, the last truly medieval monarch of any importance in Europe, abdicated.

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  4. Welcome sir and I applaud your initial post. I myself will confess to a deep fondness for skyscrapers, even the humble ones here in the midwest. I’d suggest, humbly, that we have one other common modern cathedral though it arches invisibly over us and is the child of biology rather than architecture I’m referring to our civilizations herb immunity, the product of generations of systematic research and mass vaccinations. I view it as an intangible dome that has blessed us with the ability to actually view the death of a child as a unique and horrible occurrence rather than one that must be anticipated with weary resignation.
    That insignificant quibble aside I loved your imagery, welcome again.

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  5. This site continues to improve with every selection of new writers. Welcome. Of course, the skyscraper probably is the symbol of Western modernity as evidenced by the destruction of the WTC . I would be interested in your opinion on whether our culture intends the buildings to endure. So many incorporate into interior design or do not bother to hide the mundane infrastructure of the building (HVAC, water and sanitary lines). It is as if the exterior, including the observation deck, is all that is important. There really is no public nave and rose window, only the private corporate suite. More like the stele of Ozymandias than the cathedral at Chartres?

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    • This is a good point that most skyscrapers contain corporate suites, not observation decks, on the top floors. Both the best and worst of modernity in its most iconic architectural space, perhaps.

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      • “Both the best and worst of modernity in its most iconic architectural space, perhaps.”

        Oh, David, please! All corporations are “evil?” It does grow tiresome. I’m anticipating an exercise in dialectics here not the usual left-wing swill. You can do better!

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        • Of course corporations aren’t all evil. In fact one objection to them is that calling a corporation evil or good is meaningless, which absolves them terrifyingly of the moral responsibility of human persons.

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          • As you know corporations are subject to the law, consequently they have certain “moral responsibilities.” The problem, it seems, is in getting the DA, or state/federal regulator to do their job and investigate allegations and bring charges when appropriate. If that’s not happening then we have a problem with the libido dominandi, which is an intrinsic problem related to the specie and by definition a integral part of the drama of humanity.

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          • Corporations are created tools, abstractions, that we forget are tools and treat as real though they are not. It’s true that can’t be “good” or “evil”, indeed, the point of binding them under law is to allow individuals to escape liability.

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  7. Another question this raises in my mind is what about the mall? A lot of the US cities I lived in stopped building skyscrapers by about the 70s, but are still building malls like mad. (Maybe not during the recession!) But I wonder what if the mall isn’t, as you say, “an expression of the aesthetic, economic, and political aspirations of a community”? Could the mall become a bit like the Middle Ages church, a repository of a common culture in a time of disunity? Would the central atrium that many malls have be considered a sacred space?

    Good post- it provokes all sorts of thoughts!

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    • Good thought. The mall provides a covered area for elderly walkers in the morning, a place for mid-teens to gather after, and sometimes during, school hours, a weekend fund-raising site for various charitable groups and a social gathering for mome in teh food courts and coffee shops. Much like the commons in front of the cathedral where all social and commercial business was carried out in medieval times. It is also interesting that the businesses reflect the economic times. Today the payday loan storefronts and consignment businesses flourish where once the boutiques and fashion shops did business.

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    • The first time I visited Orlando’s Mall at Millennia, my thought was that it was like a cathedral to excess consumption, the central atrium being where we went to worship our indebtedness. (This was in 2006, which is probably relevant.)

      Malls are specifically build to lull us and manipulate us into giving up our consciousness not to God or to love but to reckless spending.

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  8. Pingback: The Observation Deck and the Modern Cathedral « Plumb Lines

  9. Welcome, welcome.

    I can’t comment for scientists at large, but I have the kind of elevated, joyous feeling you ascribe to them when I learn something particularly beautiful about the human physiology, and how it informs our relationship to the world and to history. When I was in residency, I attended a class taught by a hematologist. He discussed the molecular structure of hemoglobin, and how ethnic variations in the molecule’s conformation mirrored the migration patterns of Native Americans from Asia, via Alaska and Canada. In that moment, I experienced all the exaltation you describe in your post.

    And I also feel a similar sense of joy viewing the lower Manhattan skyline from the Brooklyn Promenade. No wonder Walt Whitman spent so much time in that neighborhood.

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