My subject here is the nature of space, and how our conceptions of space have shaped our conceptions of who and what we are as human beings. I want in particular to deal with the evolution of modern scientific views of space and to consider some of the ways in which these views have impacted on Western perceptions of ourselves as spiritual beings. Space may at first seem an unlikely starting point for a discussion about spirituality, but for much of Western history our thinking about space has been deeply influenced by religious ideas. Indeed, the conceptualization of space is a critical area where science and Christianity have continually intersected. As the physicist and historian Max Jammer has put it, "religious tradition exerted a powerful influence on physical theories of space from the first to the eighteenth century." Newton himself famously justified his vision of space as an infinite Euclidean void, not by recourse to scientific argument but by associating it with God. For the great seventeenth-century physicist, space was nothing less than God's sensorium, the universal "medium" through which an absolute deity could exercise His all-seeing eye, His all-powerful being.
But if for Newton and his contemporaries space had profound theological resonances, post-Newtonian scientists quickly stripped away the master's theistic frills, leaving humanity adrift in a (literally) despiritualized void. This desanctified world picture has been the official cosmology of Western culture for the past three hundred years.
During the two centuries following Newton's death, attempts were made to demonstrate that physical space must conform to the Euclidean mathematical model, that this geometric ideal was the necessary and a priori condition for material existence. But during the twentieth century came the realization that this simple (if undeniably elegant) model was grossly inadequate. Today physicists comprehend space not as a passive Euclidean void, but as a highly dynamic entity with a complex topology of its own. The so-called "hyperspace" theories posit that we live in a hugely complex spatial construct of not three, but ten or eleven separate dimensions. In this formalization, space has become nothing less than the foundation of all reality - the ultimate substrate from which everything else is fashioned. Energy, matter, the entire spectrum of physical phenomena from protons to petunias to people - we are all to be understood as simply byproducts of space itself curled up into patterns.
With modern science we have reached a point where space has become the primary category of reality, everything else being seen as a secondary manifestation of this foundational substrate. Physicist Paul Davies has summed up this vision by noting that in these hyperspace theories there is ultimately nothing but "structured nothingness."
It is an extraordinary vision for any culture to have come to - there is an almost zen-like beauty here. But not without a price have we reached this point. As "the mathematicians have appropriated space," to use the phrase of French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, they have written out of our conception of reality any notion of spiritual space. By this I mean any conception of a space in which a human "spirit" might be seen to reside, for physicists' vision of structured nothingness depicts a purely physical reality. In this sense the scientific world picture stands in stark contrast to the one which preceded it, that of medieval Christianity, for while modern science recognizes only a space for the physical body, the medieval Christian world picture had spaces for both body and soul.
While it is true, then, that the modern scientific conception of space was originally developed with theological support, this vision has ended up creating significant challenges for the Christian worldview. Indeed, I would suggest that the nature of space represents a continuing dilemma for those who wish to find common ground between science and Christianity today.
My aim in this essay is to follow the evolution of the Western conception of space from the Middle Ages to today, considering some of the theological and psychological upheavals occasioned along the way. The issue I want primarily to focus on is how we in the West made the transition from the dualistic cosmology of the Middle Ages, which encompassed spaces of both body and soul, to the monistic cosmology of modern science, which recognizes only a space for the physical body. In the final part of this essay I will consider the emerging arena of cyberspace, a new space of being, which, I want to suggest, returns us to an almost medieval dualism.
Since we are intrinsically embedded in "space" (however each era and culture defines that term), our conceptions of space necessarily reflect our conceptions of who and what we are as human beings. Transitions from one conceptual spatial scheme to another cannot but call forth fundamental questions about what it means to be human. With the emergence of cyberspace we are living through such a transitional period right now.
A Note: In this essay I will be dealing only with Western conceptions of space. That is not because I believe these to be truer or more valid than any other culture's spatial conceptions. It is simply that I am an historian of Western science and this is what I study. Every culture has a conception of a wider spatial scheme in which it sees humanity embedded; some of these conceptions are radically different from anything we in the West have ever imagined. These other pictures are no less valid, no less "true," I believe, than our own, and there is much that is captured by these other schemes that our scientific pictures do not - and cannot - accommodate. Rather than dismissing such alternative spatial schemes, I believe we should take them seriously on their own terms. By considering the implications of modern scientific views of space for the Christian world picture I hope to shed some light on a set of issues that, as science becomes increasingly global, other cultures may also have to confront.
One could begin a history of space anywhere. I choose to begin in the Middle Ages because this was the last time in the Western world that we had a profoundly other vision of the spatial scheme in which we are embedded. This vision would eventually be overthrown by science.
Unlike the infinite (or quasi-infinite) picture envisioned by contemporary science, the medieval cosmos was finite. The earth was at the center, surrounded by ten great concentric spheres which carried the sun, the moon, the planets and stars revolving around us. Beyond the sphere of the stars was the final sphere of the universe proper, what medievals, following Aristotle, called the primum mobile. Technically, the primum mobile constituted the end of the physical universe - here, medieval scholars believed, space and time came to a stop (another idea inherited from Aristotle). Critically, because physical space was finite, medieval minds could imagine that "beyond" the physical world there was plenty of "room" left for some other kind of space. This other space, too, was indicated on medieval maps of the cosmos, where beyond the outermost sphere of the primum mobile we usually find the label "Heavenly Empyreum." What lay "beyond" physical space, then, was the spiritual space of God and the human soul.
At the end of The Divine Comedy Dante signals this transition. Having traversed the entire span of his cosmos from the center of the earth (in the depths of Hell), up the mountain of Purgatory and through the successive celestial layers, Dante finally pierces the crystalline shell of the primum mobile and, bursting, as it were, through the skin of the physical world, he comes face to face with God. This other realm, this spiritual realm, was for medieval thinkers the primary domain of reality. In stark contrast to the scientific worldview, they saw the physical realm as the secondary and rather pale reflection of the "true" underlying spiritual reality which was the ultimate domain of the real. Just what it meant to have a "place" outside physical space was a question that sorely exercised medieval minds - no scholar of the Middle Ages believed that Heaven lay literally beyond the stars; Dante's depiction (like others of the time) was to be interpreted in a metaphorical sense. Yet whatever the philosophical difficulties involved in "locating" spiritual space, all the scholars of the time insisted on the reality of this non-physical domain. For them, physical space was simply not the totality of reality but rather one half of a larger metaphysical whole.
The metaphysical dualism of body and soul (matter and spirit) that was so foundational to the whole panoply of medieval thinking was mirrored also in the cosmology of the time by a dualism that was believed to exist between the terrestrial and celestial realms. Again in stark contrast to contemporary scientific thinking, medieval people saw terrestrial space and celestial space as two qualitatively distinct regions. Today, when we have seen men walk on the moon and robot probes scuttling over the surface of Mars, we take it for granted that the celestial domain is essentially the same as the earthly domain - that in both realms objects are composed of the same basic substances and ruled by the same physical laws - but prior to the seventeenth century this was an almost heretical idea. Following the ancient Greeks, medieval natural philosophy held that in the terrestrial realm things were composed of the four basic elements earth, air, fire, and water; but those in the celestial realm were believed to be composed of a mysterious fifth element, or quintessence, sometimes known as the ether. Everything in the terrestrial realm was subject to decay and death, it was mutable and mortal; but things in the celestial realm were believed to be eternal and immortal, subject neither to change nor decay. Thus although the terrestrial and celestial realms were both physical in essence, the basic properties of that physicality were fundamentally different.
Importantly, the celestial realm was not homogeneous. Ascending from the surface of the earth, medieval cosmology posited that each successive celestial layer became increasingly ethereal the closer one approached God in the Empyrean "above." In effect, celestial space exhibited a vector of grace - the closer to God, the more "pure" a region was seen to be, a grading reflected in the ascending ranks of angels associated with each cosmological layer. The higher up the celestial hierarchy, the higher the rank of the associated angel (the Archangels, Principalities, Powers, Thrones and so on). Within the scheme of medieval cosmology, celestial space thus served as a kind of transitional zone, the mediating arena between the purely material realm of the earth "below" and the purely spiritual realm of Heaven "above." Or to put it another way, the celestial heavens stood as a metaphor and pointer to the religious Heavens - it is no accident that we use the same word for both realms.
One of the great strengths of the medieval world picture was precisely this double parallel between the metaphysical dualism of body and soul and the cosmological dualism of terrestrial and celestial space. The latter dualism was indeed understood as a reflection of the former, with the cosmological dualism of the earth and the starry heavens serving as a kind of guarantee for the fundamentally dual nature of humans.
But what if this cosmological dualism was wrong? What if the terrestrial and celestial realms were not fundamentally different? What if they formed one continuous unified domain? As long as Christians continued to believe in a qualitative distinction between celestial space and terrestrial space, the realm of the planets and stars could continue to serve as a metaphor and pointer to the realm of God and the human soul, but once this distinction was called into question, the reverberations would be felt throughout the entire edifice of medieval cosmology, metaphysics and philosophy.
Just such a challenge began to appear in the fifteenth century - though not until the seventeenth would its full implications be realized.
|The Rise of Modern Science|
In the fifteenth century we begin to see the first serious scientific challenges to the medieval distinction between terrestrial and celestial space, but well before then another group had already embarked on an exploration of a radical new conception of space. The artistic reconceiving of space elaborated by the perspective painters of the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries would pave the way for the momentous breakthroughs in physics and cosmology that we now recognize as the "scientific revolution." It is to art, then, that we must first turn in our efforts to understand the demise of medieval spatial dualism.
Like medieval philosophy, early medieval art was primarily concerned with the spiritual realm of the Christian soul. Images were noticeably flat, with figures typically portrayed against flat gold or blue fields, both iconically representing the ideal space of Heaven. Backgrounds weren't the only flat features; figures, too, lacked a sense of a third dimension. Proportions were also iconic, Christ typically being the largest figure in a scene, with angels and saints smaller than him, and ordinary humans smaller still. This was no childish ineptitude; in keeping with a strict logic the aim here was to convey not the physical scale of material bodies but the greater spiritual metaphysics within which medieval minds placed all things.
From the late twelfth century, however, European art began to undergo a subtle transformation. Slow at first, this new trend burst into prominence in the early fourteenth century with the work of Giotto di Bondone. Nowhere is the new aesthetic style more evident than in the magnificent Arena Chapel, private church to the Scrovegni family in the northern Italian city of Padua. Consciously eschewing earlier representational modes, Giotto painted a series of images recounting the history of the Christian Holy Family. What is immediately startling about these "Christ Cycle" images is their extraordinary three-dimensionality. Figures here are solid, and anchored to the ground as if compelled by a real gravitational force. The flat blue and gold backgrounds of yore are replaced by attempts at genuine landscapes - there are mountains, trees, and carefully observed studies of animals, such as sheep, goats, donkeys and birds. Buildings in particular are rendered with an unprecedented verisimilitude. True, they are not entirely convincing (to the modern eye, "wonky" angles abound), but one nonetheless feels that the artist is striving for depth. In Giotto's "Christ Cycle" a revolution is heralded: we see here the dawning of a new way of thinking about space.
All this was in keeping with a new-found interest in natural science. After the hiatus of the so-called "Dark Ages," Europeans had began to recover the science and mathematics of the ancient Greeks, and during the thirteenth century the study of nature underwent a renaissance. The new artistic "realism" reflected this emerging scientific interest, for in the careful attention to physical detail in the works of Giotto and his followers we see the results of serious empirical observation. In short, the revelations of the inner eye were being supplanted by the observations of the outer eye. Artistic attention was shifting away from the spiritual realm of the soul toward the physical realm of the body.
But if these artists were inspired by a newly burgeoning science, equally their exercises were given credence by a novel theological development. As medieval Europeans recovered Greek science, one of the ancient thinkers they encountered was the mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras of Samos. If the science of modern physics has a spiritual mentor, it is Pythagoras, for it is to this most enigmatic of the Greek sages that we trace the idea of a universe formed according to mathematical principles. Today we call such principles "laws of nature." Pythagoras encapsulated his radical philosophy in the compact dictum "All is number," and he believed that behind all physical forms were transcendent numerical archetypes - what he called the divine armonia or mathematical "harmonies" of the world.
Pythagoras believed that numbers were literally gods and he associated the numbers one through ten with the major deities of the Greek pantheon; late medieval thinkers took this seed and refashioned it within a Christian context, giving birth to the extraordinarily enduring idea of the Judeo-Christian God as a mathematical creator. "The creation of number is the creation of things," wrote Thierry of Chartres in the twelfth century. "God disposes everything in number, weight and measure," said Bishop Robert Grosseteste in the thirteenth. In the seventeenth century Galileo would go even further: anyone who wanted to understand the "book of nature," he famously declared, must first grasp the language in which God had written it - to wit, mathematics.
If God had written the book of nature in the language of mathematics, medieval Pythagoreans (following Plato) believed the primary dialect He had used was Euclidean geometry. Since the Creator had crafted a geometric world, then surely that was the way artists ought to portray it. So argued Franciscan friar Roger Bacon in a ground-breaking treatise to Pope Clement IV in 1267. One of the first medieval champions of science and mathematics, Bacon proposed that the Church encourage painters in the new three-dimensional style, what he dubbed "geometric figuring," and which would later be known as perspectival representation. According to Bacon, artists who adopted this style would not only be truthfully rendering God's creation, they could also serve a powerful propaganda purpose. Bacon argued that the techniques of three-dimensional verisimilitude were so psychologically powerful that viewers beholding such images would believe they were actually witnessing the scenes depicted. They would believe, for example, that they were really seeing Christ raising Lazarus in front of them. To put this into current parlance, Bacon was suggesting that "geometric figuring" could in effect be a form of virtual reality - and as he saw it, this medieval VR would have the power to convert unbelievers to the Christian faith.
Within a decade of his treatise to Clement, work had in fact begun on the Basilica of Assisi, the mother church of Bacon's order and the first major Christian church consciously filled with images in the new geometric style. Giotto was the master here. The visual revolution that he pioneered in Assisi and later continued in the aforementioned Arena Chapel, and which would be taken to such heights by the perspective painters of the next two centuries, had the effect, says Yale art historian Samuel Edgerton, of retraining Europeans to see space in a Euclidean sense.
Edgerton has argued that in this respect the Renaissance artists paved the way for the physicists of the seventeenth century. Following Aristotle, most Western thinkers had pointedly rejected such a view of space; as Max Jammer has noted, such a view was not "thought reasonable until the seventeenth century." That this view eventually came to be seen as reasonable is one of the more peculiar (and peculiarly fruitful) idiosyncrasies of Western culture. No other culture that we know of has conceived of its surrounding spatial scheme in such a strict mathematical manner. The ramifications of this shift from an angel-filled space suffused by a metric of divine grace to a featureless mathematical void would ripple out from this innocent aesthetic beginning and reverberate through the entire spectrum of Western thought - modern "science" was but one of the consequences.
By the mid-sixteenth century, educated Europeans were beginning to accept (at least psychologically) that the space around them on earth was a Euclidean domain. Though the concept would not be formalized until the next century with the work of Galileo, perspectival representation had given people a visceral experience of Euclidean space. Who could look at a mature Raphael and not believe they were seeing through the frame ("as if through a window," to use Alberti's famous phrase) to a little three-dimensional world beyond the picture plane? Intuitively, if not yet formally, people had begun to think of objects as being located within a three-dimensional physical void.
It was an astonishing insight, and one without which it is doubtful the scientific revolution could have got off the ground, but this realization raised an uneasy question. If terrestrial space is essentially Euclidean, then how far out does this space extend? Might it reach out to encompass the planets and stars? The question, though not necessarily articulated in quite this form during the Renaissance, was of immense importance, because, as we have seen, medieval cosmology had held the celestial realm to be qualitatively different from the terrestrial realm. Crucially, this qualitative distinction stood as a pointer to the dualism of body and soul that was so central to medieval thinking. The new Euclidean vision of space raised the possibility that there were not two kinds of space, but that there was just one, encompassing both the earth and the celestial heavens.
The first expression of such a synthesis appeared in the work of Nicholas of Cusa, a fifteenth-century cardinal of the Roman Catholic Church. In Cusa's universe there were no crystal spheres, there was no limiting primum mobile, and there was no cosmic hierarchy of planets; instead, he proposed an infinite space filled with countless stars. Going even further, Cusa abolished the medieval distinction between the "base" earth and the "ethereal" heavens, positing that the universe was substantially the same everywhere - i.e., that the stars and planets were also solid material bodies like the earth. He even suggested that these other "worlds" were inhabited by other physical beings. Centuries later, Cusa's concept of cosmological homogeneity would become a mainstay of modern science (today it is known as the "cosmological principle"), for only if space is the same everywhere can we assume that the same physical laws operating here on earth also operate on the moon, and Mars, and in any other part of the cosmos.
Cusa's ideas were too daring for most of his contemporaries, but in the sixteenth century the tectonic plates of the Western psyche began to shift in this direction. Beginning with Copernicus (who, in spite of everything, continued to believe in the medieval separateness of celestial space), astronomers gradually built up a cosmological picture which inexorably challenged the old medieval dualism. The unification of terrestrial and celestial space was cemented by Isaac Newton, and in some ways it remains his most profound legacy. In one of the great tours de force in the history of science, Newton showed that the same force of gravity which operates here on earth to make an apple fall to the ground also operates in the celestial realm to keep the moon revolving around the earth and the planets revolving around the sun. Newton's law of gravity (a Pythagorean triumph if ever there was one) demonstrated with compelling logic an essential continuity between the terrestrial and celestial domains: if gravity operates between celestial bodies then they too must be solid material bodies, for gravity is a force that arises between concrete lumps of matter.
Newton's science shattered the distinction between terrestrial and celestial space; it also suggested (as Cusa had previously) that the physical universe might be infinite. Once astronomers had abandoned the medieval machinery of the crystal spheres, there was indeed no longer a reason to imagine that the physical cosmos had any limit whatsoever. Why should physical space not go on forever? By the end of the eighteenth century, that view had become scientific orthodoxy - and it still is today.
This new cosmology had profound theological consequences, for with physical space extended to infinity there was literally no "room" left for any other kind of space to be. Within the medieval scheme one could consider, even if, strictly speaking, only in a metaphorical sense, that there was plenty of room left for some other reality "beyond" the physical realm, but with the physical realm going on forever, where could a spiritual realm possibly be? Of course one could still say, as liberal theologians do, that the realm of the Christian spirit is simply beyond physical space, and leave it enigmatically at that. In a sense the answer is still the same as in the medieval era. The difference is that when physical space was seen to be finite, it was easier psychologically for people to accept the idea of a "beyond," but with physical space infinitized, the whole question of what "beyond" might even mean becomes increasingly problematic. I do not mean to give the impression that this is an insurmountable theological problem; my purpose is only to draw attention to a serious psychological obstacle thrown up by modern cosmology. For better or worse, one of the major consequences of the scientific revolution was to write out of the Western picture of reality any conception of a spiritual space.
Newton himself was concerned about the atheistic tendencies within his cosmology and tried to rescue the situation by associating space itself with God. Picking up on a tradition that originates in Judaism, Newton posited space as the medium through which the deity's presence permeates the physical world. For him, as I noted earlier, space was God's sensorium. But soon after the great physicist's death, less religious scientists stripped these theological embellishments from his system, realizing quite rightly that science could stand alone without Christian support. In doing so they desanctified the world, leaving us with a purely physical account of reality - a reality without a spiritual domain.
What is at stake here is far from trivial. With their finite physical cosmology, medieval Christians had no trouble imagining an expansive spiritual realm with its own complex geography - the tripartite geography of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory that Dante describes so vividly in The Divine Comedy. Once an infinite physical cosmology was articulated, any such exercise in visualizing or mapping a spiritual domain became inherently problematic - one reason, I suspect, why Dante's book is still so beloved, even for those of us who are not Christians. With The Divine Comedy we have artistic genius underpinned by an untroubled belief in a geography of the soul: so viscerally does Dante conjure this spiritual landscape that one can almost feel the mud beneath one's feet in the ditches of Malebolge, and see the marbled terraces of Purgatory. The full weight of Dante's medieval faith in an architectonic spiritual space is brought to bear here. Could any post-Newtonian author possibly compete? It is not that we moderns lack imagination or a sense of the fantastic (after all, we invented science fiction); what we lack is an uncomplicated faith in a "beyond" to the physical domain and the psychological freedom to explore what such a meta-physical domain might be like.
Increasingly in the age of science we confront the dilemma that if we want to claim something is real, we have to be able to triangulate its position in physical space. If one can't pinpoint the location of something on a concrete physical map, then more and more one invites the accusation that whatever it is, is not real at all. Hence the liberal theological dilemma about Heaven. Where is it? What is it? How can it be made sense of in the light of scientific cosmology? Hell, like Purgatory, has largely been abandoned by liberal religious thinkers, and with little resistance, but Heaven - the domain of human salvation - is critical to Christian integrity.
Even in Newton's lifetime this physicalist attitude had begun to coalesce. For men such as the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes, and later French philosophes like Julien de la Mettrie, the universe was a giant clockwork mechanism and Man simply "an atomic machine," to use the latter's terse assessment. In their new rationalist vision the soul became a childish delusion, a relic of a superstitious past that, along with Heaven and Hell, angels and demons, would have to be abandoned.
The point here is that the way we see our spatial scheme inevitably impacts on the way we see ourselves as human beings. For medieval Christians, with their dualistic spatial scheme, human beings were necessarily dualistic creatures, but with the advent of a purely physicalist world picture it has become increasingly difficult to argue for the reality of any kind of non-physical dimension to human existence. In discussions about science and religion it is often noted how corrosive a mechanistic philosophy of nature was to the religious idea of a human spirit; what is not generally acknowledged is how important a role our conception of space has played in this story. Eighteenth-century mechanistic natural philosophy was premised on a neutral, homogeneous, passive and infinite conception of space. The very qualities of Euclidean space that made it such a fruitful foundation for the evolution of mathematical physics are just the qualities that have also become so problematic for those who wish to assert the reality of a "spiritual" plane of being.
The intellectual dilemma faced by liberal theologians trying to make sense of Heaven in the light of modern science is, I suggest, one reason why we are presently witnessing an efflorescence of fundamentalist modes of Christianity, and New Age religions - to say nothing of the burgeoning interest in indigenous and shamanistic religions. What all these belief systems offer is a concrete vision of a spiritual realm - an "other" world beyond the physical plane. A longing for such "otherness" is also behind pop culture visions of magical and supernatural phenomena. Turn on the television and it is teeming with programs about witches, vampires, angels and demons: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Charmed, Angel, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, to name but a few.
Over all this hovers the enigmatic cloud that is The X-Files. "The truth is out there," the show's opening sequence intones each week; if only we opened our (inner) eyes, the series implies, we would find that there is more to reality than science describes. The success of The X-Files, the rise of Christian fundamentalism, beliefs in past lives, spirit channeling, and the whole grab-bag of paranormal phenomena: this can all be seen , I suggest, as part of a wider cultural response to the psychological vacuum created when the West adopted a purely physicalist account of reality.
The paradox is that, for better or worse, vast numbers of people are rejecting the physicalist picture. It is not that they reject science per se, as is often suggested by science's champions, rather that people want (perhaps need) to believe in a spiritual world as well. In his insightful Technology as Symptom and Dream, psychologist Robert Romanyshyn addresses this issue, noting that in the age of science "any sense of the world as a reality of multiple levels simultaneously coexisting is the stuff of fancy and dream," yet it is just such a simultaneity that many people seem to be demanding in their lives. For Romanyshyn this is hardly a surprise: when we try to push the "magical" dimensions out of human life, he says, they do not disappear, but go underground and bubble up in unexpected forms.
Like Romanyshyn, I believe it is not psychologically stable to have a world picture that accommodates only physical phenomena. We need, I propose, a cosmology of psyche as well as soma - preferably one that does not disconnect them in a Cartesian dualistic mode. I am not myself a religious person (at least not in any sense that most people of the monotheistic faiths might acknowledge), but what Romanyshyn calls "the flattening" of our world picture to "a single plane" of reality, has secular as well as religious consequences. This "flattened" picture not only denies fundamental status to the Christian soul; it offers no bolt hole for a human psyche or self. In post-Newtonian cosmology only matter, and hence only the body, has a place. Only matter, and hence only the body, is regarded as real. Soul, spirit, psyche, self - all these become problematic concepts. Not triangulable in physical space, their very reality is called into question.
|Twentieth-Century Visions of Space|
Can this problem be resolved within the context of physics itself? One of the most momentous scientific developments of the past century has been the articulation of a post-Euclidean view of space. In this understanding, space has come to be seen not simply as the arena of reality - the passive and featureless medium through which Galileo and Newton envisaged matter as moving - but as the very foundation of physical existence, the substrate from which all else is constructed. As I noted at the start of this essay, this is the new "hyperspace" vision which physicists have been developing for the past few decades. In recent years it has been suggested that hyperspace theories might help to resolve the "problem" of spirit, that this vision of space might in itself be a useful theological resource. I wish to argue otherwise. If anything, such theories compound the problem.
Let us first look briefly at the science. Hyperspace theories trace their origins to Einstein's theories of special and general relativity. From the standpoint of a discussion about space, what is germane about special relativity is that here Einstein showed how time might be another dimension of space - a rather special dimension to be sure, but mathematically speaking, in special relativity time becomes essentially just one dimension of the overall spatial manifold, which is now seen to have four rather than three co-ordinate axes. In the general theory of relativity, Einstein revealed something even more astounding. By extending his earlier theory he showed that the force of gravity could be explained as a consequence of the geometry, or shape, of space. In other words, gravity is not something separate to, or imposed upon, space, but rather a secondary byproduct of space's inherent architecture.
According to GR, space can be envisaged as a vast membrane, rather like the surface of a trampoline (only in four dimensions). Just as a bowling ball placed on a trampoline would warp that elastic membrane, causing a depression around itself, so GR says that a celestial body like our earth "warps" the membrane of space, causing a "depression" around itself. Such depressions are what we experience as the force of gravity. Just as a marble would roll down a depression created by a bowling ball on a trampoline, so, crudely speaking, the reason a stone falls to the ground is that it rolls down a depression in the cosmic spatial membrane.
Einstein's explanation of gravity was so esthetically pleasing that in the latter part of the twentieth century physicists began to dream that all the basic physical forces might be explained as byproducts of the warping of space. Physicists now recognize four fundamental forces: in addition to gravity, there is the electromagnetic force (which accounts for light, heat, radio waves and so on), and there are the two nuclear forces which are responsible for holding together the nuclei of atoms. In order to accommodate these other three forces, physicists have found they have had to add into their equations a slew of extra dimensions, so that today the hyperspace theories posit a universe of ten or eleven dimensions. In these theories, all four forces become, like gravity, byproducts of the underlying spatial membrane.
Moreover, in hyperspace theories matter itself also becomes a byproduct of the structure of space. Every particle of every atom is understood as a tiny kink (or enfolding) in the local spatial substrate. Thus, all forms - from the subatomic to the cosmological - arise from the intricate enfolding of an underlying spatial manifold, which like a sheet of paper can be manipulated into complex forms. In effect, hyperspace theories view the universe as a vast origami construction. Just as a piece of paper can be folded into the shape of a crane or a lotus blossom, so the membrane of space folds upon itself, giving rise to the wonderful diversity of physical forms that make up our universe today.
One feature of this picture is that matter loses its primary status, because it now becomes a secondary artifact of the geometry of space. There is a very real sense in which hyperspace theories are post-materialist. In this development, some have hoped to find a way out of the materialist dilemma: if matter is not the primary substrate, they argue, then room opens up for spirit. But such theories do not do the philosophical or theological work that is hoped for here.
The problem is that while hyperspace theories may well be post-materialist, they remain fundamentally physicalist. As with earlier theories of physics, they are accounts only of interactions between physical particles and physical forces. Western culture has a long tradition of opposing matter and spirit, so it is perhaps a natural move within this historical context to imagine that something non-material must ipso facto be spiritual. But was this not always a false dichotomy? Even Christianity insists ultimately that matter and spirit are not separate - that is implicit in the idea of resurrection which promises life everlasting not just in soul but also in body. (It has always been a mistake to see Christianity as anti-body.) By suggesting there is something ontologically prior to matter, hyperspace theories mark a philosophically interesting turn in Western thinking, but they remain theories of the physical world alone - that part of reality which Descartes dubbed the res extensa.
It was suggested earlier that hyperspace theories may actually compound the "problem" of spirit; this is because in these theories reality is reduced fully and finally to a seamless monism. Here, everything becomes just a byproduct of physical space. The very oneness that hyperspace theorists exalt (and which is in its own right so beautiful) means there is no room within this vision for any kind of epistemic pluralism. Epistemic monism is the whole point of such theories!
I want to stress here that this should not be seen as a failure of the science of physics. Modern mathematically-based physics is extremely successful precisely because its practitioners have restricted themselves to explaining interactions between physical particles and physical forces. Historians of science have noted that it was just when physics became such a restricted discipline that it started to take off. (In the Middle Ages, scholars tried to develop mathematical theories of sin and grace; only when Renaissance thinkers abandoned such efforts and focused on the mathematization of motion did the field begin to cohere.) Physics in its modern mode was expressly developed to explain the physically extended realm of matter in motion, Descartes' res extensa. It was not designed or intended to be able to accommodate what the great French philosopher termed the res cogitans - the set of immaterial cognitive phenomena which included thoughts, feelings, emotions and spiritual experience. No purely physical theory, no vision of physical space, can resolve the conundrum of a human spirit or soul, which is the reason Descartes insisted that in addition to the physical realm there must also be a non-physical domain, a separate but no less real aspect to reality in which spirit rather than matter is primary.
With his mysterious res cogitans Descartes tried to retain a kind of spatial dualism - in this sense he must be seen as still operating within a medieval mode of thought - but as we know this idea was quickly abandoned, and in truth it was always hard to see just what he meant here. What exactly was this immaterial "realm" of mind? Where was it? Of what did it consist? These are dilemmas that continue to confront contemporary theologians and philosophers of mind. The medievals with their dualistic world picture could easily accommodate a dualistic conception of human beings and they accorded each facet of Man its own intrinsic space of being. As Descartes understood so well, the res extensa can only be the space of matter in motion - it cannot form the foundation for an account of spirit, or even of mind. This parsimony is the unique strength of modern Western science's conception of space, and also its tragic limitation.
Not surprisingly, the widespread longing for some "other" space of being "beyond" the physical plane finds fertile soil in the emerging domain of cyberspace - my final theme. Given the trajectory of Western history, I suggest that the spiritualization of cyberspace was almost a foregone conclusion. For better or worse, many of the major gurus of cyberspace (at least in the US) have proffered this domain as a new realm of spiritual experience. "I have seen soul-data through silicon," declared Wired magazine's executive director Kevin Kelly, in a 1995 forum in Harper's Magazine. "You'll be surprised at the amount of soul-data we'll have in this new space." "Our fascination with computers is ... more deeply spiritual than utilitarian," writes cyberspace philosopher Michael Heim. "In our love affair with these machines," he says, "we are searching for a home for the mind and the heart." Speaking to a conference of online practitioners, Mark Pesce, inventor of the VRML 3D modeling language, told his audience: "It seems reasonable to imagine that people will want to worship" in cyberspace. Elsewhere he refers to "the divine parts of ourselves that we invoke in that space." And let us not forget virtual reality researcher Nicole Stenger's exhortation that "on the other side of our data-gloves ... we will all become angels." According to Stenger, those who decide to follow the light will "find a common thread running through cyberspace, dream, hallucination, and mysticism."
As in the television series Buffy, Charmed, and The X-Files, many champions of cyberspace seem to be looking for a life beyond the body. Thus, we have the emerging fantasy that one day soon we will be able to upload our minds into cyberspace and live there forever in a kind of virtual reality paradise. Originally promoted in the works of cyber-fiction writers - beginning with Vernor Vinge's astonishing novella True Names and continuing through William Gibson's Neuromancer trilogy - this is a dream increasingly endorsed by real-life scientists from the artificial intelligence and robotics communities. Hans Moravec of Carnegie Mellon University is one robotics expert who has seriously suggested that the technological transfer of a human mind from a brain to cyberspace will soon be possible.
What is going on here, I suggest, is a technological re-envisioning of the Christian soul - the idea that a human being is a bipolar creature consisting of a mortal, material body and an immortal, immaterial essence that can be separated from the body and may live on forever after the "meat" of the matter dies. In technological language, we have here the view that the essence of a human being - the "real" you - is not the matter of your body but an immaterial pattern of information. According to this view, the mind, or self, is essentially a piece of software, with the brain as the hardware. Why then should it not be possible to download these "self" files from the "wetware" of the brain onto the hardware of a microchip? And once on a microchip, why should it not be possible to put this construct into cyberspace where it would effectively be immortal?
With cyberspace, then, we see the re-emergence of an almost medieval dualism. Not only do we have here the rebirth of a dualistic view of humanity, but we are also witnessing the emergence of a new spatial dualism. Once again we are beginning to have two spaces of being - the physical space which science describes, and a new immaterial space that is very much "beyond" the mathematico-physical complex of contemporary scientists' world picture. As this new space grows ever more complex and as more and more tasks are implemented online - from shopping, banking and schooling to entertainment and fully realized virtual worlds - it will, I believe, increasingly become another, parallel, space of being.
Some have decried this new dualism as a force for fragmentation, and there is no doubt that the Internet has its downside. Online addiction is real. But for me there is something profoundly exciting here, something I feel we should welcome. While I do not believe that cyberspace provides a philosophical solution to the pathology of physicalist monism, this new digital domain is performing a powerful experiential function. It is forcing us to take seriously the idea that we are not only physical beings.
Along with Descartes I believe the human "self" - this "me," this "I," this ephemeral entity that thinks and feels, loves and hates - is a primary and fundamental part of reality. Any world picture that cannot account for the thinking, emoting self seems to me radically incomplete. I want to stress here that I am not suggesting a return to metaphysical dualism - I do not believe the self is something that can be separated from the body or that can live on after the body dies. In my view, body is critical to human selfhood and the cybernautic dream of mind-download/upload is a pathological fantasy. Nonetheless, cyberspace is helping to bring about an awareness that we are not just physical bodies. If this new space can help us to again take seriously the quintessential immaterial aspects of being human then it will be doing us all an immeasurable service.
In the early eighteenth century, the English philosopher John Locke claimed it wasn't stable for a society to have only a science of body. According to Locke, we would eventually have to develop a complementary science of mind, which is just what Freud attempted to do at the end of the nineteenth century. I agree with Locke that it is not stable for a society to have an understanding only of the physical dimension of human life. But I would go further: I think we need not only a science of mind, but also, in some sense, a cosmology of mind. To put this another way, I think we need a sense not merely of where our bodies are, but also of where our selves are. I am suggesting, in short, that we need some kind of "space" of mind (call it "self" or "psyche" if you will, two terms that I actually prefer). Such a proposition may strike some readers as odd, but it should be remembered that historically speaking, the contemporary position is the anomaly. No other culture that we know of has had such a parsimonious and truncated world picture. In most other cultures it is taken for granted that there are multifaceted levels of being and that, commensurately, there are multifaceted "spaces" of reality. The desire for a space of mind or psyche, of spirit or soul, seems to me an eminently sane desire, and it does not surprise me that large numbers of people are now looking outside science to find this fulfillment.
If we believe that we are ultimately nothing but "structured nothingness" then how can we be creatures of soul? How can we even be creatures of psyche? I am not a theologian or a psychoanalytic theorist, and I do not presume to have answers here. My aim in this essay has not been to propose solutions but to clarify some of the questions. How we understand the spatial scheme in which we are embedded inevitably has an effect on how we see ourselves as human beings; if we want a pluralistic conception of human being-ness, I suggest that in the long run we will need a pluralistic conception of our spatial scheme. What such a scheme might look like I cannot at present imagine, but it strikes me that this is one place where we in the West might have something to learn from other cultural traditions. And so I would like to end this essay with a brief anecdote.
Several years ago I gave a lecture on this topic at a small university in the American south. After the lecture I was taken aside by a professor at the school, an anthropologist who had done field work in Namibia. One day, he told me, he was approached by a man from the tribe he was studying (I regret that I have forgotten its name), who asked him a question: "Do you Westerners really see the space between you as empty?" "Yes," my American interlocutor replied, "that is the way our science tells us to see the world." The Namibian man went on to explain that in his culture, people saw the world in a very different way. According to his tribe's worldview, each person is surrounded by a kind of self-space, a field which extends out from the individual. Going about their daily business, he and his fellow villagers found their self-spaces continually intersecting with one another. Thus they rarely found themselves "alone" - their "selves" being continually in touch with others. Having explained this way of seeing, the Namibian man asked the American professor a second question: "If you people really see yourselves as isolated points alone in empty space, how do you bear it?"
We are not bearing it. We are in a state of psychological crisis. I do not have a solution to this crisis, but if this essay has achieved anything, it will have made a convincing case that our vision of space is at least part of the problem we need to address.
 M. Jammer, Concepts of Space: The History of Theories of Space in Physics. 3rd ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1993, p.28.
 P. Davies, Superforce: The Search for a Grand Unified Theory of Nature. London: Unwin, 1986, p.152.
 H. Lefebvre, The Production of Space. Trans. D. Nicholson-Smith. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991, p.2.
 See M. Wertheim, Pythagoras' Trousers (New York: W.W. Norton, 1998) for a detailed history of the Pythagorean inspiration behind modern physics.
 Thierry of Chartres, quoted in N.M. Haring, "The Creation and the Creator of the World According to Thierry of Chartres and Clarembalbus of Arras" in Archives d'Histoire Doctrinale et Littéraire du Moyen Age, vol.XXII, 1955, p.196.
 R. Grosseteste, quoted in A.C. Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science 1100-1700. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1953, p.102.
 S.Y. Edgerton, The Heritage of Giotto's Geometry: Art and Science on the Eve of the Scientific Revolution. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.
 Jammer, op.cit., p.26.
 R. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream. New York: Routledge, 1989, p.181.
 K. Kelly, quoted in "What Are We Doing On-Line?" in Harper's Magazine, August 1995, p.39.
 M. Heim, "The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace" in M. Benedikt (ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, p.61.
 M. Pesce, quoted in E. Davis, "Technopagans" in Wired, July 1995, vol.3.07.
 N. Stenger, "Mind is a Leaking Rainbow" in M. Benedikt (ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1991, p.52.
 N. Stenger, ibid., p.50.