Blake’s vision vs. “Newton’s sleep,” or ... Would William Blake and Albert Einstein have been pals had they had a chance to meet?
By Joseph Smigelski
“I know of no other Christianity and of no other Gospel than the liberty both of body and mind to exercise the Divine Arts of Imagination.”
-- William Blake
“I believe in Spinoza's God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with fates and actions of human beings.”
-- Albert Einstein
There is a great divide in this country where none should be. I’m talking about the perceived rift between science and religion. Many people believe that you are either on one side or the other. But it’s a misconception that sides even exist. There’s no real conflict, just one manufactured by manipulative ideologues who have a stake in perpetuating the division. Science and religion could peacefully coexist if people would try to understand both more fully.
George W. Bush, for instance, caters to Evangelical Christians and consistently misuses scientific data because he is afraid of losing support from the fundamentalist Religious Right. It fits his agenda to perpetuate an artificial split between science and religion.
But the Book of Genesis can coexist with the Big Bang Theory. Religious ideas often affect the scientific mind and vice versa. The famous French paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a Catholic priest. Albert Einstein was a philosopher, as well as a scientist, who based much of his thinking on the premise that God would not “play dice with the universe.”
In the Beginning
The origin of the universe has been of keen interest to mankind since time immemorial. Who hasn’t gazed up at the night sky and wondered at the innumerable shining specks in the immense blackness? Where did it all come from? And how did we human beings come to be?
The author(s) of the Book of Genesis pondered these questions, and the answer postulated was that “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth.” It was a simple and, for its time, a reasonable and satisfying explanation. Even today, it probably stands as the most comprehensible answer for most people. How many of us can approach a real understanding of the theories of modern cosmogony such as vacuum genesis and quantum genesis? Even for many scientists, the question of the origin of the universe is too much to take on. The astronomer Allan Sandage said in 1985,
If there was a creation event, it had to have had a cause. This was Aquinas’s whole question, one of the five ways he established the existence of God. If you can find the first effect, you have at least come close to the first cause, and if you find the first cause, that to him was God. What do astronomers say? As astronomers you can’t say anything except that here is a miracle, what seems almost supernatural, an event which has come across the horizon into science, through the big bang. Can you go the other way, back outside the barrier and finally find the answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing? No, you cannot, not within science. But it still remains an incredible mystery: Why is there something instead of nothing?
Can we figure out the origin of the universe? According to Sandage, not within science. This is where William Blake comes in. “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?” Can man’s power of reason answer that question? Blake doubted it. He saw reason as a limitation on the mind--“Newton’s sleep.” Truth lies in the imagination, the power of vision; and the imagination comes up with a Creator. As Voltaire once said, “If God didn’t exist, Man would have to invent Him.”
Reason vs. Imagination
Reason vs. Imagination, head vs. heart, body vs. mind, flesh vs. soul: why the dichotomies? Why the separation of the temporal from the ethereal? Blake thought that such division was wrong. The body and the mind are not separate entities, but a complex gestalt of neurological impulses and sensory reactions all brought to life perhaps by the breath of God. Blake calls this marvelous phenomenon “the Human Form Divine.” Because the senses are as divine in nature as is the soul, they are not to be thwarted by reason. When we impede the senses through an exaggerated “reasonable” emphasis on abstinence, for instance, the result is frustration, anger, and turmoil.
According to Blake, the universe defined by reason is bleak, mechanical, “divided and measured,” burdened with iron laws. On the other hand, the universe created by the imagination is human in aspect. By depending too much on reason, at the expense of emotion and imagination, mankind binds itself in “the Net of Religion”:
And their children wept, and built
Tombs in the desolate places,
And formed laws of prudence, and called them
The eternal laws of God.
Laws of prudence. We know what Blake thought of prudence from reading his Proverbs of Hell: “Prudence is a rich ugly old maid courted by Incapacity.” Man forges his own chains when he creates his law-giving God. To melt those chains, man must look within himself, into the fires burning in his own divine body and soul. By trying to understand God with our intellect, with our reason, we separate the concept of God from the concept of man: we limit our chances of discovering God within ourselves.
Creation vs. Evolution
The question of the relationship between God and man is entwined with the questions surrounding man’s origin. Even today, 79 years after Clarence Darrow battled William Jennings Bryan in the famous Monkey Trial, a seemingly never ending debate rages in our courts and in our schools over whether we should believe the Book of Genesis or Charles Darwin.
Did God create man, or did man create God in order to explain the unexplainable? Or are both of these ideas correct? Many of us seem to need the concept of an ultimate Creator to shield us from the mind-boggling conundrum of our existence. In an essay titled “The Creation Myths of Cooperstown,” the renowned scientist Stephen Jay Gould wrote,
Stories about beginnings come in only two basic modes. An entity either has an explicit point of origin, a specific time and place of creation, or else it evolves and has no definable moment of entry into the world. Baseball provides an interesting example of this contrast because we know the answer and can judge received wisdom by the two chief criteria, often opposed, of external fact and internal hope. Baseball evolved from a plethora of previous stick-and-ball games. It has no true Cooperstown and no Doubleday. Yet we seem to prefer the alternative model of origin by a moment of creation [my emphasis].... Scientists often lament that so few people understand Darwin and the principles of biological evolution. But the problem goes deeper. Too few people are comfortable with evolutionary modes of explanation in any form.... One reason must reside in our social and psychic attraction to creation myths in preference to evolutionary stories—for creation myths ... identify heroes and sacred places, while evolutionary stories provide no palpable, particular thing as a symbol for reverence, worship, or patriotism.
The concept of evolution is both challenging and disturbing. Could the origin of our universe possibly be the result of a long series of events that were chaotic or governed by chance? Many people find such an idea shocking. It’s much more pleasant and reassuring to believe that God handled the entire job in six days. Yet the concept of evolution is infinitely richer and more expansive. It is much more wondrous to view the vast complex array of all that exists in the universe as a continually developing marvel which began eons ago as an infinitely simpler system than to bind oneself to the belief that God simply snapped his fingers and, presto, here we are.
The creation myth is limiting because, through it, man views himself as a creature subservient to God, instead of realizing that God is within the breast of man and is the life force that infuses all of existence. Nietzsche had to say that God was dead in order to impel us to realize the true depth of our humanity. Blake illustrates the emotional contrasts born of the two profoundly different concepts of origin in The Book of Urizen. (“Urizen” can be read and interpreted as “your reason.”)
The creation myth:
Lo, a shadow of horror is risen
In Eternity! Unknown, unprolific!
Self-closed, all-repelling: what Demon
Hath formed this abominable void,
This soul-shuddering vacuum?—Some said
“It is Urizen,” but unknown, abstracted
Brooding secret, the dark power hid.
Times on times he divided, and measured
Space by space in his ninefold darkness
Unseen, unknown! Changes appeared
In his desolate mountains rifted furious
By the black winds of perturbation.
Urizen divides creation, categorizes it, tries to contain the energy in perfect circles, as Blake depicts in his painting The Ancient of Days (see the image at the top of this article). But to categorize something is to put limits on it. If something is strictly defined, it can be nothing beyond the boundaries of that definition:
One command, one joy, one desire,
One curse, one weight, one measure,
One King, one God, one Law.
Evolution is messier, but infinitely more expansive, and endlessly full of potential for growth:
The serpent grew, casting its scales,
With sharp pangs the hissings began
To change to a grating cry.
Many sorrows and dismal throes,
Many forms of fish, bird, and beast
Brought forth an Infant form
Where was a worm before.
One can interpret Blake as an early champion of the theory of evolution!
Blake a Harbinger of Relativity
He can also be viewed as a harbinger of the other great scientific principle of our age, Einstein’s Theory of Relativity. The following lines from Blake’s Jerusalem certainly surprised me the first time I saw them:
If Perceptive Organs vary, Objects of Perception seem to vary:
If the Perceptive Organs close, their Objects seem to close also.
Blake questioned the possibility of true objectivity. Modern scientists agree with him; they know that the very act of observing something influences the thing observed.
In a letter to his friend Thomas Butts, Blake included a poem that ended with these lines:
Now I a fourfold vision see,
And a fourfold vision is given to me.
Tis fourfold in my supreme delight
And threefold in soft Beulah’s night
And twofold Always. May God us keep
From Single vision and Newton’s sleep.
“Newton’s sleep” has been defined as “the preference of a mechanical view of the universe over a spiritual view.” But I have to be fair to Sir Isaac. He was aware that his scientific ideas might not have been all encompassing. He once wrote,
To myself I seem to have been only a little boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a smoother shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
It seems also that Newton was not completely the hard and fast, nuts and bolts rationalist that we often imagine. Some years ago, very interesting and shocking material was found in a trunk full of Newton’s papers. According to author Timothy Ferris, the trunk contained “notes on alchemy, biblical prophesy, and the reconstruction from Hebraic texts of the floor plan of the temple of Jerusalem,” which Newton considered “an emblem of the system of the world.” This discovery compelled John Maynard Keynes to say, “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians.”
We really got our feet wet (scientifically) in the “great ocean of truth” when Albert Einstein published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905, seventy-eight years after the death of Blake. However, Blake’s “fourfold vision” could be interpreted as a prophetic notion of a multi-dimensional universe. In our limited, plain, everyday three-dimensional world, Newton’s laws of motion (which gave rise to the Deists’ conception of a clockwork universe) still stand as valid. His laws begin to fail to explain things when we delve into either the realm of the very small (sub-atomic particles) or the very large (the vast dimensions of outer space, traveling at speeds approaching that of light, etc.).
Scientists today speak seriously of parallel universes, shadow matter, supersymmetry, and other concepts that might seem to the layman to belong more in the field of science fiction than science. That Blake intuitively challenged the ultimate validity of Newton’s laws is quite remarkable. (I think that Blake would have gotten along quite nicely with Einstein who, by the way, firmly believed in God and also wrote poetry.)
Blake and Einstein Intuitive
Blake’s intuitiveness is very interesting. He seems to have somehow acquired knowledge from within himself that would have been impossible for him to gather from the world outside himself. To understand this concept, consider the following passage from David Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (Section II, “Of the Origin of Ideas”), written in 1748:
Nothing, at first view, may seem more unbounded than the thought of man, which not only escapes all human power and authority, but is not even restrained within the limits of nature and reality.... And while the body is confined to one planet, along which it creeps with pain and difficulty, the thought can in an instant transport us into the most distant regions of the universe, or even beyond the universe.
Einstein was intuitive also, as well as being an acute observer of the external world. He did no physical experiments. He arrived at his theories by using his mind, a piece of paper, and a pencil (sometimes chalk and a blackboard). Ideas often sprang into this head as sudden bursts of inspiration. For example, his first insight into what he called “the key to a deeper understanding” of the equivalence of inertial and gravitational mass occurred in 1907. Einstein later referred to this as “the happiest thought of my life”:
I was sitting in a chair in the patent office at Bern, when all of a sudden a thought occurred to me: “If a person falls freely, he will not feel his own weight.” I was startled. This simple thought made a deep impression on me. It impelled me toward a theory of gravitation.
Blake and Einstein might have liked each other very much. Blake distrusted using reason by itself as a way toward understanding, and said that it is through emotion and imagination in conjunction with reason that we can find truth. Reason has its place, but it should not rule our emotions and our imagination. Instead, emotion and imagination should guide reason because within imagination lies the promise of personal salvation.Joseph Smigelski teaches English in the California community college system.
Posted Sunday, August 22, 2004