The Dark Light of Time, Memory & Meaning

“Nature abhors a vacuum.”

Had a conversation with young atheist who has trouble accepting that there might be things both natural and supernatural.

Supernaturalism is, to him, unprovable, and therefore impossible.

They always amaze me, these “wide open” minds who put so many limits on what can be believed, and rely so heavily on science, which is -at its core- a trying to understand all, because in truth we understand so little. Science itself -like all understanding- is ever-evolving.

Why, just a few weeks ago, we discovered that the dinosaurs existed about ten million years earlier than we have ever supposed.

It wasn’t big news. Just as a trillion dollar debt suddenly does not resonate much, in the face of a nine-trillion dollar debt, over the course of Eternity, ten million years may not seem like much.

But considered on its own, a ten million-year mistake of scientific understanding is a pretty big deal.

So, how do we know what we don’t know? And why is it so difficult for us to admit that something we may not understand, something we cannot empirically prove, may yet be the Truth?

After all, everything we know of our past impacts our present and our future. History reverberates; even those transformational moments of the past 100 years which we may not have personally lived through are still unwinding in our time, like a long peal from a tuning fork, reaching ever outward, and touching our todays.

Our past is always with us. Our future is always with us too, in this present moment, because everything we do, right now, is already ringing ahead of us, into our tomorrows.

And so we must be thoughtful in our choices, but we are often reckless -often so enslaved to our egos and our interior prime-directives that we simply don’t take the mere millisecond it is sometimes needed, to check our gut and consider whether we want our next steps to be hounding us, in later weeks, months, years.

That’s a lesson I need to keep learning. But I think I am probably in very common company, in that respect.

There is a passage in Terry Pratchett’s The Truth that touches all of this in a way that is both amusing and enlightening. In chronicling the genesis of Ankh-Morpork’s first daily news sheet, Pratchett introduces us to Otto, Discworld’s first photo-journalist: an Uberwald Vampire (he’s on the wagon, having taken the pledge, and does not drink human blood) who buries his addiction in an obsessive study of the interplay between shadow and light. His primitive camera involves imps and salamanders (it’s Discworld; don’t ask) and land eels, which he uses -at decidedly personal risk- to illuminate his “iconographs.”

We encounter him discussing his theories on “dark light” with Cub Reporter Sacharissa, who has just recovered from an encounter with a land eel, whose intense light had knocked her out:

Mind Otto’s accent. He is a vampire, after all, and he does come from Uberwald.

“What actually happened when I grabbed the eel, Otto? . . . I saw things. There were…flames. And people. And noise. Just for a moment. It was like watching a whole day go past in a second! What happened?”

“Vell,” Otto said relucantly, “you know how salamanders absorb light?”

“Yes, of course.”

“Vell, zer eels absorb dark light. Not darkness, exactly, but zer light vithin darkness. Dark light…you see, dark light…vell, it has not been properly studied. It is heavier than normal light [...] I haf heard it said that dark light is zer original light from which all other types of light came. . . . Haf you heard the theory zat zere is no such thing as zer present? Because if it is divisible, zen it cannot be zer present, and if it is not divisible, zen it cannot have a beginning which connects to zer past and an end zat connects to zer future? . . . zer universe is just a cold soup of time, all time mixed up together, and vot ve call zer passage of time is merely qvantum fluctuations in zer fabric of space-time.”

“You have very long winter evenings in Uberwald, don’t you?”

Otto spends some time explaining (and waiting for thunder-rolls to accompany his revelations, as they would were he in Uberwald, but he is in Ankh-Morpork, so…) and admits that sometimes dark light reveals elements of past and future in his iconographs.

“All right, all right, it’s a magical light that takes uncanny pictures,” said Sacharissa.

“That’s a very … newspaper vay of putting it,” said Otto politely. He showed her the iconograph. [...] “ve know what is physically zere is not alvays vot is really zere. Look at zis vun.”

“Oh, that’s a good one of William,” she said. “in the cellar. And…that’s Lord de Worde standing just behind him, isn’t it?”

“Is it?” said the vampire. “I don’t know zer man. I do know zat he vas not in zer cellar ven I took the picture. But…you have only to talk to Villiam for any length of time to see that, in a vay, his father is alvays looking over his shoulder.”

And that is why Otto studies the interplay of light and shadows; why he is so very respectful of the mysterious “dark” light, the “heavier” light that may be the source of all light. Because he wants to understand. In his humility, he seeks wisdom. He has a sense about light seeking light.

Earlier today we read about Christ, the Mystical Serpent upon whom we may gaze for healing. Some admitted to a bit of cognitive dissonance in the idea; in scripture, serpents are a source of misery, bringing of spiritual and physical illness. Christ -who is all Light, who is the “heavy” light- manages to absorb even that imagery and that actuality. Subsumed within his glorious light, all is transfigured and transformed.

“Light shines in the darkness; the darkness comprehends it not.”

A lot to think about in that one little line. A lot to think about in the dance of shadow and light, which moves all around us and within. The more we understand about how we house dark and light inside our own souls, the more we can understand its movement through the world.

That’s a lot to look at, a lot to be accountable for, too, over time and in eternity. No wonder we are always only beginners.

I think that’s why some people don’t wish to think about the natural and supernatural world. Somewhere in there -it is the nature of all things, actions and reactions being what they are- lurks accountability.

Today’s Online Retreat will conclude with one more post, probably between 9 and 10 PM.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • newguy40

    I enjoy Pratchett a great deal. Much of his material is hilarious but it can also sneak up on you and whack you on the back of the noggin’ (as I think you recognize).

    I watched the brief daily Lenten reflection from Fr Groeshel on EWTN last week. He encouraged us to meditate upon the mystery of Jesus Christ. Shall I say how both beautiful and daunting meditating on the mystery of our Lord can be? It challenges us in a very very fundamental way. It ain’t easy.

  • regina

    I think we Catholics acknowledge the unseen sometimes at the expense of the seen. As if the two are competing, not coexisting. There’s a lot that we see that supports our faith. But we don’t seem to give it as much weight as the unseen. Just a thought.

  • Rand Careaga

    Really, Anchoress, it’s not as though the world’s paleontologists had drawn a line in the sand at 2,400,000 BC and proclaimed “This far and no further!” If new discoveries in the painfully sparse fossil record permit finer calibration of the first appearances of this or that species, genus or family, why then, all to the good. But apart from the fact that new information helps refine previous understanding, this is not a particularly “big deal,” as you assert, and it certainly doesn’t fling wide the gates of human scholarship to the entry of the supernatural.

  • Karl Lembke

    They always amaze me, these “wide open” minds who put so many limits on what can be believed, and rely so heavily on science, which is -at its core- a trying to understand all, because in truth we understand so little. Science itself -like all understanding- is ever-evolving.

    Why, just a few weeks ago, we discovered that the dinosaurs existed about ten million years earlier than we have ever supposed…

    …considered on its own, a ten million-year mistake of scientific understanding is a pretty big deal.

    Maybe so, but then, science is open to new data, including the discovery of dinosaur fossils from a earlier than previously known.

    The opponents of evolution (to pick one very noisy example) have their “truth” fixed, and data that don’t fit must be hammered into shape or ignored.

    [That may be true. Then again, lately we have seen scientists themselves "hammer into a shape or ignore" data as regards climate. So perhaps the answer is no one is better than anyone else, after all, and our ignorances are manifold. -admin]

  • Auguste

    Uberwald; Discworld. Not gotchas or refutations, just pointing it out.

    [correct, thanks -admin]

  • Andrew B

    Atheistic thought, in my opinion, runs smack up against some impossible barriers. One is that the “supernatural” is simply impossible, when the very definition of supernatural keeps changing with every generation. What we take to be common, everyday conveniences would have been the most remote conjurings of the “supernatural” a century or two ago. We simply view from a different vantage point than that of our ancestors.

    What is God’s vantage point, and what do things look like from there? I bet you that water into wine, Virgin birth and resurrection are as easy to Him as switching on a light is to us.

    Now, if you want to talk about REAL supernatural phenomena, how about we start with life arising from non-life? I ascribe it to God, while the atheist ascribes it to…nothing. That is not reason, science, nor deep thought. That is magic.

  • Joseph Marshall

    The supernatural is unprovable and therefore impossible,

    The physicists now tell us, I believe, that the majority of matter in the Universe is “dark matter” that no scientific instrument can detect. Not only that, they don’t even know where it is, they simply know, by inference only, that it has to be there somewhere. Whatever it is doing is simply unprovable and will be as long as no direct evidence can be extracted from it.

    It’s such a shame that this young atheist hasn’t read better books by unbelievers who can think straight, such as Bertrand Russel’s Why I Am Not A Christian, as well as books by believers who can think straight, such as C.S. Lewis.

    I do think, though, that both the materialist skeptic and the Christian apologist has this problem the wrong way around. My Buddhist teachers argue, and I think unanswerably, that nothing can be proved in any fundamental way about the “natural” world either. Every attempt to do so leads to contradiction or tautology.

    The categories are wrong. In so far as “natural” has any comprehensible meaning, it is “the stuff we can see” and what can be inferred from it.

    It is perfectly clear that we do not ever see everything there is, and, what we actually do see is not the same thing as what we believe to be there. A semester studying Life Drawing will demonstrate this to anyone.

    Since we can’t see everything that is there, we have no way of setting any reasonable limit to what else might be there.

    But there is also no reasoning available to prove that the “something else” is in any way “super”, is in any way different or superior or “beyond” what we can see.

    Faith is faith in the “super” part of “supernatural”. But it is also faith to assert that what we see demonstrates in any way what we “know” to be there.

  • Rand Careaga

    @Andrew B: The fact that “the very definition of supernatural keeps changing with every generation” is a testament to the expansion of human understanding, just as a child comprehends something more about the world when he realizes that the substitution of a shiny quarter or dime for the tooth left underneath the pillow comes about through the agency of a loving parent and not the Tooth Fairy. You will note that throughout recorded experience the realm of the supernatural always contracts.

    Regarding “life arising from non-life,” your hypothetical atheist may ascribe it to nothing, but evolutionary biologists have some detailed hypotheses. Unlike you, most of them do not claim certainty. Speaking only for myself, the spectacle of a hot, sterile rock synthesizing a fraction of its substance into self-replication and then, by infinitesimal degrees over the course of four billion years into sentience satisfies my own craving for wonder and awe. That you feel compelled to credit the process to an invisible anthropomorph (bearing an odd resemblance to a vengeful Bronze Age bedouin chieftain writ large) suggests to me a poverty of imagination.

  • Andrew B


    So, the scientific answer is inert matter+nothing(frequently called “chance”)+nothing(meaning “lots and lots of time, which in itself has absolutely no ability to do anything”)=everything? That seems a bit weak.

    In addition, I don’t recall asserting that my hypothesis does anything at all to advance the Judeo-Christian concept of God, your anthropomorphic Bronze Age chieftain. Yes, I am a Christian, but that is a leap of faith on my part. It stems from my understanding of the necessity of a First Cause, but I cannot assert that such a necessity needs to lead to the God of the Bible.

    We both believe in a self-existant, eternal something with the power of creation. Your version is made up of inert matter and energy, acted on by nothing over a long period of nothing. Mine is God. I don’t see that your version is any more scientifically or intellectually satisfying.

    For you, given enough nothingness (time+chance), miraculous things occur. That is a theology of the Glorified Nothing.

  • B. Durbin

    I am reminded of a basic course in physics which included basic electromagnetics. One of the things that I certainly never encountered in high school was “imaginary current”— yes, it’s actually called that— something we cannot detect, cannot measure, but know must be there because of the effects.

    To make matters weirder, imaginary current is NOT the exact inverse of the actual current, though it is moving in the opposite direction. So you can actually get a physics question that asks you to calculate imaginary current.

    And people think the supernatural is weird? I never even got to advanced mathematics, where you find out everything you ever knew about math is wrong…

  • pst314

    “You have very long winger evenings in Uberwald, don’t you?”

    That should be winter evenings.

  • pst314

    “But considered on its own, a ten million-year mistake of scientific understanding is a pretty big deal.”

    No, not a big deal at all–at least not in the sense that you mean.

    First, consider that this is only 10 million years in the vast timespan that dinosaurs existed and in the much vaster time span of geological history.

    Second, remember that these fossil dates always come with a certain amount of uncertainty.

    Third, and most importantly, the new fossil discovery did not reveal a flaw in how fossils were being dated (that might have been more significant) or a fundamental mistake in the paleontological model. It was merely a discovery of a new bed of fossils slightly older than the oldest heretofore discovered. I’m sure that if you had spoken to a few paleontologists last year they would all have agreed that it was possible that dinosaurs had existed prior to the earliest known fossils, and would have pointed out that there are lots of new fossil species waiting to be discovered, as fossil hunters have so far only scratched the surface (pun intended.)

    The Global Warming fraud is an excellent example of pathological science, but this not this discovery of some new fossils.

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