IN LOVE WITH ETERNITY
“In a distant corner of the infinite number of flickering solar systems that compose the cosmos, there was once a star on which clever animals invented knowledge. It was the most arrogant and deceptive moment of ‘world history;’ but it was only for a moment. After nature had drawn a few breaths, the star became cold and the clever animals had to die.”
Thus Nietzsche in his essay On Truth and Falsehood in an Extramoral Sense, unpublished in his lifetime, vividly depicted the central problem of philosophy from Ecclesiastes to twentieth century existentialism; namely, what is the meaning, what can be the meaning of human life. Behind all the cognitive science, the “brain as computer” theories, the “neurophilosophy” that proliferates in the wake of the modern sciences, still lurks the ugly vision of Schopenhauer that all life is meaningless and the sooner it is finished, the better.
The spread of this nightmarish thought has been kept at bay in the western world by Christianity. God has provided the meaning of human life; faith in a God who underpins the human condition has been the antidote for Schopenhauerian pessimism. Not human “progress,” not the pleasure industries dominating western life, not nationalism or communism, but faith in a metaphysical God has been the means through which individuals have found their strength to face the uncertainties of existence. This may be why institutional religion, far from disappearing in an age of science, has revealed an increasing vitality over much of the world. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise everywhere, not only in impoverished third world countries but in the cradle of scientific technology, the United States.
Nevertheless, along with the will to live and the necessity for a metaphysics to give meaning to life, there has been since antiquity a desire to know the truth of things, insofar as this is possible. By truth is meant an understanding of the nature of the self and of the external world, not merely accumulation of scientific minutiae. Working out the mechanisms of material existence has its role in human affairs but it does not satisfy the need to comprehend one’s place in the universe. Atomic science has not and can not replace preoccupation with the meaning of human life.
The problem of time is the central problem in the quest for understanding this meaning. Everything seems evanescent, nothing is permanent--neither living creatures nor the stars of the Milky Way. The life of an individual is as a millisecond of time in the ocean of infinity. Human beings, the clever animals who invented knowledge, deal with this perception in different ways. The great mass of people, the Heraclitean hoi polloi look away from it and live out their lives following their instincts or their social conventions. They exercise their mind in coping with life; the rest is left to the doctors of religious institutions. But more mentally restless types of individuals try to combat this painful perception by extending their influence beyond their immediate surround. This may be in the form of mortar and concrete, contemporary pyramids meant to outlive their lifetime. Others spread their mark in political, professional or civic circles. Intense relationships temporarily distract from the problem of self. A few create artwork or literature that they hope will be a different kind of monument, forever attesting to the fact that they were here on the planet. The ambition for fame, widespread among otherwise superior personalities, has been said to be the last defect of the noble soul.
There is a never-ceasing restlessness in homo sapiens, an unwillingness to be content with tending one’s own garden. Nietzsche identified it with a will to power, which he thought to be a more significant trait in human beings than the will to live. Whatever its origin, it is an effort to overcome the limitations and transitory nature of human life. The antique Greeks were highly suspicious of this trait; there was an inclination in the polis to exile those in their communities who were felt to be overly ambitious. Most societies, however, extol ambition and equate it with personal success. Nothing is thought to be more desirable than to make one’s mark in society and the stronger the mark, the more admirable it is thought to be.
Yet the person with an “intellectual conscience” is not deceived by societal success. The transitory nature of all accomplishments and influence is apparent. Worse yet, what is popularly thought of one’s successes rarely stands the test of time. What seems admirable at one time is often castigated or worse at another. One’s family is more often than not the source of profound disappointment. The standard criterion for success, accumulation of wealth, turns out, as Thoreau said, to always be a road leading downward. And, finally, there is no escape from the oblivion of self that awaits all living beings. Such thoughts motivated the poignant lines in Ecclesiastes, “For in much wisdom there is much sorrow, and he who stores up knowledge stores up grief.”
The pain felt in relation to the death awaiting us all is the pain of imagining non-existence of the self. Refusal to submit to this fate in western societies (eastern religions bow to it) has lead to childish ideas about immortality, largely based on separation of the “soul” from the body. In spite of all evidence to the contrary, belief in some kind of immortality for the faithful is at the basis of both Christianity and Islam, the world’s principal monotheistic religions. It is the preeminent feature separating believers in God from atheists, although, purely logically, one could conceive of immortality without a God. The fact that belief in God and belief in immortality are so closely linked is a clue to what really is at the bottom of the popular faith that God exists. St. Paul, the effective founder of Christianity, was explicit in Corinthians I, “For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive [forever].” No belief in Christ, no immortality; only oblivion – and later on, hellfire. This was strong motivation to adopt a theistic faith, no matter how much pagan rationalists railed against it.
The “death of God” in the nineteenth and twentieth century gave impetus to the rise of existentialist philosophies. Heine had diagnosed God as terminally ill in the early nineteenth century; Nietzsche pronounced him dead toward the end of it. Of course, these were metaphors to accentuate the loss of religious faith in large segments of the intelligentsia; an inevitable correlate of the scientific revolution. Heidegger was the first professional philosopher to attend to certain psychological states of being that exist in individuals independently of their external circumstances. Dread (Angst), worry or care (Sorge), estrangement, guilt are intrinsic to the human condition, brought about by the spectre of non-being. He regarded these moods as existential states of being for humans, subsumed under the broad concept of being with time as its “horizon.” Heidegger’s real interest sometimes seems to be more in philology than philosophy, but he did open up the realization that the transitory nature of existence has a profound impact on the affective state of individuals. This was an advance in academic philosophy over former, purely rationalistic considerations.
A less abstract and more coherent discussion of this issue was provided by Camus who was not a professional philosopher, but a novelist and playwright. His one purely philosophical essay, The Myth of Sisyphus, was written at the absurdly young age of 27 years. It contains all of his important ideas. Camus emphasized the absurdity of human existence, based as it is on invariable non-meaning and inevitable non-being. His solution: the sole dignity of man lies in tenacious resistance to this situation. Conscious as the individual should be of the absurdity of human life, he utilizes his scorn and his strength to overcome it. For Camus, this revolt is principally expressed in creating works of art. He ends his essay with a Nietzschian amor fati – “It is necessary to imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Paul Tillich is often regarded as the most intellectual theologian of the twentieth century. In his widely read book The Courage to Be (1952), Tillich takes much the same tack as Camus in proposing “courage” to be the key requirement for human existence. But he does not accept Camus’ unswerving atheism as a necessary condition of an intellectually honest life. Tillich was a professional Protestant theologian, meaning that he could not dispense with some kind of belief in God (as well as with many other accoutrements of Christian belief). He reconciled his Christianity with his intellectual conscience by regarding all concrete, God-centered religious dogmas as symbolic of “an ultimate ground of being.” Tillich concludes, “The courage to be is rooted in the God who appears when God has disappeared in the anxiety of doubt.” But surely, in this post-Freudian age, one can put forth other explanations of this phenomenon than that it finally reveals the presence of a deity. Other thoughtful individuals have arrived at an opposite point of view. Tillich’s struggles with the basis of religion reveal the difficulties in reconciling a modern intellectual conscience with a theological faith.
Angst over the premonition of individual oblivion is at the bottom of a wide range of human activities. The belief in immortality, the passion for fame, the urge to procreate – all are based on the desire to escape nothingness. In reaction against the fear that death means non-being, people turn from their own existence to external projections of it. It is a universal feature of the human condition to combat what has been called “the arrow of time,” which seems to lead to oblivion for all. In spite of the enormous effort of individual life (especially human life) to evade ultimate non-being, the destroying arrow of time seems always victorious. Thus Camus, who resolutely set himself against easing Angst through the role of a paterfamilias or acquisition of fame or concepts of immortality, regarded all human life as absurd.
But another solution has come to the fore in reconciling the intellectual conscience with the spectre of nothingness and the Angst that this spectre evokes. This is the idea that the feeling of nothingness is an illusion similar to earlier illusions that the earth is flat, the sun travels around the earth, or that our perceptions of our immediate surround provide a valid picture of reality. Modern physics has revealed the illusoriness of these beliefs. The “realities” are that the earth is round, it revolves around the sun (our solar system occupies only a tiny speck of the cosmos), and the sounds and sights we perceive bear little relationship to the whirling cloud of subatomic structures underlying our illusory images of reality. Moreover, the advances of the physical sciences have revealed the illusoriness of the perception of time. It is remarkable that Kant deduced the necessary illusoriness of these perceptions well before the observation-based theories of relativity and quantum physics.
Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity altered the Newtonian view of the universe, which was founded on the absolute character of time and space. The images
of spatial extension and temporal duration are relative to the observer, dependent not only on his perceptual apparatus but also on his location and motion. The universe is a four- dimensional one (possibly even more than four) in which the dimension of time is quite analogous to the other dimensions. Most significantly in the case of time, the idea that time can be divided into past, present and future is completely illusory. What is future for one observer may be past for another. These notions completely subvert the intuition of the inevitably regular progression of time and the absolute nature of spatial size. Einstein’s theories have been fully confirmed by physical observations and now form the basis of contemporary cosmology.
The worldview of modern physics is cogently elucidated by the distinguished physicist Brian Greene in his treatise The Fabric of the Cosmos (2004). This anti-intuitive picture of the universe has profound implications for concepts of the universe. There is no such thing as oblivion in the universe depicted by mathematical physics. Every event permanently occupies its place in the space-time continuum. The existence of the individual is forever part of phenomenal reality. Every moment is eternal. Greene provides us with the startling image that “the flowing river of time more closely resembles a giant block of ice with every moment forever frozen in place” (p.141). From the vantage point of theoretical physics, immortality is a physical necessity. Elsewhere, I have expressed the idea that the totality of things existent in eternity can be symbolically envisioned as a vast pointillist mural painted by an unknown hand (The Pointillist Canvas of Eternity, 2003).
There is one troublesome problem, however, in reconciling the human experience with this new image of the cosmos. Einstein himself was disturbed by the fact that human consciousness of the now now loses all objective meaning. There is no place for this experience in his theories and it is not perceived by observation-based mathematical physics. Greene quotes a conversation of Einstein with Rudolf Carnap in which Einstein expressed the view that the experience of the now does not and can not occur within the science of physics. He was resigned to the fact. This apparently minor problem, however, has a great deal to do with the difference between physics and philosophy.
One might think that the picture provided by modern physics of a world frozen in a time-space continuum, a Parmenidean worldview so to speak, would support Camus’ belief in the absurdity of human life and in the futility of thinking that any meaning can be discovered in the Sturm und Drang of the world. Nazi and Soviet concentration camps, widespread nuclear weaponry, AIDS, proliferation of soulless new technologies, over-population and destruction of the planet, all create an impression of absurdity in human affairs. Camus had recourse to the myth of Sisyphus to depict the situation. Sisyphus loving his fate was the ultimate absurdity.
Camus firmly resisted any type of metaphysical thinking since he felt it to be against
lucidité. French thinkers tend to value lucidity above all else. But since the brilliant advances in physics do not – and cannot according to Einstein – account for the “consciousness of now” in which humans live, one must turn to other modes of thinking in the search for knowledge. This is heresy in a monistic, science-dominated world of knowledge, yet there is no avoiding it. Science is king of the physical world, but we humans know ourselves to be something more than talking machines.
The now can be conceived as revealing a spiritual reality breaking into time. It is impossible for serious-minded individuals to escape the awareness of this reality. The Russian philosopher Berdyaev proposed that the now is a manifestation of existential time, best symbolized by a point rather than a line (historical time) or a circle (cyclical time) (Slavery and Freedom). It is not necessary to accept Berdyaev’s Christian eschatology in order to grasp his insight into the nature of time. It may, however, be a semantic error to call the “now” a point in time since the now exists outside of historically or cyclically perceived time. Thus the now may be considered as eternal, a part of the spiritual aspect of eternity existing on a different plane from a physical cosmos frozen in the space-time continuum.
It is important to remember that the concept of an exclusively physical cosmos is entirely based on physical observations, initially made by the unaided senses, then hugely magnified by the instruments of modern science. There is a certain tautological element to this situation. Data forthcoming by these instruments are more efficiently handled by mathematical formulae than by human language. Here is a clue to the understanding of the nature of the physical sciences. Mathematical measurement is at the heart of physics and its derivative sciences. Without measurement, there is no physics. But by definition, any metaphysical reality could not be measured with physical methods.
The scientific world is also faith-centered; the faith is that all reality is limited to the physical world as we perceive it. Events that seem to have a different nature are believed all to be ultimately reducible to physical phenomena. This is a metaphysical belief founded, as are all metaphysical beliefs, on the personality traits of the believer. The fact is that all the phenomena of the universe ranging from gravitational forces to human behavior can only be described or controlled by science, but not apprehended in a meaningful manner. One can speculate that the faith in science derives from the desire of individuals to master nature rather than to understand it.
At the heart of any metaphysical way of thought is the consciousness of self as opposed to the awareness of the physical world. The great contribution of Schopenhauer was to elucidate these fundamentally different forms of knowledge. Like the concept of now, the concept of consciousness is not to be explained by physical techniques. Since the nineteenth century, when the noted German neuropathologist Rudolph Virchow denied the existence of the soul saying he had never encountered one in dissecting hundreds of brains, scientists have been trying to reduce the metaphysical mind to the physical brain. The story about Virchow may be apocryphal, but the belief is widespread to this day. Contemporary thinking on the brain-mind relationship is more sophisticated, but neuroscientists and philosophers are still obsessed with explaining consciousness (i.e. the soul) through physical studies. Unlike Einstein, and before him William James, they do not accept the mind-brain disconnect. Countless experiences with brain electrodes and neurochemical analyses (and now brain imaging) have shown that the most that can be accomplished is to ascertain physical correlates of consciousness and to monitor how its manifestations are affected by manipulating the nervous system. However, the intrinsic nature of feelings, thoughts and desires do not emerge from studying neurons and synapses. Consciousness and neurons appear to exist on different planes of being.
The history of modern physics may essentially be regarded as a confirmation of the insights of Kant and Schopenhauer. One of the most significant of these insights is that it is illusory to think that time flows unstoppably and that it can be divided into past, present and future times. Like spatial dimensions, time is a parameter created by the human perceptual apparatus. There is no reason to think that these parameters irrevocably define reality. The situation is well illustrated by Thoreau’s laconic aphorism, “Time is but the stream I go a-fishing in.” His “I” is not consigned to oblivion by his departing from the stream, even if it is commonly perceived as such.
A genuine consciousness of the relativity of time and space leads to the awareness of the eternal nature of existence, including our own being. Whatever is, is forever. This awareness is liberating; by freeing oneself from the illusory fear of oblivion, one can develop a healthier relationship to the surrounding world. No more than the threat of consignment to hell, one is not threatened with consignment to nothingness upon biological death. It is merely one more limit set on individual existence. Spinoza’s amor dei intellectualis was a manifestation of this liberation, since God for Spinoza was identical to the entirety of cosmic being.
There is a certain impoverishment that scientific monism brings to the study of the human condition. Although most academic philosophers and psychologists have committed themselves to materialist models of existence, this has not been so with many eminent figures in neurophysiological research. The Nobel laureates Charles Sherrington and John Eccles as well as Wilder Penfield, the pioneer neurosurgeon in the study of brain-mind correlates, all expressed the view that there was some extraphysical basis to the human mind. The same may be said of Einstein, who did not think the experience of the now could be grasped by science.
The concept of eternity is a more fitting framework for the activity of the mind than is the picture of the world provided by physics, whether it be a Newtonian fixed space-time continuum or a plethora of Einsteinian relative space-times. Nor does recourse to the timeworn myths of a deity improve the situation. Nietzsche’s statement of faith expressed in Book III of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, “For I love you, O eternity!,” is the goal sought after by the human mind. Unfortunately, Nietzsche’s mental stability was not sufficient to permit him to live up to this difficult task. He descended into madness. But the goal is still a worthy one. One can fall in love with eternity.