Sunday, July 31, 2016

Feeling the Breath of Empty Space

And against this inward revolt of the native creatures of the soul 
mechanical man, in triumph seated upon the seat of his machine,
will be powerless, for no engine can reach into the marshes and 
     depths of a man.

-- D.H. Lawrence, "The Triumph of the Machine"
Locke. The arrival of empiricism. Nothing in the mind that was not first in the senses. The blank slate. No innate ideas. But do sense impressions accurately correspond to external objects? This cannot be known definitely. And yet we can make a distinction. There are "primary qualities" that can be objectively measured -- shape, motion, weight, etc. -- and there are "secondary qualities" which are subjective only, varying from person to person -- colour, taste, feelings, odour, etc. Thus we can know the real dimensions of a given thing but not its colour. The Eye over all other senses.

Berkeley. But isn't this distinction between primary and secondary qualities also arbitrary? Doesn't this also break down? Even primary qualities are just mind experiences. There is no guarantee that there is any precise match up to external reality. Everything is filtered through the senses and the mind itself, phenomenal, bound to appearances. Idealism as hyper-empiricism.

The only things that exist with certainty are the mind and its ideas. And yet all is evidently not subjective fantasy. There is an apparent, even objective, common experience. How can this be accounted for? The world only has a coherent form because all perceiving minds are contained in the mind of God. The Eye becomes cosmic, omniscient.

Hume. But the postulation of "God" to hold the world together betrays empiricism entirely. There is no way to know anything -- God or his surrogates -- beyond the data that the senses impress upon the mind.  Likewise, however, all statements of reason -- defined by logic and mathematics -- are ultimately tautological. They may only refer to themselves. Heads up their own bums. No way of knowing if there is any fixed correspondence to anything external.

Induction -- crucial to science -- is also entirely based on non-empirical assumptions. Even though we have observed the Sun rising in the morning day after day there is no absolute surety that it will do so tomorrow. As with all phenomena. The "physical laws" are only provisional just-so tales. Causality itself cannot be sensed. We assume that A causes B, but we never actually witness the causal connection between the two.

We cannot even hold that there is a consistent Mind that does the observing. There are only moments of observation. No Self can be isolated and sensed, only an unceasing stream of impressions, sensations and ideas. What self? What mind? Where can it be located? No objective knowledge is possible through such a non-entity. The Eye dethroned. Empiricism has eaten itself. Complete epistemological skepticism. And Hume loved his beer.

Kant. Abruptly shaken awake from his "dogmatic slumber" by Hume. But, but surely some knowledge must be possible? Newtonian science, for one, works, doesn't it? It has a predictive capacity. How can this be? There must be a real correspondence between inner mind and outer world. But Berkeley and Hume are also right -- we cannot know anything outside of our mind and its senses. And, as Hume demonstrated, there is no evidence of a God that could hold it all together either. So what gives?

Kant sparks off a "Copernican revolution" -- the whole of the world that we will ever know is that structured by the intrinsic categories of the mind. The categories of time, space, causality, substance are embedded in the very structure of our minds. They exist prior -- a priori -- to anything observed by the senses and therefore they condition every experience. Newtonian science works because the world that it describes is necessarily that which is framed by the categories of the mind. There is no escaping this.

The phenomenal world -- things as they appear -- is the only world describable by science or any other epistemological method. The noumenal world -- things as they are -- is entirely unknowable. We can only observe with our minds the world which is structured according to the categories of the same mind that observes it. We order the world according to how our perception is ordered. Every look out is also a look in. An apparent step back from Hume's skeptical cliff edge.

The German Idealists. Pushing the limits of Kant came Fichte, Schelling, Hegel. Perhaps the phenomenal world is the noumenal. There are no things outside of the mind. Back to the idealism of Berkeley, but God is now part of the mix and not external to and transcendent of it. Our minds are identical with the mind of God. God is immanent in this world, the world of the mind, one perfectly reflecting the other. This is also the worldview of the Romantics. As in Coleridge:

The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I Am. 

Hegel's World Spirit evolving itself through the media of time and history, from pure spirit to the plunge into unconscious matter, to gradually recovering sentience, to eventual and ultimate self-awareness as spirit once again. This process encompasses all. Spirit and matter becoming butter as they chase each other around the Tree. Skepticism morphed into mysticism.

After the Revolution. But why stop at the categories of space, time, causality, etc.? These are not the only shaping factors of the mind. As Richard Tarnas explains in The Passion of the Western Mind  (where much of this is derived), the inbuilt yet changing lenses and filters are legion:

From Kant and Hume through Darwin, Marx, Freud and beyond, an unsettling conclusion was becoming inescapable: Human thought was determined, structured, and very probably distorted by a multitude of overlapping factors -- innate but nonabsolute mental categories, habits, history, culture, social class, biology, language, imagination, emotion, the personal unconscious, the collective unconscious. In the end, the human mind could not be relied upon as an accurate judge of reality. The original Cartesian certainty, that which served as a foundation for the modern confidence in human reason, was no longer defensible.  

Yet even these "categories" are only identified as such by some other category-determining faculty. And this faculty is also a category. It all turns in on itself, devouring and copulating, like an Albert Ayler free jazz saxophone blowout.

Kant's original a priori categories of cognition -- the last vestiges of absolute certainty for the philosopher -- have themselves dissipated, wafts of grey vapour reenter the fog. Melted away by the very intellectual force that Kant had hoped to save -- science. Tarnas:

But with twentieth-century physics, the bottom fell out of Kant's last certainty. The fundamental Kantian a prioris -- space, time, substance, causality -- were no longer applicable to all phenomena. The scientific knowledge that had seemed after Newton to be universal and absolute had to be recognized after Einstein, Bohr, and Heisenberg as limited and provisional. So too did quantum mechanics reveal in unexpected fashion that the radical validity of Kant's thesis that the nature described by physics was not nature in itself but man's relation to nature -- i.e., nature as exposed to man's form of questioning.

Where are we left then? There are no longer any "transcendent" categories. Nothing remains that could be called objective or absolute or permanent. We are brought back to Hume's cliff edge. Reason, causality, the existence of the self -- none of these can be affirmed absolutely. We are collectively placed in the position of Nietzsche's infamous madman, and none of us can travel any further along this route than he:

"Where has God gone?" he cried. "I shall tell you. We have killed him - you and I. We are his murderers. But how have we done this? How were we able to drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What did we do when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving now? Away from all suns? Are we not perpetually falling? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there any up or down left? Are we not straying as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is it not more and more night coming on all the time? Must not lanterns be lit in the morning? Do we not hear anything yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we not smell anything yet of God's decomposition? Gods too decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we, murderers of all murderers, console ourselves? That which was the holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet possessed has bled to death under our knives. Who will wipe this blood off us? With what water could we purify ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we need to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we not ourselves become gods simply to be worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whosoever shall be born after us - for the sake of this deed he shall be part of a higher history than all history hitherto."

God is surely dead, but as Nietzsche makes very clear "God" in this sense is only a placeholder for any centralized and/or centralizing vantage point. Away from all suns. No facts, only interpretations. The grimmoire of grammar is one of the last hiding spots of the Demiurge. A sentence is also a prison sentence.

Philosophy and science have largely tried either to ignore or downplay our epistemological predicament. Philosophy has in most part retreated into the analysis of language, logical wordgames, phenomenology, academic circle-jerking and beard-tugging, and science into the manufacture of novel trinkets for the corporate and military death machine. Experts, texperts, choking, smoking. And endless spectacle and distraction for the rest of us.

But what these specialists of the non-sacred are avoiding and/or trying to actively hide is that the old rules no longer apply.

Because induction can never render certain general laws, and because scientific knowledge is a product of human interpretive structures that are themselves relative, variable and creatively employed, and finally because the act of observation in some sense produces the objective reality science attempts to explicate, the truths of science are neither absolute nor unequivocally objective. In the combined wake of eighteenth-century philosophy and twentieth-century science, the modern mind was left free of absolutes, but also disconcertingly free of any solid ground.

Hume was right. Induction is a reassuring convenience, but nothing more than that. Without it, and this is the fluid groundless ground we now all shake and shimmy on, metamorphosis and mystery and magic come raging back in full force. Neither time nor space are uniform or continuous. Form itself is in question. If it is possible in thought, in the imagination, it may also be possible in "reality". After all, we are only ever and always looking simultaneously out and in on our own mind undulations.

The philosophers have mostly given up, washed their hands. It is the time again for the poets, not as debauched entertainers and cynics, exiles from the Republic, auto-castrated and word-weary, but as true Bards and Makers, books of verse as dynamos of flame, casting spells, spinning worlds, stopping war. Coleridge and the Romantics were on the right track. Mind is the unus mundus. Nature and the imagination interpenetrate, mutually inspire. Poe's dismay in his "Sonnet -- To Science" has finally been overthrown.

Science! true daughter of Old Time thou art!
Who alterest all things with thy peering eyes.
Why preyest thou thus upon the poet's heart,
Vulture, whose wings are dull realities?
How should he love thee? or how deem thee wise,
Who wouldst not leave him in his wandering
To seek for treasure in the jewelled skies,
Albeit he soared with an undaunted wing?
Hast thou not dragged Diana from her car?
And driven the Hamadryad from the wood
To seek a shelter in some happier star?
Hast thou not torn the Naiad from her flood,
The Elfin from the green grass, and from me
The summer dream beneath the tamarind tree?

Dragged Diana from her car! Driven out the Hamadryad and thrown the Naiad from her watery home! No more. They have never left and they are eager to return.

There are only fragments of Thales left, the first known Western philosopher, but these are powerful. They are testimonies, almost incantations, of another world dominated by poetry. Philosophy had not yet become fixedly chained to the rational, a strange wind blew across the barrier.

Three of his postulates survive according to G.R. Levy in The Gate of Horn: there is one original soul-substance -- "water" but really the transforming fluid of life itself; the All is alive, nothing is without life including rocks, river, fire; the All is full of daemons, gods, spirits, elementals. Man into woman into animal into tree into god into man. This awaits us. This is already here.


  1. It is curious how much treasure is wasted on "novel trinkets for the corporate and military death machine". That is one aspect of the dismal prison planet we live on. This must change. When compassion is our only passion, enlightenment will manifest. 87