We can only perceive the world as our mental apparatus allows us to do so. Immanuel Kant explored this notion in great depth in his three immense critiques (Pure Reason, Practical Reason and Judgment). He separated phenomena (what we actually see and experience) and noumena (that which we can’t see or penetrate but exists independently of perception). Your friends, the earth, this seat I’m sitting on, acts of kindness or cruelty – these are things as they appear to us. Whereas something like, say, heaven (a noumenal construct) is inaccessible to us – it is a thing in itself; it is unknowable through human sensation.
And yet, because of ability to use our practical reason, we have the ability to comprehend the notion of heaven, which gives it a speculative sense of reality. Acting morally, as a moral agent, simply makes no sense if we don’t have the capacity to imagine a noumenal world. Why bother being nice? Freedom, god, morality – they all exist as a result of our being able to postulate the noumenal, even though we can never experience it in the way we experience phenomena.
Kant’s own ‘Copernican revolution’ saw him shift the way we think of ourselves in relation to how we experience our existence. Copernicus displaced the idea of a human-centred universe by discovering that the Earth revolved around (or orbited) the sun. Kant proposed that our consciousness was no longer defined by, or answerable to, any transcendental or empirical object (where knowledge must conform to objects). Kant insisted that the human mind itself was the active originator of experience, rather than a passive recipient of it. Intellectual intuition creates its objects. We can only process and categorise concepts as our brain hardware allows it – this places a limit to the scope of our knowledge and understanding. We always have a connection to space and time whenever we think about or experience anything. There is a rational human necessity to understand real experience in space and time – due to our practical need to live with other beings. And Kant sought principles to fulfil those requirements with his universal moral law and Categorical Imperatives.
The realisation that we are so inextricably tied to our human comprehension of space and time is something Carlo Rovelli uncovers in detail (also referring to Kant) in Reality Is Not What It Seems, when he illuminates how difficult it is to get our heads around the notion that time doesn’t exist (in the bigger picture – with spacetime and the realisation of relativity). It’s just a construct within our localised schema – the idea of existing transcendent of a passage of time is something we struggle to comprehend with the mental faculties we have at our disposal. It’s the same for any idea which appears to go beyond the limits of what we know or expect to be true – this is why it’s so difficult for us (me) to grasp the concept of a finite universe without borders (intuited by Einstein – and then refuted by Einstein, as even he couldn’t accept his own discovery. He seemed to do that a lot. I guess that’s the measure of a great scientist – never just assume anything to be absolutely true. Even your own brilliance!).
Carrey on dreaming
I like to think that there are myriad incredible things that we could know, which could really help us live better lives, but that we’re currently unable to, due to the constraints of our internal intellectual hardware. I wonder if perhaps (if we make it that far), physically evolved human beings in the distant future might solve issues such as time travel or deep space voyages. Perhaps we will one day reach the edge of the universe like Jim Carrey reaches the edge of his in The Truman Show? If I’m indeed correct about Einstein’s theory, and he is too, the universe may actually be like a ball connected to another ball (potentially another universe) – and travelling around the whole of this universe is like travelling around the inside of a ball, giving it its finite and borderless quality. So perhaps The Truman Show dream is over. Shame. I love that movie. Imagine being the person to open that little door at the edge of our universe and dropping into another – or another form of existence entirely! I expect they’d still struggle to find someone more awesome than Jim Carrey.
Space/movie/finite universe banter aside, it certainly makes me think a lot about just how many amazing things we still have the potential to know, to do, to see, to feel, to smell, to taste. Are there new levels of emotions that we are currently shut off from experiencing? Could we be a happier and more contented species, capable of living in some kind of utopian harmony if we were just able to see things completely differently? If perhaps we weren’t slaves to our desires? Casting off the shackles of desire is key to the Taoist perspective – Lao-Tzu writes in the Tao Te Ching about the idea that when one transcends desire, they can achieve Wu Wei – a state of profound concentration and flow; stillness, calm, peace, nothingness. “Banish learning, discard knowledge, people will gain a hundredfold,” it reads. “Discard righteousness, people will return to duty and compassion. Discard profit, there will be no more thieves. Look at plain silk, hold uncarved wood. Self dwindles, desires fade.”
And – “Tao does not do, but nothing is not done.” The idea that we become one with our natural surroundings and work with nature – not against it. Be like water – flexible, malleable, yet strong. And able to conquer anything that gets in its way – not by using its power, but its ability to traverse any obstacle effectively. It’s a theme I’ve alluded to previously in this blog, but perhaps one of the biggest elements of our current troubles as a species is the fact we’ve become so detached from our natural surroundings. We’ve bled the earth dry, tampered with its ecosystems and abused it selfishly because we thought it would improve our lives. But things are just getting worse and our home is an almost irretrievable mess. For all that we don’t have the scope to understand, this is patently obvious – and yet we continue to ignore what’s happening right in front of our eyes. Sometimes it seems the only way we learn is by making fatal mistakes.
Time is an illusion
Anyway, back to time – because this is something Rovelli writes about beautifully in Reality Is Not What It Seems. With quantum mechanics, time becomes as indeterminate and probabilistic as everything else in this crazy, random (yet relational) universe – electrons are literally disappearing and reappearing at random (quantum leaps!) Einstein’s undulating mollusc of spacetime is no longer the inert container we supposed it might be.
Here’s how Rovelli puts it:
“As we abandon the idea of space as an inert container, similarly, we must abandon the idea of time as an inert flow along which reality unfurls. Just as the idea of the space continuum containing these things disappears, so too does the idea of a flowing continuum ‘time’ during the course of which phenomena happen.”
Things change only in relation to each other – time is only valid for our macroscopic scale of experience; it is a localised phenomenon based on the gravitational field near to each object. With the quantum nature of the field, time ceases to exist. Change still happens – but change is universal; it’s happening all the time, everywhere. Our intuition of how time passes and flows is no longer useful in a world with quantum mechanics. The world still changes, but using time as measure to explain it is only relevant in our local schema. I still struggle to fully comprehend just what this means, but it’s clear that if we can begin to imagine existence without time, we can begin to imagine pretty much anything.
Things we’ll probably never know
And yet there will always be some things which fall into that Kantian realm of the noumenal; things that our perception cannot penetrate. God would probably be the most significant of those. The best piece of evidence I can muster for the potentiality of god is existence itself. Because we are alive (or at least seem to be) – because we have this shared existence, this humanity, this Being – doesn’t that mean there has to be some kind of creator (of some nature) somewhere in the process of Being coming into being? Or is Being (for most people) like Einstein’s finite universe is for me – impossible to comprehend. Are existence (and God) just things we cannot and will not ever comprehend. Is the random, Sartrean contingency of existence something we simply cannot explain. It just is what it is. And after we die, it will just continue to be what it is. Is the destiny of the human condition merely a ceaseless, fruitless quest for answers we simply cannot have? Or will we one day transcend the limits of our objectivity and finally know the answers to the questions of what existence (and maybe God) are? It would seem that our only chance to find out will be when we die. Here’s hoping it’s good news!
Superman saves the day?
I do wonder if we might ever take significant steps forward as a species towards the will to power Friedrich Nietzsche wrote so passionately about. Can his Superman ever be achieved by us mere mortals? Can we be the masters of our own morality? Can we be noble creatures, who banish notions of slave ethics and aspire to greatness? Can we reconnect with the natural order of our planet and yet move forward in a manner which helps us to progress in a meaningful and helpful way? Almost certainly not – but a more appropriate question might be, can we at least continue to stretch the limits the of our objectivity so we can make our world a better place? Or, as I’ve talked about repeatedly in this blog series, is it actually going to help us to know more – or will we be able to do more with some kind of evolved mental faculties? If we all start to develop super-cool X-Men powers, you just know we’ll be using it to fight each other rather than help each other. Although, that is pretty much what the X-Men did, so I guess Stan Lee already predicted that eventuality.
Our evolutionary report card
I wonder to what extent, dear reader, you think our evolution up to this point been a success. I mean, we seem to have done some pretty amazing things since the days of Neanderthal man. All of the amazing scientific discoveries and ideas I’ve written about in these blogs, the wonderful languages we’ve created, the beautiful buildings we’ve produced, the poems we’ve written. Think of all the paintings and sculptures we’ve crafted, the songs, the sonnets, the engineering feats – civilisation itself!
Think of the acts of love, kindness, generosity and compassion which take place every single day. There really is so much to admire about what we’ve done with the mental apparatus we have. And yet, one cannot shed the gnawing feeling that we could do so much better; that our problems and mistakes often outweigh our achievements. Sure, people are living happy lives. But are enough people living happy lives? As far as I’m concerned, wherever possible, we shouldn’t settle for serving the needs of the few. We must endeavour to help everyone.
Shackley’s Copernickantian revolution
And so that leads us on to Genuinity – that childish, feminine entity which resides in us all; that true inner voice – that will to connect, protect, nurture and survive. A will to kindness and a realisation of the power of Genuinity and Niceness can help us live better lives. The earth revolves around the sun, and the human mind is the active originator of its experience – but the human mind also revolves – around Genuinity. Just like the earth needs the sun, the human mind needs Genuinity; it needs Niceness. It needs the life-affirming essence of kindness; the childlike, feminine inner voice. The true self comes from Genuinity – the will to Niceness.
We do not need any sort of improved mental apparatus to be kind. We already have all the tools at our disposal to be nice. We have Genuinity and we know how to use it. Be good to each other. And thanks for reading.