Wednesday, 9 May 2007

The Structure of Time and History

It's funny that the bible technically places the creation - and man's subsequent fall from grace, where he is condemned to work in order to survive, to till the land with the sweat of his brow in order to eat - at roughly the moment in history when agriculture began, and civilisation in the Near East first spread its wings. It also ties in almost perfectly with the first written language. I wonder what change in the mode of consciousness this development had.

The use of writing forces man's apprehension of the world into a strictly linear sequence. Words are always read in order, and form a static unchangeable structure. The power of language to change consciousness is a topic I can't go into detail here, but it's clear that the development of writing and the emergence of civilisation happen at eerily similar times. The ability to view ourselves objectively, to be 'self-aware' forces an appreciation of change, development, and therefore places consciousness outside of the present in which the rest of the kingdom of nature is bound.

The Bible effectively tells history from the point of view of human civilisation. All of prehistory is given a cursory few paragraphs of mechanical progress, all well and good, until mankind-proper comes onto the scene, homo sapiens-civilisatiens. Perhaps the Israelites of 900BCE who were consolidating their tribals myths (which would be written down in the Torah a few hundred years later), knew that really there had only been 3 or 4 thousand years of history prior to them. Those 3,000 years were all they cared about - the rest was just context. Those centuries contained all the developments from the point of mankinds real inception - all our drama and cultural/conscious evolution has happened in that miniscule space of time. By then we were distinct from the animal kingdom, and our "noosphere" of self-aware consciousness had formed a world independent of the material environment. Prior to that, man was just another species at the mercy of our environment.

So, I wonder what the relation between the point that mankind became able to conceive its own history, mankind's awareness of itself, and the actual event of history is. We take for granted a particular view of time: we think of the beginning (big bang), a series of moments, billions of years, all progressing through to the point of 'now' that we inhabit. But this reductionist view is only one way of understanding.

It has been mooted in physics circles that the past only happens when consciousness is able to think backwards - ie, the past is created retrospectively from the point of the present. This implies that there is no past, only the now: the point of awareness creates the illusion of previous moments in a linear sequence. So we in fact create a history that never was. There was no beginning, only the now, looking outward and imagining concepts such as 'before' and 'after'. The past being an established 'fact' which leads mechanically to the 'now' is a view we have to challenge. The past is just as much a fiction, a creation of the single truth of consciousness (which exists only in the eternal present), as the future.

dates and facts for those interested: agriculture was developed somewhere between 8,000 and 4,000BCE. The first sproutings of civilisation were in Mesopotamia (Sumer, as it was known then; Iraq as we call it now) and Egypt between 4,000 and 3,000BCE, with the first evidence of 'cuneiform' writing dated to 3100BCE in Mesopotamia...the biblical 'year of creation' is 4004BCE. Human civilisation, human existence as we know it, has existed for a mere five to six thousand years. Absolutely everything that we know of humans doing has happened in that infinitessimal dot of time.

The Liberation of Consciousness

"Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language" (Ludwig Wittgenstein)

I believe fundamentally in the liberation of the human spirit. This is all I believe in, and all that I work towards. The emancipation of intellect from the categories and hollow forms that bewitch it; the freedom of mind from the cage of intellect; and the growth of life, consciousness itself, beyond the boundaries of individual mind.

This is the ultimate aim of all philosophy; and indeed, at its source, all religion. Philosophy has always served the purpose of disambiguation. It serves to demonstrate where the truth lies behind the veils that obscure our sight. The veils are language (that which conceals both thought and experience within the narrow concepts of society, and tricks us into thinking in terms defined by the lowest common denominator), social custom (that which defames individuality and the perspective of true consciousness by placing the so called objective above the subjective - and thereby replaces the most concrete, indubitable form of truth with an unknowable facticity stripped of perspective and therefore inapprehensible), and mind itself - that is, the false ego which itself is a creation of social custom and false categorisation. Selfhood is perhaps the most pernicious of all these three veils, but its effects can only be tackled once the initial pair have begun to be deconstructed. Our illusion of selfhood locks us tightly into consensual reality, creates self-ishness which divides us from our neighbour and is inherent in the consumptive, flaccid drive to satisfaction that controls our society. Only when we believe in a 'self' can we be manipulated by mass marketing and politicians. Only when we have a self-image to preserve and feed, do we let other people tell us what we need in order to be fulfilled. Only through the illusion of selfhood can we be led to forsake those around us and our environment, by believing that others' feelings are different from ours.

So, philosophy has always sought to liberate the spirit by means of disambiguation - by reminding us what life is actually about, and rediscovering the elementary truths concealed by our naive infatuations. Religion also has sought to do this, though the means of the mystics who gained these insights have been turned into dogma by those who misunderstood and had themselves not yet gained this perspicacity. They intuit the beauty and freedom of the mystic's soul and set it in stone, let it corrupt and disintegrate through the ravages of time and weather. This is the reason that religion must constantly renew itself - this is a large contributing factor in the multiplicity of religions and their apparent (surface) tensions. Anyone who has gone within their tradition and found the gem at its core reports the same colour stone, the same patterns it casts, for at the root of reality and consciousness there is only one truth. And that is consciousness itself.

The Teleological Suspension of the Objective

Fear and Trembling sets forth Soren Kierkegaard's attack on the absolute ethical system of Hegel. Using the example of the biblical patriarch Abraham (whom God tested by asking to sacrifice his own son Isaac), Kierkegaard shows how an individual can, through religious faith and a personal relationship with God, suspend the normally absolute code of ethics. Thereby, acts which normally - from an objective standpoint, would be considered immoral, in fact entail no evil; and because they are not comprehensible from a logical viewpoint, only from the 'absurdity' of irrational faith, they transcend the universal code and establish faith as the basis for something far more important than the everyday 'rules' of life.

The most important implication of Kierkegaard's teleological suspension of the ethical (as it is called), is not in its new, faith-based attitude toward morality: it is in the possibility of the particular ascending above the universal.

Kierkegaard does not dispose of the universal (as later existentialists would); he does not strip reality down to a purely subjective experience, meaning and truth inscribed only from the pen of the individual. He accepts that the universal is there as guide and rule. There is indeed a perfect form against which everything must be judged. We, the particular, the individual in manifestation, stand perpetually in relation to the awesome form of the Absolute. But this relation is not insusceptible to change - for the fluid power of particularity can at times break it banks and overcome the iron hand of objective Truth. At these times reality is turned inside out, and individual experience takes the upper hand, the power of A Mind, My Mind, reaches up and over the staticity of Mind the Form, and we realise the imperfection of that which is prefect. For the Absolute cannot change, has no ebb and flow, it has no power of adaptation. The personal only can approach and be influenced by situation, and in this way its imperfection is the very thing which makes it perfect.

And this in some small way is the meaning of life - that to be an individual, no matter how weak, corrupt and ephemeral we are, tossed between the hands of destiny and lost in the flow of statistic and chemical interchange, we still can overcome all of reality, and place ourselves above that which defines truth; we can, by means of subjectivity, rewrite the rules of reality.

The Dangers of Language

"Our own language has been invented for the purpose of expressing our own experience. When we use it for discussing other peoples' we assimilate their experience into our own". (RG Collingwood, The Principles of Art)

It's funny how much of our lives we live entirely within the realm of symbolism. The human mind interprets experience in terms of concepts, words. This is a beautifully unique capability of human beings (to our knowledge), but the problems it generates - and conceals - hold a curious fascination for me.

Language is essentially a limiting force; it reduces experience into universally comprehensible units of data. The word 'chair' is the universal form of particular instances. The word represents all and anything which falls under the concept 'chair'. Plato argued that the universal is the true expression of an object - that particulars are but shadows of the universals that the human mind utilises. But this misses so much of the quality and impact of the particular. Imagine the difference between the word chair and the experience of a chair! While Plato is correct in seeing the purity and eternity of the universal (the concept represented by the word), it is also an etiolated, bloodless extraction from reality. All power has gone from it, stripped and corrupted from reality into mindstuff. Meaning without experience.

But all symbolism does this, for communication demands it. There is no other way to transfer an experience from my mind into yours. We must reduce reality to a vastly simplified representation...and just as MP3s grow in size as they grow in quality, the amount of information in our communication increases exponentially as we try to do the experience justice - to give the listener more depth and quality, we have to use more and more words.

But there is a crucial problem here: it is impossible to give a completely accurate description of an experience. Language always masks the particular by translating it into a universal, and no matter how hard we try we cannot fully communicate the depth of an experience without the listener being in exactly the same place at the same time. In effect, the representation would need to mirror the experience on an atomic level, so that it was precisely the same as the original. But, still the listener would not know how the experience felt to us. Our experiences are based on associations and past experiences (again the dreaded 'concept' enters the equation...we colour an experience of the sun, for example, by what we know of it, and what we have experienced of it before. One who has seen an eclipse in all its glory, or understands the nuclear process ocurring within it from moment to moment, is not experiencing the same sun as one who knows nothing of these wonders).

Experience itself, in all its unthinkable glory (that is, unintellectualisable - or undepictable) cannot be transferred between minds. It can only be more or less represented, a general sense given and we hope that too much isn't lost in the translation. Essentially though, the more different someone's experiences (including their feelings about the source objects/relations), the less they will comprehend our own meaning behind the words.

Precisely this is the beauty and the danger of symbol, of language. Of concept. The experience loses so much in being reduced to language. So much of our experience is cauterised by the boundaries of intellect and language that our understanding of reality is often more like an autopsy than a marriage. It is the inexpressible that is truly captivating, and this is what is killed by representation.

The return to subjectivity within philosophy, the gauntlet that Kierkegaard threw down to Hegel and his followers, represents this same knowledge: that the universal may be perfect, but its meaning and impact is nothing compared to first-hand, lived experience. Logic shrinks into insignificance when faced with everyday life.

Descartes in NOT WRONG shock