Thursday, December 4, 2008


The scientists of the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries lacked the imagination to understand the nightmarish nature of what they were supposedly trying to achieve in their ambition to arrive at a definitive understanding of reality: the nightmare of a finite universe, a universe with a hard frontier, so to speak, against which one can knock one’s head. They failed to see, because of their lack of imagination, that such a universe is a coffin in which humanity would lie incapable of further life. They were like children who find uncannily frightening the thought of endless space and time! How cold it feels, how impersonal; let us tame it and cut it down to our size! But this again is the result of a lack of imagination. We cannot function as humans except as we are conscious of our own finite location and enclosed space (our house, our theory, our club, our world). But most of us fail to understand that we also rely psychologically on the location of that comfortable and comforting finitude within an impenetrable and incomprehensible infinity, on which it somehow depends. We cannot bear a finite universe alone and we cannot bear an infinite universe alone: we have to have both. Our intellect is a tension of opposites all of which derive ultimately from the fundamental opposition of infinity and finitude.
If one considers logic to be inherent in the universe – rather than merely in our intellect – and the universe, by that token to be founded on logically necessary principles, then the universe cannot be other than mechanistic and wholly determined. Every possible event has to be the working out of the basic algorithm. It can only be a closed, mechanical system; and moreover it will be graspable by our intellect. If one regards the universe as ultimately rationally comprehensible in mechanical terms, however, one by that belief condemns oneself to the intolerable thought (and if you don’t find it intolerable, you have not experienced the full horror of it) of living in a coffin, of being buried alive for all eternity. One condemns oneself to the sterile and trivial repetition of all things as in Nietzsche’s Eternal Return of the Same. This thought is intolerable and therefore even if it were true, it has to be untrue. An entirely determined universe goes nowhere and does nothing; its apparent movement is mere mechanical repetition; and the sum total of all its repetitions is precisely this: nothing at all happens.
What is the smallest dwelling a man can inhabit? His skull? His cottage? His castle? A club? An empire? A universe?
There are those who would love to shrink us to the size of the space defined by our own skin, our own skull, the matter of our own brain, and nothing more. There are those whose mystical fervour identifies us with an intelligence, or at least a mind, intelligent or not, that envelopes the whole of nature. It is not difficult to see who is mistaken in this debate. An infinite universe, an ungraspable universe, is surely the smallest thing that the self of a man or woman can live in; and even that is not big enough. We need a known universe that arises coherently out of an unknown universe. Any universe which we inhabit has by definition to arise as a function of something that for our experience-dominated cognition has to remain completely abstract. Only thus can we make the notion of a finite universe tolerable: by making it infinite. We want the universe, and we want the universe to be a universe we understand; but in our deepest selves, we want the universe’s inscrutable progenitor even more.

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