On Multiple Worlds

On Multiple Worlds

            But to defy the world is a serious business, and requires the greatest courage, even if the defiance touch in the first place only the world’s ideals. Most men’s conscience, habits and opinions are borrowed from convention and gather comforting assurances from the same social consensus that originally suggested them. To reverse this process, to consult one’s own experiences and elicit one’s own judgment, challenging those in vogue, seems too often audacious and futile; but there are impetuous minds born to disregard the chances against them, even to the extent of denying that they are taking chances at all. (Santayana, 1954:170-1 [1905]).

                Our seemingly conflicted consciousness is so because it has come into being from a combination of two distinct worlds. That there are two hemispheres, associated with specific structures and patterns of cognition, is likely more of a practicality on the part of the evolutionary brain rather than a direct reflection of the bifurcate sensorium into which such a cognition has been placed and through which it has come to be. What are these worlds, then, that have combined both surreptitiously and yet surrendered each other to their combination?

            One is the world of nature. In nature we discover that which at least resembles an ontology different from our own, as expressed in a myriad of both animal and static forms all capable of being understood through the purely mathematical frames which seem to, in their turn, speak the language of the cosmos into conscious being. Nature is generally seen as discrete from culture, if not in opposition to it. This latter regard comes not from science but rather from a pre-scientific understanding of the natural world, at once the source of life and at the same time possessed of the ever-present threat of death. An animal may be eaten or it may eat me. Nature is thus presented to consciousness as itself a bicameral expression, with the living and dying played out by anonymous process and dispassionate dynamic. As such, there is nothing more nature can give to an intelligent being conscious of itself in a wholly different manner than what we can discern in nature; one that is both self-conscious and comprehending of time.

            Two is the social world. Schutz’s ‘multiple realities’, from which the title of this essay is borrowed, differ from one another, often in radical ways, but they all share the absolute placement within the social reality of the world of humanity. To say that ‘nothing human is alien to me’ is also to say that what is not human might well be alien and remain so by definition. We also take the risk that our inhumanity, no matter how much we might desire to suppress it or to shove it away from us and thus into another world, might, through its own sense of counter-ressentiment, take a further vengeance upon us by devolving the social world into a lower nature, abject and petty, as if what is merely ‘red in tooth and claw’ by happenstance would itself become calculated and thus create an enduring evil.

            Between the world of nature and the world of culture there exists the conscious mind. Its basic architecture, its neuro-chemistry, its autonomic and proprioceptive functions, are all products of evolutionary Gestalts. They are what remains of nature in ourselves. Insofar as we do not yet understand the whole of it, consciousness yet appears as a kind of microcosmic miracle. Nature has overleapt itself in its creation, and we need not make any kind of ideological or even customary distinction between these two loaded terms, ‘creation’ and ‘evolution’. Evolution has indeed created itself and recreated itself due to its temporal suasion, and thence may boast of creations and even to a certain extent, an unknowing creativity, in its living expressions of itself. But this is where nature leaves off and culture begins, and if there is a liminality to this moment, attested to by the sense that we will never be able to precisely identify the ‘thing’ that made our primordial ancestors differ just enough from their direct predecessors to begin the lengthy journey to modern humanity, it is not a fatal mystery to admit to ourselves that something of the sort must have occurred in any case. We have, in a word, all of the evidence we need to hoist such a claim aboard the complex apparatus of our scientific vessel.

            Similarly, the heroic quest to observe the beginning of the current universe is made so only by its deeper calling; that of it also being a witness to creation. In that we cannot ever see the moment when the first proto-humans walked the earth, the ‘Big Bang’ will serve as both a grander event but also one that consciousness seeks as its ultimate birthright. And it is this specific idealization that marks culture over against nature. The one seeks the origin of the other to finally prove the difference between them, yes, but also to at least nod to the fact that nature and culture are mutually imbricated in a manner unknown to any of our ancestors, those unaccountably distant or those historical. In seeking origins, we seek not merely a genealogy of life, but rather a meaning for a consciousness which in turn seeks to go beyond its own life. And the chief manner by which this being overtakes itself is by calling not nature into question, but rather culture. Nature serves as a validation not for norms, but rather for awareness, something more than simply sentience.

            But if the quest to witness creation is heroic, even noble, the assertion of one’s own singular mind against the social world, no matter how courageous, is fraught with all bad conscience as well as buoyed by good faith. The one who embarks upon this task will at first and at best tread only water. She seeks blood, even marrow, but these prizes of the thinker, artist and authentic critic alike will more than likely be bequeathed to others who follow upon her cultural quest and seek as well to build upon it. This is the truer heart so brave; that my exposition of the world of humanity will benefit me not at all, and thus cannot be called upon to either lend cantor to, let alone vouchsafe, my actions. And if the challenger seeks not merely analysis but also change, then let it be said such would be noticed only as part of the human future altered from its pastness; my germs come to fruits long after they had been sowed.

            Too long? In ‘disregarding chance’, we not only interpret happenstance in the usual and mundane sense of what is more or less probable, but as well, and more meaningfully, as a kind of method by which to object to the social world, its ‘consensus’, ‘conventions’ and ‘comforting assurances’. In this everyday chapel wherein ‘society worships itself’, we have exited by the rear doors or yet perhaps a window, but we have not yet either been excommunicated or charged with arson. The church stands yet, and indeed must do so, otherwise there would be none of the social factuality needed for the revolutionary mind to call upon in evidence of her novel claims. All religion, according to Durkheim, is in fact civil religion. He makes a conscious effort to remind us that there is no other moral order than that found within the social world. Nature is non-moral, and the otherworldly but a projection and a metaphor. Even the ultimate ‘reality’ of nature must be docketed in lieu of an understanding that overtakes its human and historical sources. If we humans are the local ‘eyes and ears of the cosmos’ these senses retain their humanity, and especially so, given that the very unimaginable vastness of nature in its grandest expression is also its most anonymous, distant, and empty vista. We create meaning in the face of the void, whether that be the personal and singular outcome of my human finitude, or the uncounted firmaments to be beheld only from and within our paltry moment.

            Since we cannot critique the cosmos – such would be purposeless and also baseless; nature is what it is and nothing more – all the more so may we be given to questioning what culture has wrought in its stead. By all means, the conceptions of cosmos over different eras and even epochs may be called into question, for that is part and parcel of the wider human endeavor; not only in the scientific sense of ‘have we gotten it right?’, but also in that philosophical: why is cosmos, as order and as ordered, so important for us? What is the culture of nature? For young people, this is a reasonable arena with which to begin the examined life. Not the social world entire, for we have not yet lived long enough to experience its self-expression, nor the self, which has not yet fully developed in the lights, both lurid and inspired, of what each culture has to offer its youth. Even so, the advent of critique necessitates an ever-steepening slope; from the naïve ‘why’ questions that accede to purely scientific responses, to the questioning of local norms, to the resistance against institutions, most often family and school, and then ever onwards to the impious querying of ideals and the ‘shooting at morals’ which is the penultimate duty of the thinker and artist alike. At every juncture, we ourselves are as well a target. For who, within their ‘right-mindedness’, would bring down the whole of it? The social world is the human cosmos after all.

            Hence Santayana’s cautious paean to all those who are not only members of the same guild to which he belonged and to which he brought such noble value, but more generously and also more importantly, to any human being. It is our shared and collective birthright to know the social, yes, but it is equally so our enlightened human duty to question it to the point of historical oblivion, if indeed what is exposed departs from our highest ideals, as it regularly does. And while nature will always remain aloof to our entreaty and ignorant of our will, culture is of our own creation and thus possession. The social world exhibits merely the simulacrum of eternity, and even the cosmos of nature is not itself timeless. That we live inside the question of our own existence should not be seen as a too-cunning conundrum, generating only misery and angst, pathos and melancholy. Rather it is the very thrownness of being which we are; resolute in our being-ahead, caring in our anxiety, concernful in our running along. Who better to respond to such a question that, though it bears the historicity of existence alone, marks us in our essence with a history of ontology that is shared and which constitutes our specific nature.

            The natural world need not answer any questions; this is its nature and its essence. And the social world cannot answer to itself, only for itself, in quotidian quota and mundane malaise. But the questioner, since she too is a social being, opens up the space wherein novel responses can be known. She is her own force of nature within the cosmos of culture, she is that which creates in the face of creation, she is the sole arbiter of the un-moralized sentiment and deconstructed structure which is society that was. We should not expect the social world as constructed and maintained by our predecessors to provide reasonable responses to the questions of the day. At most, it can cover for those who deny the questioner’s birthright and therefore suppress their own. In this, the social world betrays its cowardice in the same manner as does the questioner exhibit her courage. Shall we ourselves then hesitate when faced with such a transparent parentage on both sides? Shall we run for such cover, or shall we stand and uncover both the best and the worst that culture has gifted unto the history of the now?

            G.V. Loewen is the author of fifty-five books in ethics, education, aesthetics, religion, health and social theory, as well as fiction. He was professor of the interdisciplinary human sciences for over two decades.