Friday, March 04, 2022

Metaphysics and God's Waiting Room

Maybe I'm a little slow, but yesterday it occurred to me just how radically opposed are Schuon's and Thomas's approaches to metaphysics. I mean, I've noticed it before, but only now do I have sufficient familiarity with Thomas to raise my hand and venture an opinion.

I'm not saying that one is right and the other wrong; it may even be that the two approaches are complementary, which is always our default position in these ultimate questions, where the One necessarily bifurcates into two, with the result that Philosophical Man generally tries to reduce one to the other.

For example, the One is presumably beyond our categories of subject and object, but bifurcates into them on contact with existence and finitude, so to speak. 

Thus, it can appear as if ultimate reality is pure subject, but this approach congeals into the cosmic heresy of idealism; alternatively, we can equate the One with the cosmos, a la Spinoza, and thereby commit the intrinsic heresy of pantheism. 

There is of course truth in each, and in general we can say that such ultimately partial crocktrines are true in what they affirm but false in what they deny: pure transcendence denies immanence, and vice versa. We need a doctrine that affirms both without reducing one to the other, nor compromising the essential unicity of God.

Anyway, if metaphysics is literally what comes after physics (in the classic Aristotelian scheme), then it seems to me that Schuon very much approaches it from the other end, in that metaphysics comes first, not last. Call it antephysics, or something.

In the Aristotelian framework, metaphysics concerns those things after the ones about the natural world. Prof. Wiki adds that it is the doctrine that he refers to sometimes as Wisdom, sometimes as First Philosophy, and sometimes as TheologyOne only ventures into it once one has explained the visible and tangible world, and wishes to proceed over its horizon to their ultimate cause(s), i.e., the perennial questions of 

What is existence, and what sorts of things exist in the world? How can things continue to exist, and yet undergo the change we see about us in the natural world? And how can this world be understood?

This seems like a lot of work for a lazy man such as myself. Indeed, such a man wishes to believe he has access to ultimate reality without having to deal with the hassle of leaving the slackatoream and mastering real subjects. Our exemplars are folks such as, oh, Lao-tzu, who was able to capture the whole existentialada in an immortal pneumagraph consisting of a mere 81 stanzas (the Tao Te Ching). 

Of the actual man Lao-tzu we know next to nothing -- or about as much as will be known about the mysterious Gagdad Bob (GB to his imaginary friends) in 2500 years. Neither left any traces of what was going on behind that beatific and/or idiotic smile. As for LT,

Like an Iroquois woodsman, he left no traces. All he left us was his book: the classic manual on the art of living, written in a style of gemlike lucidity, radiant with human and grace and largeheartedness and deep wisdom: one of the wonders of the world (Stephen Mitchell).

Of GB, it was said that he spent 12 years happily toiling as a retail clerk (apocryphally on the "graveyard" shift) before "they" (the conspiracy) put him on the dayshift, and he spent nearly three decades pretending to be a "psychologist" before disappearing entirely into the night and fog of primordial slack. 

GB left us two books, the first one an essentially frivolous monument to perpetual juvenilia, the second an unfinished symphony of truth, so to speak, which one can read from either end and which culminates in the middle (or "top"), where there is a page that says ?! and nothing more. 

It is difficult to say whether this primordial questiomation point -- ?! -- is a cry for help, a plea to be left alone, or perhaps even a medical emergency. We just don't know.

Of the two halves of this mysterious artifact, one side proceeds from the material/objective/empirical world "up to" this (?!), while the other half proceeds in the opposite direction, from the (?!) back down to our familiar world of time and space. 

Thus, like the first book it is not so much circular as spiroidal. What other form could possibly be adequate to the subject? Obviously linearity wouldn't cut it, nor did GB pretend to be a poet, nor even gay. 

A few more features are known of GB's manual, or at least can be pieced together from hurriedly scribbled notes in books from his vast library. At times these notes appear contradictory, but whatever. Here is one example, and don't be surprised if you have no idea what he's driving at, since he probably didn't know either. Did his reach exceed his grasp? Or was it the other way around? I suppose it depended on the day.

Before the first --> view from inside cosmos --> ascent

  First part of the first part --> reality of appearances

   Second part of the first part (limits of science)

     Middle Earth (Incarnation / new Word Order / Resurrection) 

    First part of the last part --> descent --> science of the limitless

   Last part of the last part --> reality of appearances

Beyond the last --> view from outside cosmos

So, yeah, this is the type of nonsense we're dealing with. 

Let's get back to our main subject, which is Schuon's infra- or pre- or antephysics; the foyer of the Creation, as it were. I'm going to have to leave in a few minutes, so we'll get as far as we can. Perhaps the time constraint will spur us to make it less wooly.

God's waiting room. That's where we are. How long before we see God? Is he overbooked? Never mind. Please fill out these forms, and one of his nurses will be with you shortly.

I would like to write a sentence this simple, this lucid, this universal, and this effingcacious: 

The first thing that should strike man when he reflects on the nature of the Universe is the primacy of the miracle of intelligence -- or consciousness or subjectivity -- whence the incommensurability between it and material objects, whether a grain of sand or the sun, or any creature whatever as an object of the senses (Schuon). 

Reminds us of an aphorism:

The sentence should have the stone’s hardness and the branch’s trembling.

Schuon further describes "the primacy of thought -- hence of consciousness or of intelligence -- in relation to the material world surrounding us" (emphases mine).

So again, while a Thomist would say that all knowledge begins in the senses, for Schuon it begins with the bare phenomenon of thought itself, a position with which I would tend to agree, since there can be nothing weirder or more unexpected -- literally miraculous, really, -- than its appearance in a not only merely dead but really most sincerely dead universe:

Nothing is more absurd than to have intelligence derive from matter, hence the greater from the lesser; the evolutionary leap from matter to intelligence, is from every point of view the most inconceivable thing that could be (ibid.).

(?!), literally. 

Tuesday, March 01, 2022

Empires of Time, Prisons of Space

In his Light on the Ancient Worlds, Schuon makes a number of points that go to our clear-as-muditations on progress, history, and the divine-human relations therein. 

For example, he writes of the inevitability of imperialism, whether for good or ill or worse:

Imperialism can come either from Heaven or simply from the earth, or again from hell; be that as it may, what is certain is that humanity cannot remain divided into a scattering of independent tribes; the bad would inevitably hurl themselves upon the good, and the result would be a humanity oppressed by the bad and hence the worst of all imperialisms.

This goes to the incessant tribe-on-tribe violence among native Americans we've been discussing. Note that it's not so much the Indians who are the problem, as a fragmented organization in which it only makes sense to be wary of strangers: more tribes, more conflict.  

Come to think of it, I have a big book called The Parable of the Tribes, which I've never actually read, but believe this to be its thesis. (How's that for a scholarly reference!)

Best I can do is quote Professor Backflap, who may be able to provide a clue as to why I purchased this book way back in 1980s. He begins with one of those gedankenexperiments:

Imagine a group of tribes living within reach of one another. If all choose the way of peace, then all may live in peace. But what if all but one {cough Putin cough} choose peace?

The question answers itself: every tribe needs to be armed to the teeth and paranoid to the hilt. More generally,  

Why is the world so beset by alienation, tyranny, and destruction? The parable of the tribes is a theory of social evolution that offers answers to these and myriad related questions....

When human beings became the first creatures to invent their own way of life, their societies appeared to become free to develop as people might wish. But what may have been freedom for any single society adds up to anarchy in the interacting system of societies. 

In this anarchy, civilized societies were condemned to engage in a struggle for power.... And the earth became a place where no one is free to choose peace, but anyone can impose upon all the necessity for power (italics in original).

Just as it takes only one bad driver to create gridlock, it takes only one assoul to bring about a World Crisis, even if this assoul is basically in charge of a gas station with nuclear weapons. I read that even Switzerland -- which remained neutral in World War II -- is going to start charging Putin a hefty checking fee or something.

Anyway, I suppose imperialism is the best of crimes and the worst of crimes. Think of India. Before the arrival of the British, they were burning widows, even the good looking ones. Thus,

What may be called the imperialism of the good constitutes therefore a sort of inevitable and providential preventative war; without it no great civilization is conceivable (Schuon).

You could say that the motto of such great civilizations is: E Pluribus Unum. Or else. There's an element of force, but I guess it's preferable to the old Hobbesian war of all against all. 

Which in turn goes to our contemporary progressive barbarians, i.e., the Great Leap Backward of multicultural tribalism and identity politics.

Monday, February 28, 2022

Hope, History, Boredom, and Melancholy

Although I strongly agree with much, if not most, of what Schuon has written, I could never have been a formal student, and besides, he would never have had me. For where we disagree, we really disagree. 

A case in point is on the question of Progress. Let's start with whether or not it exists, and in what sense. Certainly it doesn't exist in the "progressive" sense, but progressivism nevertheless ironically proves the existence of progress, in that it causes it to go backward, precisely (whether in academia, aesthetics, aberrant sexuality, antiracism, autocracy, illegal aliens -- and that's just the A's). 

A case in point would be energy production and all it entails (and it entails a great deal more than you might realize, cf. the highly raccoommended The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels, by Alex Epstein; I see that he has a sequel coming out in April, Fossil Future: Why Global Human Flourishing Requires More Oil, Coal, and Natural Gas -- Not Less).

Under President Trump we made tremendous progress in this area, while under Brandon we have executed a U-turn and careened backward in the name of "progress" in order to combat the wholly imaginary Existential Crisis of Catastrophic Climate Change. 

This post could veer in any number of insultaining directions, but let's stay focused.

For Schuon, progress "is the very negation of any celestial origin"; it tends to give with one hand what it yoinks with the other, and he's not wrong: 

All too often things which some people call “useful” are anything but useful in their results. “Progress” is healing a paralytic while depriving him of his sight.

More often than not progress is simply 

the exchange of one evil for another, otherwise our age would be perfect and sanctified. In the world of man, as it is in itself, it is scarcely possible to choose a good; one is always reduced to the choice of a lesser evil, and in order to determine which evil is the less, there is no alternative but to relate the question to a hierarchy of values derived from eternal realities, and that is exactly what “our age” never does.

But the question is whether this eternal standard is in past or in the future; ultimately it goes to the nature of time itself, and whether time brings only deterioration and distance from this ideal, or whether this ideal is in the future.

Now we're getting somewhere, i.e., this post is making a bit of progress.

I've been thinking about this question as a result of reading a book called The Lord of History, which I cannot recommend. Another placeholder, as it were, while I wait for the mailman to bring me something better. Nevertheless, let's make the most of the teacher God has given us: give us this day our daily bread.  

I suppose it really comes down to whether time is reversible or irreversible. Interestingly, physics itself can't fully account for time's irreversibility, at least last time I checked. 

I just googled this: 

While we take for granted that time has a given direction, physicists don’t: most natural laws are 'time reversible' which means they would work just as well if time was defined as running backwards (https://www.sciencealert.com/what-is-time-and-why-does-it-move-forward).

Nevertheless, as we all know from everyday experience, time

has a direction, you always move forward, never in reverse. So why is the dimension of time irreversible? This is one of the major unsolved problems in physics.

The second law of thermodynamics is relevant, as is the collapse of the wave function in quantum physics. Still, these don't get us very far in explaining the gap between baboons and Beethoven. 

At any rate, when Christianity first made its appearance on the world stage, it was antagonistic to Greek thought, wherein the divine "consists in the unmoved eternal order of Ideas":

Immutable law, whether of nature or of society, represents to the senses the changeless eternity of the intelligible world. The phenomenon of movement itself is an imitation of immobility, being conceived as cyclical, both in the regular motions of the heavenly bodies and in the eternal recurrence which governs the course of history, so that the same events will be everlastingly repeated. 

By going round in a circle, even change thus conforms to the stable eternity of the ideal world, and no longer implies innovation (Danielou).

In ancient thought, there's no way around this depressingly absurcular roundness of temporality. No progress for you! 

The opposition is fundamental between this conception and the Christian belief in a unique, irrevocable value belonging to the historical Incarnation. 

It seems that the Incarnation includes and redeems history, which is convenient, since man cannot be man without existing in and as history. Moreover, 

It is this belief in the irreversibility of salvation that gives rise to the Christian virtue of hope, in contrast to the characteristic melancholy which flows from the Greek acceptance of an endless repetition. 

Speaking of which, this reminds me of something Champlain observed about the Indians, who, like other pagan peoples, were condemned to Nietzche's Eternal Return: on the one hand, Champlain "always regarded them as human beings like himself, and remarked on their intelligence. Often he commented on their physique and appearance, which was superior to European contemporaries." And yet... 

"And yet they are somewhat saturnine." 

By saturnine, writes Fischer, Champlain "meant that they had an undertone of melancholy." This "interested him, and he reflected much on it." I don't know what he concluded, but depression and hopelessness are always conjoined. 

I don't recall Schuon writing anything about hope and history, but Dávila provides a number of helpful hints:

For history to be of concern to us, there must be something in it that transcends it: There must be something in history more than history.

Nothing that satisfies our expectations fulfills our hopes.

History would be an abominable farce if it were to have a worldly culmination.

If history made sense, the Crucifixion would be superfluous.

Christ was in history like a point on a line. But his redemptive act is to history as the center is to the circumference.