For the past two mornings, sunlight has streamed through my window – great shafts of light with thousands of dust particles dancing around. What a sight! And in January, one of the gloomiest months – such indulgence! My immediate conclusion (without thinking or reflection) was to smile and say out loud ‘How beautiful! The world is beautiful’, before making the mistake of thinking about it. My mind flicked to one of England’s most beautiful counties; Cumbria, and images of some its villages submerged under water filled my mind. That wasn’t beautiful at all, quite the opposite. No, nature (and the world) is both beautiful and ugly, or if we flip it around: neither one nor the other. It just is.
What this really means is that the only way we objectify the world is by our subjectivity. Sunlight can destroy just as it can nourish, and the same can be said for the wind and the rain. From this perspective, to fetishize nature (or the world as it is) is a mistake and a false attachment. However, we are also part of nature, as is our subjective consciousness, which enables us to navigate life’s travails and pleasures, and indeed, to decide which one is which.
The desire to find objective beauty, happiness, or contentment, is the same desire to find objective meaning and God. From here, we feel confident making moral judgements; separating the beautiful from the ugly; good from evil; and the holy from the profane. But herein lies the rub: by which external standard are we to derive an objective understanding?
The world is all we know, and no matter how far science advances, we will never be able to know what Kant called ‘the thing in itself’. Many religious people seem to agree with this to a certain point. What they do, however, is substitute science’s natural limitations with an all-encompassing theology which claims to solve the problem. It doesn’t. It just moves the question along. The proclamation of divine knowledge, espoused with idiotic certainty, is best demonstrated with the God-as-first-cause argument.
I have had many conversations with credulous Christians and Muslims who think that this is the best weapon in their arsenal. Science, they say, can never reveal the ‘thing in itself’ (although they never actually use this phrase.) When I point out that merely postulating a Creator God doesn’t deal with where he comes from; they genuinely don’t seem to understand. The same can be said for the ‘finely tuned universe’ argument. If just one of the cosmic settings – if one of the numbers in the equations that seem to determine what nature is were out by a mere fraction – then the universe as we know it couldn’t exist and it would be curtains for all life forms, they opine. The obvious rebuttal is: why did the Creator God make the world with such inbuilt precarity? With no other comparable standard, what they are really doing is theologising an existing objective reality.
It’s just the world As It Is. We live on a permanent knife edge.
What sense does it make to think of ‘first causes’ anyway? A beginning, a middle and an end – how very western. But if one looks closer, the metaphysical trick is revealed: before the beginning there was infinity (God), and the end is also infinite because God can never end. As far as I know, theoretical physics postulates a beginning of time; a ‘big bang’; a singularity. At a certain point, all these discussions merge into one: different attempts (some more ingenious than others) to crack the nut of the ‘thing in itself’.
The ‘thing in itself’ remains uncracked.
Time is an endless river. It never started and it will never end. There can only be endless cycles of life: death, decay, resurrection and so on. This is our best assumption, anything else either collaspes within its own logic, or lies beyond our ken. Beauty, ugliness, good, bad, happiness, sadness are inextricably linked in every object, relation and phenomenon. Attempts to separate them are merely idealist attempts by humanity to objectify what will always resist such crass categorisation.
And when we realise this, true meaning may be found, and a moral compass. The pressure is lifted if we accept that we are only brief candles in the dark. Thus what we experience, think, feel, hate and love will ultimately pass, as all things must. Here we can find true meaning mediated by our temporal existence within the infinite.
Tomorrow I will pray again for those shafts of light, or perhaps an orange sunset. For although time is infinite, it is also running out.