Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Cosmic Models

When we imagine myths of the world, even one of a small part of it, the tale must match the subject. Now any one human life certainly fits the personal scale, but it cannot be viewed except in a broader context: we all live our lives embedded in history’s flow. I was a small pebble but rolled along by the enormous weather of the twentieth century. You cannot reach a moderately educated level unaware of history’s depth or nature’s incredible complexity.

Whatever the human story, it is a vast tale of great moment and scope and cannot be reduced to simple concepts. In effect reality, even the portions of it we can see, cannot be fitted to a line of logic; it requires a saga at the least. To say that much is also to admit that we cannot really know the big picture in the full. It’s damnably difficult even to know a small part of the physical world. I recall one of my incarnations and remember how little we know about something like cement—and we know a lot about it.

This by way of commentary on models of reality. The philosophical attempts that come close to being satisfying have an architectural character or depict a dynamic process, usually triadic. Monistic systems tend to be rather pathetic because they have no point.

The Aristotelian scheme, completed by Thomas Aquinas, is a static structure built up out of the duality of matter and form. These may be rendered as the potential and the actual or, in other phrasing, the virtually nonexistent (unformed matter) and absolute Being, pure form or actuality, God. “Potential” is one of those wonderfully ambiguous concepts; it exists in a way but in another “not yet.” The Thomistic system ultimately feels incoherent; it has matter but doesn’t really need it. In a cosmos where immaterial beings exist, materiality requires some kind of justification; the theory doesn’t justify it. To be coherent this philosophy requires that duality be extended upward (ever more subtle matter to match ever more exalted spirit) or spirit must be extended downward (matter is thus densified spirit).

Taoism is a triadic, dynamic system in that it provides a creative and receptive (Yang, Yin) which account for the dynamism of the Tao. As a description of reality the Tao is flawless: freedom and necessity in motion forming an unnamable third which is their origin and their expression. The Tao is the ultimate cosmic building kit. You find it hidden beneath just about every cosmology ever made. It’s there in Aristotle, Yin being matter, Yang being form. At it is, however, it requires enormous restraint simply to accept as is. People are tempted to elaborate.

Monistic systems take one or the other of the two elements of Tao and exclude the other. There is Schopenhauer’s Will—which is everything. There is materialism’s Matter—ditto.

The philosophies, however, ultimate stop short of meaning. There is no personality here—although in systems where it’s introduced, it is the Yang. The great sagas introduce meaning by way of a drama in which the two are in conflict for one or several cosmic ages. We are usually minor participants, sometimes at the center (as in Christianity). And our fates are part of the greater history of a vast heavenly turbulence.

The really effective cosmologies—such as, for instance, the fable of the Island—provide a story that goes beyond our direct experience in order to explain its intuited origins and its felt continuation beyond death, but do not attempt to lay down an absolute and final meaning for the entire process. Our inner guidance actually rejects a final explanation. Our intuition (mine anyway) says that the ultimate picture is not knowable from our perspective.

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