Moving through time

My blog entries about different ways of conceptualizing time (e.g., Three takes on time and The tree ring model of time) are all fine and fun, but what about the more personal anxiety that many people have – anxiety about aging and death. I’ve largely escaped this anxiety – maybe from reading the ancient Greeks at an early age, maybe from robust health and a good knack for living in the moment. Or maybe it’s my meditation in the park. Aging there seems peculiarly irrelevant. As I tune in to my surroundings, it’s clear that there is no ‘I’ growing old – it’s ‘we’ growing old – me, the grass, the old oaks, the little lizards, the sky and the universe – we’re all moving through time together. The idea that ‘I’ am aging relative to the world is an illusion. Somehow this perspective removes the anxiety.

Something similar, but not exactly the same, comes up in a weird episode of my speculative novel, Alice, where Alice makes a discovery in a shuttered museum. Here’s an excerpt for your amusement and edification.


Alice proceeded as quickly as seemed decorous, given the solemn aspect of the place, to the arched doorway at the interior end of the room. The next room was equally desolate but spacious. Four columns topped by groined arches ran down each side of what seemed the great hall. Concrete debris littered the floor. A dire-looking chandelier hung at the center, and under it was a simple folding chair and a large table. The table held some kind of old machine, and so what could Alice do but approach?

She sat in the chair and looked at the machine for a minute. Someone had been here. There was a wet circle on the table where someone had placed a glass or cup recently. There was a box of batteries at the far end of the table. The machine itself had a circular device with a button next to it, attached to a cylinder of some kind. Alice pushed the button and the circular device began to spin. She pushed again and it stopped. Three plastic discs lay between the device and the batteries. Were they pulled from a larger collection? Were they intended for some purpose? Or were they supposed to be hidden? Was Alice trespassing? Stirring up more trouble as everyone seemed to think she was doing just because she was a New Arcadian?

The last thought emboldened Alice. She put the first disc on the device and pushed the button.

* * *

A monk sat on a bench, engaged in a daily practice of reflection. Another monk approached and sat on the bench next to him.

“I am here, Brother Anselm,” said the second monk. “If you need me.”

“I know, Brother Hector,” said the first. “Thank you.”

Brother Anselm continued his practice, controlling his breath. Four breaths per minute. Three breaths per minute. Duckweed on the pond in front of the bench drifted like bits of green plastic clouds, forming slow shapes at the water line, breaking apart on the surface. Two breaths per minute. Drifting into transcendence. Time crawled to a stop. Alice could see all this happening on the wall-projected image. She could feel it. The gentle rat-a-tat of the machine continued.

But then she saw his anxiety. Time had stopped for the practicing monk. The rest of the world went on. There are things he should be doing. In his meditation, five minutes seemed like an hour. His mental images flitted across the screen. That was an hour that he could have spent baking bread with Brother Joseph or helping with the school play. Sometimes it seemed that the deeper the meditation, the slower his metabolism became, the more frantic he became that the world was flying by while he was idling.

Gradually, the whole thing flipped. The idea was not to slow oneself to a pace of contentment while the world rushed along in its course. In meditation, one could slow the world itself. When he slowed, his life slowed, the trees growing around the pond slowed, everything in the world slowed. He was not slowing down relative to the world; he was slowing down the world and himself within it. Alice could see it in the film. The eternal goalpost became more and more distant as time slowed. Like approaching the event horizon of a black hole. And then, as when one hits the horizon, time stopped and eternity was here.

Brother Anselm smiled. Alice could see in his smile that he had solved the problem of meditation as disengagement. It was not disengagement. It was a shaping force of reality. It had taken Brother Anselm many years of meditation, an enormity of reflection, to bring the world to pace. For Brother Hector, on the other hand, everything came in a flash. Alice could see into his mind. He didn’t need to think about things first. He didn’t need to go through all the hard work. He moved by quantum leaps.

“Funny thing about quantum leaps,” said Brother Anselm out loud. “No one can say ahead of time if they are in the right or the wrong direction.”

Then the camera panned back and Alice noticed something strange. The pond. It was her pond. A different time. Her pond. Mab’s pond. Maggie’s Hollow. But time passed. The monks disappeared. At the far end of the pond, a woman with long brown hair stood with her back to the camera. Then the rat-a-tat slowed to a tat . . . tat . . . tat.

The disc had run its course. Well, fair enough, thought Alice. No one has to know everything all in the same minute. She started the second disc.

* * *

God and the devil were walking in the Himalayas, jagged peaks and plains of ice, bamboo and stone below.

“I never knew why you did it,” said God.

“Did what?” asked the devil.

“Damned Adam and Eve.”

God gestured and the devil followed him into a small clearing behind the rocks. Strewn about were costumes of Greek gods and goddesses.

“I didn’t damn Adam and Eve,” said the devil, indignant. “You damned them. I was only trying to help.”

“Help? I gave them a pure soul and you ruined it.” God tossed a centaur costume at the devil.

“No,” said the devil. “Too obvious. You take the centaur costume. I’ll be Zeus.” He smiled at the thought.

God shrugged and fingered through the representations of Hermes, Hera, Hades, and a few others.

“You told them the soul was inside the body,” said the Devil. “That was a lie. You told them to look inward, forbade them the fruit of the outer garden, the joy of the senses, the senses that are always reaching outward, desire pushing them ever out into the world to discover its joys.”

“But those sensual joys are not the joys of the soul,” said God. And as if tripping over his own severity, God slipped, slid several feet below the clearing, almost into a small stream running down from the peaks. His antagonist caught him by the arm and helped him up. But in the combination of helping and laughing, the enemy slipped his own foot into the icy waters and let out a high-pitched yelp.

“Damn,” cried the Devil. “Not used to this cold water.”

The Devil then mocked God in a sing-songy voice of sarcasm.

“But those sensual joys are not the joys of the soul,” he mimicked.

Then he returned to his own voice and looked at God in earnest.

“You’re falling for your own tricks,” he said. They hobbled back to the clearing and to the weighty decision of costumes.

“The soul was always outside the body,” continued the Devil. “The joys I speak of, found in the world through the desiring senses, those are exactly the joys of the soul. The soul is not inside the body. The body is inside the soul. The soul is the universal body. And it must be explored. Your trick – trying to capture the universal soul, seal it inside the bodies of those poor creatures, Adam and Eve – it was just a trick. It couldn’t last. Sooner or later they would break the seal and rejoin the great outer soul. I just sped things up.”

They both stood and headed down the mountainside. The Devil had finally chosen the costume of Prometheus and God had settled upon Athena. They had crossed the tree line and were surrounded by rich vegetation.

“Ah, well,” said God. “A philosopher-devil. How comes it then that you fell from heaven while good ones stayed behind and lived in inner peace?”

“Relativity,” said the Devil. “I was rising up from the pit of heaven. From your point of view, it looked like a fall. For me it was a discovery.”

God aspirated in disgust, and the Devil gave an impish grin.

“You should join me, God. Before the festival. You have your costume and I have mine. Get away from all that nasty inwardness. Get out and explore the world, feel all the reflexes of the great outer soul.”

They paused to rest against a great rock, and God seemed to consider the Devil’s proposal. Then the rat-a-tat-tat slowed to a stop.

“Sorry, God and the Devil,” said Alice smartly. “One more to go.” And she put on the third disc.

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Wormholes / series / writing

Fantasy. Paranormal. Suspense. Popular genres today all seem to trend toward series writing. Maybe with changing technologies in publishing and reading, that’s where the market is. I’m not sure because marketing is a mystery to me. As a reader/writer engaged in the world of lit sans marketing, my opinion is that good books might well come in series, but great books are almost always standalones. Now that I have a few books out there (links below), let me ponder how, if at all, this opinion applies to my writing.

I don’t write series. Nor do I stick to one genre. Although I do believe genres can be useful tags – e.g., setting expectations that can help readers predict whether something suits their taste – best to treat genres as cloudy approximations. “Existence precedes essence,” Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. Similarly, the book precedes the genre. Leaving aside for now pulp fiction, which is written specifically to fit a preset genre, works of art, including novels-as-art, develop organically according to their own aesthetic, and once manifested in their own terms, it is the bookseller’s choice to more-or-less randomly determine which genre tags will best guide readers.

So my novels. I undertake each novel as a self-contained work of art, like a standalone sculpture. The concept of series just doesn’t fit my aesthetic register (not that my register is better than anyone else’s). Does this mean no threading between the (currently) five of them? Well, no. Take the latest, Alice. My previous novels blurred the lines of literary fiction, historical fiction, regional, magic realism, with one possibly cross-categorized as young adult as well as adult. Alice, though, is more of a post-apocalyptic adult hippie fairy tale – my first to occur in a fully imaginary setting. This put a new kind of pressure on me as a writer. Because the opening frame is like a weird, hippie fairy tale, one thing I needed was a population of characters who were individualized people and yet archetypal enough to match the fairy tale setting. So Alice’s little hamlet is populated by the rain king, the kleptomaniac, the sweeper, the mapmaker, the white witch, etc.

Besides the characters, though, another thing that holds the magical setting together is two kinds of wormholes. First, there are wormholes in time within Alice, enabling Alice to interact with a series of young women like herself – just coming into early adulthood – from different time periods. Different eras of history are, in effect, stacked up together and connected by wormholes. A lot of the metaphysical or philosophical elements of the novel, and Alice’s epiphanies, if you want to loosely call it a coming-of-age novel, come through these wormholes in time to other characters and settings.

In addition to the wormholes within Alice, wormholes thread into my other novels as well. I didn’t really plan it this way, but just as she interacts with characters across history, she interacts with characters across my writing corpus. Those characters carry their own baggage into Alice, but it’s not like you have to read the other novels to get this one. And it’s certainly not like a series, where you have a fixed setting and plot lines that continue more or less coherently across the books. It’s more like a character from another novel will pop up as Alfred Hitchcock popped up in his movies, but retaining the personality and baggage of the other novel. Again, each novel is a coherent, standalone whole and can be read as such, and yet there are these wormholes, these reverberations. There are touches of this in four of the five novels, sometimes working backwards (as in a character from the first novel, Mr. Robert’s Bones, might pop up in later novel, and the meaning that character acquires in the later novel reverberates back to the first).

The idea of independent novels with a connected underlay might bring up images of William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha County or Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. My wormholes, however, are different. Faulkner and Anderson each use that shared setting as an integrated space for their stories. My novels are not different stories transacted in the same space, but totally different spaces with wormholes randomly connecting them. And my wormholes don’t necessarily follow laws of space and time. Whereas in Faulkner you might get a collective setting that is realistic, integrated, coherent, my wormholes are almost a mockery of realistic coherence from the point of view of imaginative license.

This might sound outlandish, but if you think about it, this is not as unusual as it sounds. The history of literature is essentially a series of hyperlinks or wormholes, where all these novels and ideas and characters are continually building on each other, casting different lights and relevance on other novels. You don’t have to read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse to understand Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar or vice versa – I pick those two because they are both quite separate influences on Alice. Indeed, on the surface they are unrelated novels from different countries and eras, and I don’t even know if Brautigan read Woolf. And yet, when you do read both of them, you start to see how each can illuminate something about the other – just like the fool in King Lear can illuminate a character in a Camus novel, or Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein can illuminate aspects of 21st-century culture, just like anecdotes by Marx or Freud might cast a new angle of light backwards onto Shakespeare or Jane Austen, just like my Alice might make you want to go back and re-read Lewis Carroll’s Alice. It’s really wormholes everywhere. You can see an example of this in my own wormhole study of works by Umberto Eco and Bob Dylan. The history of literature is the history of all these continually interacting texts reverberating meaning off of each other. If literature has depth as well as surface, these wormholes are an essential part of the underground structure. And the organic development of wormholes across the landscape of literature is a fundamentally different activity than the deliberate production of novels in series.

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Zeno’s paradox revisited

Sitting in Tokyo over an innocent bowl of sake, my philosopher friend from London brought up Zeno’s paradox. Damn philosophers. Always something. He knows more about ancient Greek philosophy than I do, but let me have a go at it from the poet’s side of the field.


I guess Zeno’s paradox (5th century BC) comes in various forms, but I think of it in terms of space. Paradoxically, mathematically, motion is impossible. To move from point A to point B, we have to cross midpoint C. But to move from point A to midpoint C, we have to cross midpoint D. Etc. But since simple geometry tells us that there are an infinite number of points between any two points, we can never get to the nearest midpoint.

Or forget about midpoints. In order to move we must cross an adjacent point. But there are an infinite number of points between us and any adjacent point. In today’s computer programming lingo, we’d have to execute an infinite number of tasks before reaching the adjacent point, which is impossible.

There are only two conclusions I can draw from the paradox. Either it shows us that motion is truly impossible or it shows us the limits of logic – that logic can solve a lot of local problems but there are points at which it fails as a conduit of knowledge and results in an absurdity.


My tipsy interlocutor pointed out that the paradox works along a time axis as well. The idea of a linear flow of time is equally impossible, as we’d have to move past the adjacent moment, which is impossible. However, conceptualizing it along a time axis opened a different tangent of thought for me.

My more devoted readers will note that I’ve looked at the following William Faulkner quote HERE as a way of theorizing time:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (Requiem for a Nun, 1951).

Pondering the Faulkner quote led me to consider that our conventional way of looking at time – with the past as a thread disappearing into some distant place that no longer exists – is actually counterintuitive. Doesn’t it make more sense to see the past as something very much still with us, but at a depth, providing the real-time substructure of the present, just as the rings of a tree do not disappear as years go by but rather continue to provide the real-time substructure of the tree? In the same way, the “past” is not gone, but is right here, at a depth, providing in real time all the folds and substructure without which the present would collapse.

So if Zeno’s paradox suggests that we cannot move along a linear path of time, does the tree ring model of time show us a way out of the paradox? On the one hand, it seems to do so, as it shows we can conceptualize the manifold of time without requiring a linear flow. On the other hand, we still need some kind of wiggle room, as time, though not extending backward into some now-absent past, does recede to the center (of the tree) or the depth (on which the present stands). Would Zeno be able to grant us so much without giving up his precious paradox? To untie this further knot in the fabric, we need a to add a third category to space and time. And here it comes …


Kant, in the Critique of Judgment (1790), speaks of the dynamical and mathematical sublime, and makes a rigorous case for the power of human reason as the sublime human faculty. In the mathematical sublime, for example, we might look up on a starry night and imagine how many stars are up there. The imagination, however, can only stretch so far and is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers in the scenario at hand. Reason, however, can step in and calculate numbers beyond what the imagination can fathom (estimating that there are something like 1024 stars in the universe). It is reason that inspires the highest awe in Kant.

Now let’s use Zeno to turn Kant on his head. Reason leads you down the rabbit hole of Zeno’s paradox, and there you get stuck. No motion. But where reason folds into absurdity, imagination steps in and liberates us. We imagine ourselves in motion. We imagine ourselves moving through time. And if reason can’t back that up, that’s reason’s problem. And if the flow of our experience into the future is an imagined flow, so much the better. Without imagination, perhaps Zeno’s paradox would hold. Reason is trapped in what is; and what is, is fixed. The world as a static object of knowledge. But imagination is the one faculty that allows us to project and manifest all manner of possible futures. Imagination creates destiny, and imagination is what moves us toward that destiny.

So philosophers and scientists, keep up the good work but go to the back of the bus. Poets, artists, and mythmakers, move forward.

“In art and dream may you proceed with abandon” (Patti Smith)

“Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world” (Albert Einstein)

“Artists are here to disturb the peace” (James Baldwin)

Now for my real poetry, click the book cover below.

mountain lantern light
breaking through bamboo and ice
a thousand angels

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The Language Matrix

When you ride the subways in Tokyo, it might strike you that the signs and the books passengers are reading require special language skills. The signs are sometimes written in Kanji, sometimes in Katakana (the two Japanese writing systems), and sometimes in English:

Free Delivery

Sometimes they seem to mix Kanji (the one that looks like Chinese) and Katakana in the same message:

とは? 使い方や敬語表現

Also, the books are typically read in vertical lines, top to bottom, right to left, but the newspapers seem a fairly even mix of horizontal and vertical text passages.

I know little of Japanese languages and culture, but let my thoughts run wild for a minute. Learning from infancy to be equally comfortable in all these language systems – vertical readings, top to bottom, right to left; horizontal readings, left to right; Kanji and Katakana, separately and mixed; and English text and Western numerals as well – this must affect how your brain gets wired. It’s like language is a layered matrix with all these synchronized modes operating (or rapidly engaging and disengaging in the brain) at the same time.

Here’s a hypothesis. As I said, I’m a novice at Japanese culture, so my hypothesis may have some empirical support, may have no empirical support, or may, to the legions of easily mortified souls in today’s debauched intellectual climate, merely prove me an unregenerate racist. But it seems that if you learn language from the start as this kind of many-tiered system, your brain wiring will be really good at “matrix thinking” – math, manifold arrays of logic, etc. Rigorous might be the right word. A people raised in this kind of multi-dimensional language field should, by my hypothesis, be good at math, programming languages, etc. (not universally, but on average). When it comes to more chaotic, creative, rule-breaking, outside the box thinking – people in the US (in the aggregate) might have an edge. To wit, wiring your brain via language requires less rigor in the US, which means you’re wired less for rigor and more for open-ended thinking – more mistakes and more creative tangents.

Of course, none of this is meant to indicate universal traits but just a tendency on average to lean a little bit this way or that in your signature strengths as a culture. (Western Europe, in my experience, would be in between the Japanese and US poles, but maybe closer to the US side. I am not a psycholinguist. I base this on the purely anecdotal evidence of three years’ residence in Europe, 12 countries hitchhiked in Europe, and the half-baked ideas flowing through my brain as I sit here in a quiet neighborhood in Tokyo.)

If you think this is bad, you’ll hate my psycholinguistic foray into Mexican vs German and English language students.

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From Kant to Chomsky (with a plug for Fr–d)

h/t Matt McManus on Noam Chomsky’s Theory of Human Nature (04/16/20), from which much of this is taken

Descartes famously argued that all our empirical knowledge may be an illusion, so it can never provide a basis for absolute certainty. By contrast, we can be certain that we are thinking (“I think, therefore I am”), and so glean some certainty about the nature of cognition.

Kant goes a step further. True, all empirical knowledge may be an illusion, but there is a universal structure to the human mind by which we all perceive the empirical world in more or less the same way. E.g., all human beings see the world in terms of space and time. And since we see the world in the same way, we can gain knowledge that would be accepted by anyone. However, this doesn’t mean we gain knowledge of the world “in itself.” Our knowledge is only of the world as it appears to those structures of the mind (what Kant calls the “phenomenal world”). The world of actual things may or may not match the phenomena we experience, but we’ll never know.

Chomsky applies this toggle from empiricism to Kant to linguistics. McManus mentions how Chomsky’s linguistic theory (beginning in the late 1950s) pushed against such behaviorists as B. F. Skinner. Skinner and the behaviorists assume, like the old empiricists, that the mind is initially a blank slate, and only learns things like language from the experience of being taught. To Chomsky, this behaviorist/empiricist approach falters if we look at language acquisition. If we accept the blank slate premise, he argued, it leads to the conclusion that if one left a rock, a tomato and a baby with a family in London each of them would be equally likely to learn English, since each of them would experience being exposed to that language. The reason that a baby can pick up a language—even several languages—very quickly is that her mind is a priori capable of learning a human dialect. This language faculty also explains why human languages have many deep similarities. Not only do we largely perceive the world in the same way, as Kant points out, but our language faculty generates universal grammars, and much of Chomsky’s linguistic theory is about unraveling those universal grammars.

As with Kant’s theory, this position implies an upside and a downside. The upside is that human beings are capable of understanding one another, and even translating their various languages between each other. The downside is that we are still operating exclusively in the phenomenal world, as our mutual understanding, including cross-cultural communication, is based on the universal structures of how our minds process the world, not on any direct experience of the world “out there.”

I will go the extra step here and align Chomsky in this way with Freud. (As my loyal readers know, I am always eager to shore up Freud’s place in the history of ideas over and against his pitiful detractors, albeit with an occasional concession to those detractors.) What Chomsky rejects in the field of linguistics, Freud rejects in the field of psychology. The behaviorists shunned Freudian psychoanalysis, shunned talking about the internal structure of the mind as if there were something in there anterior to our experience of the world. As in Chomsky the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates language acquisition, so in Freud the mind has an a priori structure that facilitates similarities in development of the psyche across human populations. Whether you see that structure in terms of primitive drives along with mechanisms that develop to inhibit those drives, or as a gradient structure moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious layers of motivation, Freud’s psychology and Chomsky’s linguistics both defy the “blank slate” theory by positing some internal structure, something intrinsic about the human mind, what Kant might call subjective universals that shape how humans process the world, irrespective of the range of individual human experiences.

In neither Freud’s case nor Chomsky’s, it seems to me, does this leave us with an either/or dilemma. Chomsky’s theory might well elucidate the universal grammars that provide the a priori capacity for language acquisition without demeaning the contribution of behaviorist methods on the other side. Likewise, behaviorist psychology might well provide a stimulus-response model that works quite well as a mechanical operation for changing behaviors, but I see no reason (other than that academics must endlessly produce us vs them models and show the superiority of their side over the other as a way of securing tenure) that this should preclude psychoanalytic investigations of the internal structures of the mind that might underwrite human possibilities, human creativity, and human pathways of dysfunction more generally.

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Approaching cosmic oneness

The opposite of oneness is categories. The human mind sorts the chaotic flux of reality into categories to render it intelligible. But pull out the dividers that sort the categories and what you have is oneness, or rather one continuous cosmic gradient. (In my experience, psychedelics like LSD and mushrooms are one way of pulling out the dividers but not the only way.)

Some cognates:

Before Freud, there was faculty psychology. The human psyche was composed of faculties: passion, reason, appetite, etc. – like separate boxes on a shelf. Freud (not alone but he’s the one that pulled it together) switched out this category-based model for something more fluid and dynamic – a gradient moving from the conscious mind down deeper and deeper into unconscious drives and mechanisms that exert enormous though unseen influences on our behavior. Though dismissing Freud is something of an international pastime these days, I think his model of the psyche, where old and unconscious impressions continue to affect behaviors later in life, was a remarkable paradigm shift that shaped the direction of psychology. It is still perhaps the prevailing model today, and indeed Freud’s detractors often use Freud’s depth psychology model in waging their attacks. Feel free to demur in the comments.

Or how about the four sheaths in Vedantic philosophies: physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual. They seem like four separate categories but isn’t it more intuitive to see them as part of one rainbow continuum? Think of the emotional and physical registers during sex. Surely they are part of one gradient of response and not separate categories, unless we deliberately separate them for the purpose of analysis.

Or how about space and time. They were generally considered two separate categories – either objective categories defining physical reality or subjective categories, as in Kant, by which we organize our experience of reality. But categories. Then Einstein. It turns out space and time are not categorically separate but are part of the same continuum. Same with energy and matter in Einstein. No longer separate categories but part of the same continuum. E = mc2.

There are probably a million other instances in the history of ideas, but the point is that categories help us sort, evaluate, and make sense of things, but the categories are not the things. In fact, there are no things. Just the one big cosmic Thing. The kaleidoscope of cosmic oneness, which is of course the same thing as the kaleidoscope of cosmic consciousness. The objective world and the subjective world fold into each other at the cosmic level. There is no other way. You don’t need LSD see your way through to this vision. Well, in my case maybe that LSD trip to a remote Mexican beach helped just a little, but that was almost an accident. Almost an accident. Maybe that’s the window to the next level of discussion 😊

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A brief history of space

If Stephen Hawking could write A Brief History of Time, I can surely write a brief history of space. Indeed, I’ll one-up Hawking and make my monograph actually, and not just putatively, brief.

At first glance in our little history of space, we can follow a trajectory from Democritus and Plato’s view of space as a container, to a view of space as a relation between things rather than a container (Leibniz), and finally to a view of space as a purely subjective construct – a way of organizing the world rather than a thing in the world (Kant – and I’ll welcome comments from expert readers like the ever-helpful STEVE MORRIS on the extent to which this continues into Einstein and modern physics).

Democritus and Plato both saw space as a receptacle but in quite different ways. Democritus (5th century BC) famously said, “Nothing exists except atoms and empty space.” This sense of space as a universal void is perhaps still the most common sense of the term. In Timaeus, Plato specifically calls space “a receptacle,” but he seems to mean it in a more local sense, as that which houses a series of shapes. In a weird way, space is matter to Plato, per his example of gold. You see now a pyramid of gold, then a cube of gold, then a sphere of gold. The gold is the receptacle space inhabited by the succession of different shapes. Idiosyncratic maybe, but more of that later.

As we move toward what I perhaps simplistically call the Leibniz position, space is not a receptacle at all – not the local matter that houses shapes nor the void. It is rather a relation between things, and it has no existence other than as a relation between things. Then onto Kant, and space as purely a subjective way of organizing the world. It seems at this point that we’ve come a long way from Plato, but the canny Greek has a way of coming back (nb. Alfred North Whitehead’s comment that all of Western philosophy is “a series of footnotes to Plato”).

I’ll step back to Plato by way of a convenient half-way point – Boethius (late 5th/early 6th century, on the cusp between classical and post-classical culture, roughly 1000 years after Plato and 1500 before us). To quote my fine former post on Boethius, who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison pondering his forthcoming execution, “The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

That image of the circle, of seeing reality from two points of view – the still point in the middle and the moving point along the perimeter – can be applied to both time and space. Here, it more directly applies to time. From the point of view of eternity (the still point in the middle), all things are simultaneous. From the temporal point of view (moving along the perimeter), we see reality in its aspect of “always becoming,” as philosophers have called it.

To extrapolate, from the eternal point of view, time does not exist; similarly, from the infinite point of view, space does not exist. Rather, space only exists where that dynamical relation between things exists – distance and extension only make sense within the scope of finite reality.

So is Boethius the great Hegelian synthesizer who can push the dialectic between Plato and Kant forward (thesis – antithesis – synthesis)? Or is the double vision of Boethius merely an indicator of his historical moment, one foot dancing with the wine-bibbing Greek and the other tiptoeing toward the finicky Prussian? Is he just a midway point toward our more accurate modern view?

No, the midpoint reading won’t do. On some level, Plato anticipated the whole circus. Or, to further twist the metaphor, we have circled back to Plato. In the Timaeus, Plato, like Boethius, has a double view, though it plays out a little differently. In Plato, there are two primary levels of reality (which can be further subdivided, as in the myth of the cave): “that which always is and has no becoming” and “that which is always becoming and never is.” The realm of eternal, unchanging ideals (being) is the subject of rational knowledge, whereas the visible world of the senses (reality in its aspect of “always becoming”) is the subject of empirical knowledge. Plato notably privileges the rational side, but he at least here grants the empirical its purview. And this turns out to be crucial to our present argument.

If we focus the history of ideas on the world of becoming – the physical world, we might call it – we can, to recap, follow a movement from space as a container to space as a relation between things  and finally to Kant’s purely subjective construct.

But if we look at the other realm in Plato, the realm of being, the intellectual realm of the unchanging ideals, rather than the realm of becoming, we see that he had already recognized space as an imaginary construct.

He quite explicitly says that the concept of “space” does not apply in the intellectual realm, but is only needed to accommodate the dynamics in the realm of becoming.

Indeed, some time after introducing those two realms (the realm of being and the realm of becoming), he refers back to the two natures corresponding to the two realms: “one … was a pattern intelligible and always the same; and the second was only the imitation of the pattern, generated and visible.” Then he adds: “Now a third must be revealed … the receptacle, and in a manner the nurse, of all generation,” insofar it enables all the processes of generation or becoming to happen.

The “receptacle,” whether you call it space or matter, is only introduced as a way of explaining processes in the realm of becoming.  But the realm of becoming for Plato is the realm of more-or-less degraded knock-offs from the realm of being. When reality is seen in it most true and stable aspect, the ontologically prior realm of being, space (or matter) does not exist.

Now, one could argue that the spaceless, timeless, immaterial zone of true reality (prior to all the knock-offs in the realm of becoming) in Plato is not truly subjective as in Kant, that Plato imagines this reality as objective reality. To which I say, maybe. I’m not sure how truly significant that distinction is. I don’t think Plato would call it objective in the modern sense of objective (which implies physical, spatial reality). All Plato postulates is that the spaceless, timeless realm of pure being, pure forms, is the true base of reality. That he treats it as an intellectual realm as opposed to the sensible is clear – so does that imply that it IS subjective, as in Kant? I’m not sure but, back to Alfred North Whitehead: we are quibbling about footnotes here. Face it, everyone (especially angst-ridden academics seeking tenure) wants to find the next ground-breaking idea, but it’s still hard to beat the old Greeks. See my other fine post on Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics if you don’t believe me.

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The mathematical basis of reality

A curious note from Plato’s Timaeus on the mathematical basis of reality:

“Every sort of body possesses solidity, and every solid must necessarily be contained in planes; and every plane rectilinear figure is composed of triangles; and all triangles are originally of two kinds, both of which are made up of one right and two acute angles … the principles which are prior to these God only knows.”

So there you have it. Right-brainers read it and weep.

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Necessity and Becoming

Paul Adkin’s blog entry on logical necessity in the universe got the amateur philosopher in me thinking. Maybe it’s true that the processes of the universe work by logical necessity – generally – but maybe there’s always a small gap in the field of necessity. If the logical necessity were absolute, everything would be absolutely fixed – no possibility of transformation, of evolution*. But that little gap in the system, the space of anxiety, of longing, is the source of all becoming. And where the power of logical necessity fails within that gap, the power of imagination steps in to fill the void. After all, if logical necessity allows us to explain what is, imagination allows us to envision what could be. It’s my name for what Paul calls “the power to transform” reality. Or, to use Paul’s other term, “embellishment,” let’s say the universe is characterized by 99% necessity and 1% embellishment, but that 1% embellishment – that’s where all the action is – all the longing, anxiety, subjective and intersubjective joys and pains of becoming – i.e., all of what gives our lives value. Maybe I could substitute “consciousness” here for “imagination.” But where the intellect might prefer “consciousness,” the child in me prefers “imagination.” The child in me always wins 😊.

*Maybe, in a way, evolution is an ongoing negotiation between those processes that operate by logical necessity and the processes that rupture the necessity and push laterally, allowing for freeplay and divergence.

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