The Pointillist Canvas of Eternity
by Richard Schain
A conception of eternity is the key toward a more satisfying conception of the human condition. The idea of time is a limited concept, brought forth by human consciousness in order to cope with the vicissitudes of existence. The historic insight of Kant, remarkably confirmed by the discoveries of Einstein, was that time represents the framework constructed by the mind through which change is perceived. This insight is still a fundamental feature of western philosophy. Changes of things in time represent the human observer's way of orienting himself to an extra-spatial dimension of being. But what was still is in the larger scheme of things and has as much claim to reality as the present instant. In the broad canvas of eternity, present, past and future all have equal significance.
Homo sapiens, with his hypertrophied consciousness, has conceived of the temporal dimension of existence as existing in a framework called time. He divides time into past, present and future. These are arbitrary divisions based entirely on the use of consciousness to fix an infinitesimal point of time labeled "the present" corresponding to the existence of consciousness at this point. By definition, the present moment is the point at which an active consciousness exists. It is not time that is the moving image of eternity as the poet wrote, but rather consciousness continuously creating awareness of the temporal dimension of existence.
The exaggerated tendency to subdivide the perception of time does not alter the fact that every existent thing, Dasein to use Heidegger's term, has its fixed place in eternity. This is true whether the thing is a speck of cosmic dust or a living being. When an individual has lived out his life span, the full dimensions of his being exist in eternity, an existence that is permanent, not transitory as time is envisioned by the consciousness. The apparent disappearance of his mind and disintegration of his body are phenomena that are unrelated to his eternal being.
Things are measured according to their spatial and temporal dimensions; no doubt there are others as yet unperceived by the ordinary human mind. The significance of the infinitesimal present moment is exaggerated because of the belief in free will. This is not the place to enter into the apparently endless discussion of free will versus determinism, but, from the viewpoint of eternity, it is impossible to envisage an absolute free will. In a lawful universe, the configuration of a human life or any other discrete Dasein is a function of its own properties and its surrounding milieu. If what is is a matter of chance, then this would truly be an absurd universe. One may recall the comment of Spinoza that if a stone hurled through the air had consciousness, it would think of itself as possessing free will.
The totality of existent things in eternity may be thought of as the cosmic canvas. It can be symbolically envisioned as resembling a vast pointillist mural painted by an unknown hand and impossible to discern in its totality when limited to the specific brush-strokes on the canvas. Unlike the two dimensional murals created by human hands, the cosmic canvas consists of many dimensions, most of which cannot be (yet) discerned by the human mind. One can have no idea of the "meaning" in an ultimate scheme of things in an individual's seemingly time-embedded existence. But the idea of a meaningless humanity caught up in an absurd cosmic spectacle runs counter to one's deepest intuitions. How can the period between birth and death of a person be a senseless event on a pointless stage of being. The spirit within rejects the thought. Only by denying this spirit can one arrive at the conception of a meaningless universe. "The fool in his heart says that there is no God" was the Psalmist's way of expressing his intuition of meaning in the universe.
I suggest that philosophy is a cognitive art endeavoring to represent the substance and meaning of the universe. The emergence of a creative thinker out of the anthills of society is evidence that something unique is afoot in the human condition, something more than a brief role in "a tale told by an idiot and signifying nothing." We can guess that in his heart Shakespeare did not hold to that opinion; otherwise, how could he have performed the incredible labor required to create his unique works.
Creative humans are the jewels in the vast mural of being. Epistemological theories are not necessary to recognize these jewels. What a person thinks and the actions expressing his thoughts are what distinguish his being. The brightest jewels in the great canvas of eternity are the great thinkers of the human race. For the most part, we can only know those whom society has brought into public view. Societies can be judged by the quality of the thinkers that they have recognized. Goethe would have had no impact on Nazi Germany, Nicolai Berdyaev was expelled from communist Russia, Emerson in American society today would be without an audience. The world is fortunate when societies elevate great-minded individuals into public view. However, great-minded individuals do not require public acclaim. The fact of their existence is sufficient to have given meaning to their lives albeit that meaning has not been disclosed to their contemporaries or their successors.
What can be the significance of an exclusively biological life? It is only a speck of sand in a cosmic ocean, an infinitesimally tiny point in infinite eternity. Can the life of Homo sapiens be founded on the biological drives for food, shelter, sex and personal aggrandizement? In this case, life must be judged as idiotic and viewed as a task to be gotten through as soon as possible. If fulfillment of biological instincts is the goal of human life, then clear-minded individuals will have to agree with Schopenhauer that the additional goal of a happy life is the greatest of all human delusions from which one should be disabused as soon as possible. However, along with the instincts for survival, sex and power, there is an intuition connected with the spirit of a human being. It is that his or her life has a meaning in the scheme of things. The brush-stroke one occupies in the canvas of eternity is critical. A person's thoughts, personality and creativity count in the cosmic canvas. If humans did not have this intuition, which may be regarded as a metaphysical instinct, they would still be living in caves, fending off bears and snakes. This intuition arises from the spiritual nature of human existence.
The pervasive "Angst" described by Kierkegaard in his light footed prose and more ponderously by Heidegger stems from the attempt to deny spirit and to maintain that the only meaning of life lies in physical being. Of course, to use the term "meaning" in such a frame of reference is absurd. "Meaning" has no meaning in purely physical parameters that solely involve descriptions of matter and energy. Meaning is not identical with causality; it involves human values, which are degraded when these are reduced to causality-based phenomena. The impact of the scientific revolution in human affairs has been enormous in the material sphere of existence but has steadily obliterated the spiritual sphere. The dirty little secret of materialist monism is that there is no such thing as a human spirit. There are only particles and forces operating to produce the world of phenomena. Thus existentialist philosophers have virtually disappeared and are only to be found in textbooks of philosophy. Today, philosophy is cognitive science and analytical thinking, all based upon a physical model of existence.
A significant aspect of the reality that the word "spirit" symbolizes is that it is not associated with a set of physical parameters. Different parameters are needed to characterize spirit. Among these are meaningfulness, value, profundity and seriousness. Individual spirits appear to be embedded in time but this does not mean that they disappear completely in time, they remain in the fabric of eternity. The spirit of a person who has died exists as part of the eternal panorama even though its temporal dimension is finite. To try to visualize more would be presumptuous; in the succinct words of Wittgenstein, "wovon man nicht sprechen kann, daruber muss man schweigen" about what one cannot speak, one must remain silent.
It is necessary to appreciate that terms like dualism, spiritual, metaphysical and so forth express a reality intuited by Homo sapiens. This intuition is that there is an essential difference between the universe of materia and the universe of spirit as the individual experiences them. One has no more claim to reality than the other. Attempting to convert one to the other by reductionist or mystical means in the service of an ideology of monism evades the realities experienced in the human condition.
No-one can approach the ultimate questions of existence without considering the ever present, age-old concept of God. Paul Tillich, the greatest of twentieth century theologians, defined the term God in his major opus Systematic Theology as "that which is of ultimate concern to human beings." This, of course, is a symbolic definition as are all other definitions of God. "I am that I am" is the best the human mind can do. It is interesting, however, that Tillich defines God in terms of the human psyche. The yearning for meaning in human life is the key that opens the path to the ultimate reality. No purely materialist psychology can penetrate into this reality. One might add that the search for this meaning must be conducted by the individual himself and not delegated to third parties. This assertion places the development of one's own intellectual conscience (a phrase from Nietzsche) at the pinnacle of his life.
The human spirit gives the appearance of being embedded in a temporal framework. Eternity, however, does not exist in time but rather time is one component of eternity. The development of spirit, as it occurs in one's lifetime, is a part of eternity. If there is a place for faith in the human psyche, it is that this part has meaning in the ultimate scheme of things. The task of an individual is to develop the spiritual self that will be his or contribution to eternity. Other values may exist but are secondary to this overarching goal.
It is undeniable that a knowledge and mastery of the object world is an essential prerequisite to personal development. Unless one is confident in his biological existence, he cannot develop a spiritual one. Cognitive activity with its attendant technology is the training ground for the soul. However, as Berdyaev has succinctly put it, epistemology alone (in its broadest sense) never leads to ontology. Physical knowledge does not yield metaphysics. At some point, the chasm that separates the dimensions of physics from the dimensions of spirit must be leapt over. No amount of cognitive science provides the wherewithal for this leap. This is the authentic "leap of faith" that Kierkegaard confused with belief in Christian dogma.
The idea that the world of the mind thought, emotion, consciousness, will, meaning values is explicable through investigation of neuronal structures in the brain is bankrupt. Gradually, it is becoming clear to philosophers and neuroscientists that human qualities are not to be explained by resort to physical properties of neurons, albeit a functional brain is necessary for their appearance. To view the "qualia" of consciousness as "emergent" properties of the brain is to merely reveal neuroscience's inability to account for mental phenomena in physical terms. There is an old adage in science that if you don't understand something, give it a new name and all will be well. Yet something more is present in the phenomena of life, especially the human phenomenon, than is explicable through the systems of scientific materialism. It is not enough to intellectually acknowledge this but then devote all one's life energies to the physical sphere of existence. One ought not to forget the scriptural injunction not to sell one's soul for a mess of pottage.
This essay began with the thought that the understanding of time is the key to success of the human enterprise. Time has always been regarded as the great destroyer. Through time, life and the outcomes of its efforts come to an end. There is then a certain feeling of futility engendered in the reflective mind. But this feeling is founded on a limited perspective of limited creatures. One can view time as bringing into being what had not been before. Becoming is not necessarily random activity, merely to be viewed as rearranging an unchanging Parmenidean being into meaningless new forms. Time reveals becoming to be creative, bringing into existence new meanings in the universe. The perception that these meanings seem to disappear when viewed in a relative temporal dimension does not negate their existence in an eternal design that perceptually limited humans cannot discern.
One can symbolically envision the cosmos to be composed of centers of being, embedded in eternity. An individual life is an authentic center of being. All the social entities beginning with animal packs or families and ending with nations, religions or cultures are virtual being, whose only real significance lies in their ability to foster individual development. Life is a strange phenomenon that is present in an otherwise lifeless universe. All living creatures are part of this phenomenon but the spiritual attributes of humans have carried them to the heights unknown to the rest of life forms.
The apparently endless capacity of humans to preoccupy themselves with techniques for mastering nature leads to a dead end, much like the end of armored dinosaurs or giant mammals. There is no escaping the fact that we are a part of the cosmos, not its master. The thread of human development lies in accentuating its spiritual aspect, its Geist, referring to the acquisition of values and wisdom. Experience is the means to this acquisition; the art of life consists in choosing the experiences leading to a spiritual self that is part of a pointillist eternity.
© Richard Schain