Is This Really All There Is?

David Cowles

Oct 15, 2022

The world in which we seem to live might not be the only world there is…or all there is to this world. 

The intellectual history of the western world may boil down to a single question: “Is this really all there is?”


From the dawn of history, thinking people have speculated that the world of space and time, matter and energy, objects and sense perceptions—the world in which we seem to live—might not be the only world there is…or all there is to this world. They have conjectured that there may be another world, perhaps very different from our world, but just as real (if not more so).


We may look for this world beneath the perception of our senses or beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes. Or we may glimpse it, like we do Leprechauns, through cracks that occur every so often in our seemingly continuous everyday experience.


Pagan calendars bold two dates: May 1 and October 31, May Day and Halloween, the days when the phenomenal world and ‘the other world’ touch. Pagan Day Planners specify periods of dawn and dusk, also times when the two worlds are in close proximity.


The other world may lie beyond our world or beneath it, or it may encompass it. The other world may be entirely independent of our world, or the two worlds may be meshed. The other world may be everything our world isn’t (Hugh Everett), or it may be the spring of novelty. (Sartre, Heisenberg, Whitehead).


It may diverge from our world (Everett) or it may loop back and intersect with us again down the road, bringing its alternate history with it (Bell, Feynman). The oldest surviving piece of systematic philosophy in the Western world is specifically dedicated to the question of alternate worlds. The philosophical poem of Parmenides of Elea, On Nature, written shortly after 500 BCE, speaks of a “World of Seeming” (doxa), with which we are all too familiar, and a “World of Truth” (aletheia), with which we are not.


The intuition that there may be another reality has influenced Western philosophy ever since. The last great philosophical system explicitly modeled on Parmenides’ two-world theory belongs to Emmanuel Kant. In Kant’s system, there is a phenomenal world of “seeming,” which we can know, and a noumenal world of “truth,” which we cannot.


Tantric Yoga views the world under three distinct aspects: the ‘sthula aspect’ (things as we see them), the ‘suksma aspect’ (things as we understand them), and the ‘para aspect’ (things as they are). It may be that ‘ordinary language’ is only suited to the suksma aspect.


After Kant, the two-world model lost its appeal. The modernism and pragmatism of the industrial era gave rise to empiricism (David Hume), materialism (Karl Marx), existentialism (John Paul Sartre), and even logical positivism (A. J. Ayer). While radically different from one another, these philosophical schools shared a common fascination with the here and now, the realm of ordinary language, and everyday experience. It was largely agreed that genuine philosophical speculation outside this realm was impossible, and that systems based on such speculation were “meaningless.”


This focus on the World of Seeming, so apparently promising, turned out to be a dead end. Just when we felt that a fairly simple model of reality might be able to account for all important phenomena, everything suddenly changed. The intellectual history of the 20th Century may be best understood as the gradual but total collapse of the naïve hope that all scientific, philosophical, ethical, and political problems might have straightforward solutions.


If the 19th Century thought that determinism, science, humanism, democracy, and socialism might satisfy all of humanity’s physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs, the 20th Century systematically debunked each of these fantasies. Einstein’s relativity, Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Godel’s indecisiveness, Bell’s non-locality, the horror of Hitler, and the tyranny of Stalin shook our intellectual and moral presumptions by their roots.


Much as we had hoped to dissolve the complexities of cosmology and ontology with simple, “ordinary language” solutions, rigorous inquiry has taken us in exactly the opposite direction. While our everyday life relies overwhelmingly on our sense of space and time, locality and continuity, matter and energy, enduring objects and personal identity, science is suggesting that each of these bedrock assumptions may be flawed, vacuous, or, at best, epiphenomenal.


Instead, we are learning about worlds in which space and time can be bent, stretched, squeezed, or even eliminated, where objects are made up of nearly featureless subatomic particles, quanta, or even one-dimensional strings.


Nothing is as it seems, and nothing seems as it is. These 20th Century trends in science and philosophy closely intertwine with comparable developments in the arts. In the visual arts, for example, Impressionism is normally seen as the gateway to “modern art” (and in some ways it is), but I think it is just as apt to view it as the Enlightenment’s Last Hurrah.


Just as Empiricism was the full flower of the Enlightenment’s philosophy, so Impressionism may be seen as the late harvest of its art. Both movements ultimately reduced the world to sense perception and obliterated any trace of a non-sensuous “reality” that might underlie phenomena.


The first truly “modern artists” then were Van Gogh and Cezanne. Van Gogh used the tools of the Impressionists but used them to reveal an underlying reality (pattern) well below the scope of sense perception. As surrealism is to realism, so the art of Van Gogh is to Impressionism.


Cezanne, however, went even further. He rediscovered structure beneath appearance and miraculously found a way to portray that structure using the purely sensual tool of paint. It could be said that Cezanne painted Kant…or even Parmenides. Arguably, he resolved the dichotomy of permanence and change suggested by the Anglican hymn: “Abide with me, fast comes the eve’n tide.”


From Cezanne it was a short hop to Picasso and the Cubists, and in an entirely different way, Matisse. They collectively discovered that that structure did not have to be spatially continuous and that it did not have to coincide, at least not rigidly, with the sense data it supported.


All of which brings us to Kandinsky (1866 – 1944). Kandinsky rediscovered art’s basic function and redefined it for the modern world. Heidegger wrote that the function of a work of art is to reveal something new about the world. Kandinsky said exactly the same thing, but he said it in paint, not prose! For more on Kandinsky, check out "Kandinsky: The Painter of Other Worlds" in this issue of ATM.




 

David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at david@aletheiatoday.com.


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