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Moses, Derrida, and Proust

David Cowles

Feb 13, 2024

“Christians make a lot of death – which is ironic since their faith precludes it!”

Strange bedfellows? They are our fellow travelers, perhaps our spirit guides, in the universal search for meaning. Jacques Derrida (d. 2004) came last but contributed the unifying concept, Différance, a ‘quantum of difference’, the semantic correlate of Planck Scale. 

‘Difference’ is continuous; it maps onto the Real Number line. Différance is stochastic, the finite version of difference…the infinitesimal without the infinite. 

Although Derrida’s concept was groundbreaking, he was clearly channeling a philosopher 2500 years his senior: the much maligned and underappreciated Zeno. The latter’s famous paradoxes prove that the world we live in cannot be continuous. Newton and Leibniz papered over Zeno with the Calculus, but fundamentally, Zeno’s arguments remain unanswered. Achilles beats the Tortoise, and an arrow hits its target, only if space is quantized.

Moses encountered différance in Genesis 3. A burning bush catches his eye. It’s on fire, but it’s not being consumed by the flames. There is a quantum of difference (différance) separating the perpetual fire from its leafy fuel. 

Normally, flames consume fuel, but here, différance insulates one from the other. What is, is, and never ceases to be. Moses was seeing fire per se, not as it participates in various hybrid, historical events. Out of this, YHWH addresses Moses: “I am who am.” I am différance; I am the quantum of difference that allows Being to be. 

I am eating at my favorite restaurant, but one of the table legs is ever so slightly shorter than the others. If this is not fixed, I shall go mad before the fish course. I am standing in queue on a pair of cobblestones that are slightly uneven. I stumble out of line and hobble off to my chiropractor’s. We tolerate difference; in fact, we thrive on it.

But we cannot get passed différance. 

The world is almost imperceptibly out of focus, creating a region of uncertainty that enables materiality. Différance is the source of L’Absurde – the 20th century’s unique contribution to philosophy. Spacetime is a rupture in the fabric of eternity.

In Exodus 3, YHWH reveals himself as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” All three synoptic Gospels provide a common gloss: “He is not God of the dead but of the living” (Mk. 12:27), and Luke adds, “For to him all are alive” (Lk. 20: 38).

Of course! The very concept of God (Judeo-Christian) is inconsistent with the Dogma of Death. Job said it 3000 years ago: “I know that my redeemer lives…and from my flesh I will see God: I will see for myself; my own eyes, not another’s, will behold him.” (Job 19: 25-27) 

I mean, could things be any clearer? God 1, Death 0, end of. How could God even be God if things that were ceased to be on his watch? This is the nucleus of the famous Problem of Evil. Christianity can survive ‘evil’…but not ‘death’. Christians make a lot of death – which is ironic since their faith precludes it!

Différance, the quantum ‘gap’ between actual entities (events), demolishes the Dogma of Death once and for all. Things don’t transition; they are, or they are not. To be is to be eternal (not immortal). As the Tortoise found out, to his chagrin, spacetime is not continuous.

Along the way, we encounter Marcel Proust! As laconic as scripture is, Proust is prolific…and thank goodness for that! He devoted 7 volumes, essentially (and literally) his life (he died with 3 volumes still unpublished), to his gloss of Moses. The result is a masterpiece of literature and of philosophy, Search for Lost Time, brutally mistranslated as Remembrance of Things Past.

Proust applies the wisdom of Exodus 3 to such mundane events as the taste of a madeleine dipped in tea, the feel of uneven cobblestones (I ‘borrowed’ it), and the sound of a fork inadvertently striking a piece of china.

‘Qualia’ is the technical philosophical term for what we see, hear, feel, taste, and smell. Qualia are not dependent on space or time for their identity. In fact, they cut across spacetime. They link events otherwise separated. They constitute an alternative, non-Cartesian logos, mapping the wormholes that permeate our World as if it were a slice of Alpine Lace.

Once upon a time, folks imagined a pre-existent ‘vessel’ (spacetime) into which energy and matter were poured. Now we think of spacetime as somehow ‘emergent’ from the energetic events that constitute cosmos. 

Spacetime situates ‘actual entities’ (events). Makes sense: whenever we hear that something has happened, we immediately want to know when and where. Coordinates are a key part of an event’s identity and significance; location contributes to context.

In 1964, John Bell discovered an alternative logos: Quantum Entanglement. Distant events can be instantaneously linked. There is a way to order events that disregards spacetime. Bully for Bell, but Proust beat him to it…by 40 years!

We are awash in logoi. According to St. John, Christ is the logos; according to Descartes, it’s spacetime; Bell, quanta; Proust, Qualia. 

For Proust, the perception of a certain shade of red, under certain conditions, can transport someone to an event far distant in spacetime but characterized by that same shade. To appreciate the revolutionary significance of Proust, note that he is not talking about 'jogging one’s memory’; he is talking about connecting actual physical realities. At the precise moment of tangency, you are as much in your five-year-old’s bedroom (you never left it) as you are in your 80-year-old’s hospital bed (you’ve always been there). 

Le Temps Retrouve (literally ‘Time Recovered’) is the apt French title of Proust’s final volume. Proust is like a kid who has just discovered what he believes to be a treasure map (logos): X marks the spot! And as every faithful Sesame Street viewer knows, “Logos is brought to you by the color Red”…and Blue…and Pink.


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