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This or That

David Cowles

Jan 19, 2023

“The only way to conserve the past is to change it (and) the surest way to destroy the past is to preserve it.”

What are you up to? “Oh, this and that.” We say it all the time, but what does it really mean? What’s this? What’s that

20th century existentialist, Jean-Paul Sartre, correctly understood that our being consists of two incompatible aspects (this and that). But if this and that are incompatible, how can they serve together as the foundation of our being?  

According to Genesis, God created the world by differentiating - light from dark, soil from sea, etc. Likewise, we create our map of the world by differentiating – this from that. But wait, unlike ‘light and dark’ or ‘soil and sea’, ‘this and that’ are interchangeable designations: A could be this and B could be that, or A could be that and B could be this. Same A, same B: this or that is a distinction without a difference.

All I’ve told you so far about A and B is that A is not B and B is not A. I haven’t told you anything about A or B per se. (God began with light: fiat lux; we, on the other hand, begin with nothing.) What we have is naked disjunction, and by itself disjunction is not enough to constitute being

Being is process and process is vectored: it is ‘bipolar’…but in a good way; and at the end of the process, B, you have something recognizably different from A.  

In the real world, A and B are never interchangeable. (In fact, nothing is interchangeable.) Being is not commutative. Material Order (negentropy) is gradually sublimated in favor of Moral Order. “B is better than A” means that B more closely conforms to the transcendent values that are normative for all, even for God (Book of Job).  

In fact, B comes to be in the context of A only because B better realizes those values than A does. So, in the process of becoming, B necessarily negates A, or aspects of A. 

When we speak of ‘this and that’ in terms of ‘A and B’, we really mean ‘this or that, A or B’; but that’s not at all what Sartre had in mind (above). For him, reality is ‘experience’, and experience requires both an A and a B, something experienced and something experiencing.  

Nothing new here! We’re used to thinking of the world as both ‘physical’ and ‘mental’; we call the mental aspect ‘mind, soul, spirit,’ etc. But that inevitably leads us to dualism, two substances, which, in turn, takes us right back where we started, ‘A or B’.

Sartre resolves this apparent conflict: ‘Experience’ not only does not require two substances, it doesn’t permit them. Experience requires (permits) just one substance, e.g., A; but it also requires the selective negation of A in pursuit of B. Our experience of A and our negation of A are the same thing. 

Know how you say, “We don’t appreciate things until they’re gone?” Well, that’s literally true because appreciation is a flavor of experience and experience entails the negation of whatever is experienced. Experience is the simultaneous recognition of what is (A) and what is not but may yet come to be (B). In the words of Robert Kennedy, “I dream of things that never were and ask why not?”

The experience of A is the negation of A in service of B. Of course, B does not negate A entirely, nor would it wish to. Every A, by definition (Augustine, et al.), contains a modicum of ‘Good’ which B is obligated to conserve so far as possible. The Present not only transcends the Past; it also conserves it, and projects it toward the Future.

Sidebar: I am reminded of the old saying, “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” Let me offer two corollaries: (1) The only way to conserve the past is to change it, and (2), The surest way to destroy the past is to preserve it.

B negates only those aspects of A that are inconsistent with B; the rest of A is conserved. Thus, the creative advance of the universe is both revolutionary and conservative. B is ‘obligated’ to conserve as much of A as possible, consistent with its proposed ‘improvements’.

Where I live now, another house stood for many decades. When the builders decided to replace that house with something more suited to the needs and wants of a contemporary buyer, they also decided to preserve as much of the old structure as they could, consistent with their grand design.

They practiced economics. They did as much as they could with as little as they could. They did not subscribe to the 20th century mantra: “Change for change’s sake!” They rejected a ‘this or that’ view of the world and adopted a more economical ‘this and that’ ethic. The universe has taken a play out of the builders’ playbook.

Can you imagine living in a world where events unfold, like Federal Reserve policy, according to a ‘dual mandate’: change as little as possible in order to change as much as possible? Well, you do!

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- the official blog of Aletheia Today Magazine. 

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