Because Alexandre Koyre’s brilliant From the Closed World to the Infinite Universe (1957) can, for those who aren’t scholars in the history of science or in the history of ideas (and I am certainly not the former), I’d like to provide a way of understanding the text below. In essence, I surface what I take to be the three central questions that Koyre seems to be implicitly asking.
The Final Paragraph: The New Cosmology, Summarized
You need only read the final paragraph of the text to see where the story of the paradigm shift in cosmology as we cross the threshold into modernity ultimately leads:
The Infinite Universe of the New Cosmology, infinite in Duration as well as in Extension, in which eternal matter in accordance with eternal and necessary laws moves endlessly and aimlessly in eternal space, inherited all the ontological attributes of Divinity. Yet only those–all the others the departed God took away with him.Koyre, From Closed World, p. 276
There is much to unpack here. We can begin to do so by citing a longer, more recent work by B. Alan Wallace, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher as well as an able expositor of contemporary science.
A Picture of Scientific Materialism
Wallace succinctly summarizes the scientific materialism that, since the nineteenth century, has not only won out but also become ideological common sense for most Westerners:
Existence is purely physical–there is no other reality. The sources of this reality are the laws of nature, forces that are entirely impersonal, having no connection whatsoever with the mind of human beings, their beliefs, or values. These laws operate in isolation from any supernatural, spiritual influences, all of which are illusory. Life in the universe is an accident, the outcome of mechanical interactions among complex patterns of matter and energy. The life of an individual, one’s personal history, hopes and dreams, loves and hates, feelings, desires–everything–are the outcome of physical forces acting upon and within one’s body. Death means the utter destruction of the individual and his or her consciousness, and this too is the destiny of all life in the universe–eventually it will disappear without a trace. In short, human beings live encapsulated within a vast, alien world, a universe entirely indifferent to their longings, unaware of their triumphs, mute to their suffering. Only by facing this reality and accepting it fully can humans live rationally.B. Alan Wallace with Brian Hodel, Embracing Mind: The Common Ground of Science and Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), pp. 24-5
In this passage, we can easily make out the coordinates of the New Cosmology: infinitude, materialism, acosmism, and atheism.
My Interpretation of Koyre’s Central Questions
In my reading of From the Closed World, Koyre is asking three basic questions:
1. The Infinite Universe: Is, for thinkers in the sixteenth and seventeenth and indeed for us today, there a cosmos or a universe–that is to say, a finitist conception or an infinite conception?
The reason this question matters has to do, I divine, with what I’ll term aesthetic comprehensibility. A finitist conception of the cosmos is fit, orderly, elegant, and graspable. In short, such a conception presents Reality as a home, at least at the level of intelligibility, for human beings and for other sentient beings.
A oft-cited line in Pascal’s Pensees, originally published in 1670, bears out the existential stakes: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.” For what we have inherited is a mathematically infinite universe, one that “infinite in Duration as well as in Extension” lacks the aesthetic comprehensibility on offer in the Ptolemaic cosmos. For this reason, when we peer out into the distant night sky, we can seem ‘lost,’ ‘in exile,’ or as if this ‘cold, indifferent universe’ bears no relation to our meager, apparently time bound existences.
2. The Status of Materialism: Does the Closure Principle hold universal sway?
That is, can we account for all of reality by appealing only to material forces? Though Newton didn’t think so (thus the immaterial, or supernatural, force of gravity that he defended), a certain Cartesian materialism clearly captured the imagination of European elites by the nineteenth century.
The result for us today is, quite shockingly, an all-pervasive materialism.
3. The Status of God: Is God the author and architect of the created world, or is God irrelevant?
As we discover in Michael Buckley’s tome At the Origins of Modern Atheism (1987), it’s not as if atheism was ‘proven’ or theism ‘disproven.’ Rather, by the nineteenth century–and we’re experiencing this tragic result in our time–the question of God’s existence had become irrelevant. Hence, Koyre quotes Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1823) who, when asked about the role of God in his system, told Napoleon : “Sire, je n’ai pas eu besoin de cette hypothese” (Sir, I had no need of that hypothesis.)
Strange yet very sad to say, the most important existential-metaphysical questions–Does God exist? And what is God?–have gone into hiding for us today.
The last part of Seyyed Hossein Nasr’s exposition of Quran 1:1-7 caught my eye–specifically, Quran 1:5-7:
Guide us [Lord] upon the straight path, / the path of those on whom Thy Grace is, / not those on whom Thine anger is, nor those who are astray.
Reading the final three lines, Nasr comments on the vertical and horizontal dimensions of human life:
Our existential situation can be further clarified by recourse to geometrical symbolism. We are situated at the point of the intersection of the vertical and horizontal axes of a cross. We have a choice to ascend the vertical axis and be among those “on whom Thy Grace is,” or to descend on the same axis into ever lower states of being as one of those “on whom Thine anger is” [cf. Mahayana Buddhism’s six realms of existence–in particular, those of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell denizens]. Finally, we can wander along the horizontal line of the cross among “those who go astray.” Eschatologically these three possibilities correspond from a certain perspective to the paradisal, infernal, and purgatorial states.The Garden of Truth, p. 19.
Over the years I’ve been philosophizing largely with Westerners, I’ve discovered that most, when we begin, are in the purgatorial state. If I were to generalize, I would say that many Westerners are presently living in purgatory.
A brief sketch of modern-day purgatory would argue that it consists of (i) the primacy of the rational mind, (ii) the dominant mode of this rational mind being skepticism, (iii) de facto secularism, and (iv) de facto materialism.
I. The Primacy of the Rational Mind
In Be Here Now (1971), Ram Dass makes explicit the post-German Enlightenment scientific materialist mistake: this is to take the rational mind to be the primary faculty of the human soul. Doing so, however, breeds hyperintellectualism, which ever seeking never rests. The rational mind, if and when it becomes hegemonic, “can’t get no satisfaction,” yet such is precisely, endlessly, futilely what it aims at. In fact, Hegel’s critique of Descartes still stands: Descartes longed for an indubitable rational foundation, and this longing was born of “the fear of error.”
It’s not hard to see that what motivates the primacy of the rational mind is a certain primordial anxiety for certainty. Yet what ensues for the rational mind in its various ventures are not certitudes but vacillations and probabilities. Thus, without the primacy of the heart, the heart-mind, or faith, the rational mind founders, flails, and, without admitting as much, fails.
Observe carefully the contrast: a major theme in nondual metaphysics (also known as panentheism–e.g., Zen, Chan, Daoism, Sufism, Christian mysticism, etc.) is that the heart is the way to God, or Dao, while the rational mind is nothing but a servant. Rumi, for instance, follows the Sufi tradition in arguing for the “limitations of reason” seen over and against the power of “gnosis.” Gnosis refers to the intuitive, unitive, immediate knowledge, especially of the divine, a knowledge that is only accessible to the heart.
Where the heart is intuitive and unitive, reason is analytical and discriminatory (i.e., this set over and against that, etc.). The heart is truly certain whereas reason is very often inconclusive, probabilistic.
The point at hand? To place the heart first and to allow reason to be a servant–a proper one–of the heart. To reject the possibility of the heart, as moderns have done, and to put the rational mind first is to exist–and (mark this) to remain–in a state of purgatory.
II. Modern Skepticism
The commonest mode of the rational mind is modern skepticism: doubting, nitpicking, “on the other hand-ing,” and the like. Any proposition can be met with a yes, but. A promising proposal isn’t shot down so much as it is slowly eroded through the corrosive power of doubting. The soul, thereby, gets whittled down and away.
Modern skepticism with hold one in purgatory, and so long as one remains married to this mode of skepticism, just so long will one be lost in–and to–this no man’s land. It could be said, in brief, that modern skepticism is demonic.
III. De Facto Secularism
While secularism can be defined in myriad ways, I’d like to speak of it, here, in terms of the rejection out of hand of any idea of transcendence. Hence, Nasr’s symbol of the Y-axis is nullified from the outset: there is, so secularists posit, no vertical axis and thus there is no ultimate question here. “From ash to ash, dust to dust” is distorted and misread from the perspective of an unimaginative literal mind.
But if there is no vertical dimension, then how can we do otherwise than default to some version–faulty, to be sure–of existentialism’s bearing up ‘courageously’ to the allegedly vast, meaningless, cold universe? Frankly, I don’t understand secular atheists who speak, without irony, of “the afterlife” of those who die: their afterlife is only in “our memories.” Nonsense! Our memories fade too–and as swiftly.
I’d call secularism a dead end were it not for the fact that it’s worse: it’s purgatory masquerading as a bald truth.
IV. De Facto Materialism
What goes hand in hand with de facto secularism is de facto materialism: the stuff of which everything, and thus all beings, is made is matter. There is nothing non-physical in this ontology; the reduction base is precisely matter.
Consequently, while de facto secularism nullifies any idea of the transcendent, de facto materialism assures us that only a certain kind of X-axis–a material one–exists. It’s for this reason that I hear conversation partners speak often of life being “a slog,” an endless slog at that.
One shall dwell in purgatory so long as one adheres unquestionably to the primacy of the rational mind, modern skepticism, de facto secularism, and de facto materialism. Yet should one question even one of these orientations, then the whole thing cannot help but come crashing down. And then The Path can unfold…
Here’s how Shobhana Viswanathan introduces her interview with me:
“Philosophy urges us to wake up to what we have so far taken for granted.”
To kick off the New Year on The Change Alchemist, I have a special guest, Andrew Taggart, Practical Philosopher and Zen Buddhist to discuss the importance of a spiritual practice in the future of work.
Over the years, he has been helping executives, technologists, and artists inquire into matters of a fundamental nature. During this time, Andrew Taggart has worked with individuals at Google, Facebook, Twitter, and various tech and Fintech startups.
His ideas have been featured in Quartz, The Guardian, Singularity Hub, Big Think, Wisconsin Public Radio, TEDx, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.