Shall we put forth the view that experience itself, that is, subjective phenomena, is ontological primary? In other words, experience is in and of itself reality, the ground of all things; and when we speak of absolutes, objective phenomena, things and events independent of observers, we are eating the menu instead of the meal. These are classical, Newtonian ideas, and bear more resemblance ontological to the Christian idea of a monodic God than they do the most up to date scientific ideas of our time.
What evidence do we have of absolutes? Ask a theologically inclined adherent of any one of the major monotheism, and they will perhaps tell you that the evidence for the absolute is the relative, the world of the everyday. This everyday world, with its trees, grass, buildings, men and women, all points to a form of forms, an energy of energies, a creative and generative be-ing outside of time and space and therefore not limited by the game rules of space-time we experience daily. Why this is so is attributed to beauty, and to the concept of perfection. We are bid to think that due to the presence of what we call “beauty” in nature and in our selves, that there must be someone or something outside of the universe syringing it in, imbuing our otherwise sinful and mere material reality with… well what exactly is beauty anyway?
Beauty seems to be entirely subjective as we experience it in our lives, as opposed to how we think or speak about it in theoretical volumes. What we perceive to be beautiful is as varied as those who perceive it. We often say to one another, “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder”, noting in common language that it is in fact us who is “beautifying” whatever aspect of the world we are focusing on at the time. Beauty is also a function of focus, whether pointed or distributed. We have all sat close to an ant-hill or a flowerbed and used the remarkably sensitive apparatus of human vision to note and pick out small happenings and wiggles in the undergrowth. We feel a great sense of beauty when doing so, moving and scanning from one point of beauty to another. And, we have all sat on a cliff’s edge or on top of a mountain and simply let our eyes rove unfocused over the panorama, seeing the rolling of the hills without particular focus on any one aspect of them, watching the whole motion of the ocean waves as they break on the shore.
We may say beauty is symmetry, but once again this is a matter of preference. One individual may rejoice at the squares and lines of modern architecture, at the grids of chessboards, at the majestic complexity of arabesque Mosque ceilings, at the natural grids of crystals and salt formations. Another may find the whole category of symmetrical things to be fair too straight and down-the-line, reminiscent of cages, grids, queues, and the obsessive categorization of the modern West; and instead find beauty in the natural wiggles of ferns, the li or organic pattern in the Chinese of the flow of water and the gnarled bark of wood, in their very asymmetry and unwillingness to straighten and become regular. For what is regular other than what we measure against a regular pattern of our own artifice, like a ruler, or a clock?
So, if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, then what room does that leave for a creator God, who he himself is both the objective standard of beauty and its progenitor? It simply makes the idea irrelevant. We need not explain beauty in terms of the supernatural, for where we have always found beauty is in the natural, in the everyday, in experience itself, which is a natural phenomenon just as much as the formation of stars or the growing of plants.
So we really cannot look to this idea to support the notion that there exist in some rarified location, somewhere and somehow, absolutes. In fact, it would seem that this argument is self-defeating, as if we look to the apparent “perfection “of nature and our reality as evidence for an absolute, yet see beauty as a phenomena which is implanted in said perfect reality from outside, then we can hardly stand by our definition of reality as being “perfect” as it is. Furthermore, what do we mean by “perfect”? When we complete with ease a difficult task without much mental effort or thought, we tend to say to ourselves or to others, “ahh, perfect!” We feel the same when an item of food tastes just right, when we see a gorgeous sunset, when an interaction is not forced or overly controlled. Of course, we also see certain very heavily thought out and planned executions of behavior as “perfect” under certain conditions, but rarely when there is outside coercion, or the sense of the thing being forced.
This non-forcing is described beautifully in the Taoist philosophy of China as wu-wei, meaning roughly “non-pushing “or “spontaneous intelligence”, and has its Western correlate in the notion of flow, the state which high performing athletes and musicians enter when their analytic, pushing mind relaxes and there is a simple, uncomplicated but highly effective sense of awareness of the situation and its many variables. We call the opposite of this phenomenon analysis paralysis, which we have all felt when we hesitate to merge into traffic on a busy road and begin overthinking the actions we are about to take. We also feel it when we are caught in a decision, in a state of stuck hesitation, feeling hung up and unsure of which of our available choices is the “right “or “best “one.
So we can begin to see that a good definition of “perfect” could be, “that which happens of itself without forcing”, which funnily enough is also the Taoist definition of nature itself, “that which happens of itself so.” Where, in this definition of perfect, which I believe is more in line with our everyday experience of life, is there room for a monotheistic deity? Again, there simply is none. We see that if we really think it through, a meddlesome interferer from beyond the veil of space and time “creating” perfection and imbuing an imperfect universe with it would be anything but perfect, and more like one of our politicians, who seeks to restore a lost sense of virtue through the forced application of laws and regulations that target “uncouth”, “immoral”, “un-(insert nation here)ian” acts and other such synonyms for imperfect behavior. In doing so, in the act of forcing virtue, the politician manifest and invites its opposite. Human beings are much like water, when forced too strongly into an enclosure they will tend to overflow it, or find a crack in the armor and slowly widen it until there is a flood of activity outside the enclosure. In this way the obsessive attempts of politicians to cultivate virtue have simply cheapened it to the point where it is undesirable, and so humans have sought out other means of entertainment free from the cloistering boundaries of those who “know better”.
Both concepts, beauty and perfection, are better understood as processes of a nervous system, as grids or maps of the limitations of human experience and the boundaries of our consciousness; than as the absolute standards or makings of a higher being. We are the masters who make the grass green, and beautiful, and it is through human affairs and activities, and through our human experiences of nature that we come to find and know perfection.
What then of absolutes? We cannot speak of them. An absolute is one thing we have never discovered simply floating about in the world, despite pseudo-scientific appeals to other grids and abstractions such as the Gravitational Constant or the Speed Of Light, which according to measurement fluctuate far too commonly (i.e. at all) to be put into the category of an unchanging and perfect absolute. Simply put, these are linguistic formulations of regularities that occur when a human nervous system begins to study a certain area of the universe. These regularities are as much a function or a result of the perceptual apparatus which receives and decodes them as they are features of an underlying “reality”.
So we can see then that despite our anxious efforts to shore up some sense of objective respectability, the game is a relative one. Our perceptions are relative, and if we follow this to its logical conclusion we should see that the products of these perceptions and later cognitive organization of them into maps, grids, ideologies, theories and so on, are as a result, relative also. Seeing this, the notions of “objective phenomena” and “things and events” come to be understood as psychological strategies for coping with a relative universe wherein the only real constant is change, and where there are no static entities. They are ghosts, and just as ghosts are wont to do in our myths, disappear when they are confronted clearly and with integrity.
This is not to say that the world is simply some featureless and undifferentiated mass, or that the apparent objects to which we are referring will “pop” out of being when one recognizes their true nature. It is, rather, to point out that while there is differentiation in the world, there really is no genuine or inherent separation. Where we find separation, things, and objects and so on, we always and without fail find the nervous system of man.
So why then, some hundred or so years after the Quantum revolution and Einstein’s relativity, are we clinging to objectivity and absolutism in many areas of the sciences? Well, it would seem to me that it is for largely the same reasons we clung to these attitudes of mind after Darwin, and after Galileo, and so on. Western peoples descend from a long lineage of monotheistic culture, likely stretching back all the way to Egypt during the time of the Pharaohs, and the ideas embedded most deeply in such cultures were those of absolute rule by a cosmic authoritarian, and the objective veracity and truth of their scriptures/figuring’s related to said being. These were our safety blankets, clung to in the unwitting assumption that they would drive out they darkness they themselves had ironically set in motion. So, in order to be respected, or taken seriously in a Western context over the last two-thousand years, one had to appeal to the absolute and objective authority of a fixed, static and unchanging phenomenon. And in the last two-hundred years, the nature of that phenomenon has changed from a deity to a Law. In the social game we are playing, it simply won’t cut it to point out that your point of view differs from mine and that due to this difference, we will likely come to different and seemingly mutually exclusive conclusions about life and the universe that may not in fact be mutually exclusive if we do not hold them to an apparently “objective” standard. Instead, we make simply take them as “true enough” and work from there to understand in more detail what the individual is trying to communicate.
This kind of attitude is seen as “wishy-washy”, “pseudo-scientific”, “slippery” and above all, lacking “intellectual rigor”, which is supposed for some reason to be always and in every case a quality rather than a handicap, despite the word also meaning strictness and rigidity along with attention to detail. Yet it is certainly more compassionate, in the fact that we are not holding up a ruler to the other but rather, an ear. The restless desire to quantify all of life, to have everything set against some cosmic Master Ruler so as to be objectified, is objectionable, as Alan Watts has so deftly put it. We are not finally and completely understanding the cosmos by translating it into popular grids, no matter how fine they may be. We are only understanding it in a certain way, and so will derive certain answers. But these answers are not, by virtue of their adherence to these grids or their status as measured, inherently more valid or useful than answers which are not arrived at through these methods, they are simply different.
And so we come to the point of all this talk, which is to point out that reality as we know it, as opposed to how we experience it, is not reality “as it is”. The theories, methods and conceptions of modern scientific work are incredibly useful in certain areas, and disastrous in others. And in turn, not applying these tools in many situations is just as disastrous, if not moreso. What we think of as reality through the lens of science, objective phenomena, absolute and static laws of cosmic behavior and so on, are really no more than useful abstractions, outlines of the edges of human cognition and experience wherein those edges can be sensibly converted into symbolic form and strung out along a page. And in turn, the non-scientific attempts to represent the wiggly world using symbols are just as much a form of abstraction.