Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Despite Nietzsche’s initiating the post-modern turn, his cosmology retains a Newtonian view of space and time

INTEGRAL REVIEW June 2008 Vol. 4, No. 1 Integral Time and the Varieties of Post-Mortem Survival Sean M. Kelly

And so I begin with Nietzsche, whose theory of eternal recurrence he considered the central insight of his life’s work, and indeed of the age that he helped to inaugurate. Though his relationship to Christianity is complex, there is no doubt that Nietzsche rejected the traditional Christian view of personal immortality, which he saw as arising out of a hatred of, and revulsion from, life. The belief in any form of after-life was to him an expression of anti-life, a flight from nature and becoming to a lying fantasy of individual imperishability. Having absorbed the full impact of the modern project of disenchantment that began (however unintentionally) with Copernicus, Nietzsche was compelled to reject the possibility of any kind of transcendent "beyond." What, then, could constitute the ground of value? What is capable of granting meaning and value to our individual endeavors and to life as a whole? His answer was: Life or the cosmos itself—beyond which is nothing—in the form of self-conscious and therefore liberated Will-to-Power.

Earlier in the century, Schopenhauer (1966) had articulated his vision of an infinite though blind and unconscious Will as the ontological ground of reality—a vision in keeping both with the darker side of the later Romantic movement and with a certain reading of Buddhism. The suffering caused by the impossibility of satisfying the Will’s boundless craving could only be countered, according to Schopenhauer, through a systematic negation of the Will in the form of a sublimation of the life-impulse (particularly, through esthetic contemplation). This vision was transformative for Nietzsche. He soon rejected Schopenhauer’s pessimism, however. And while he retained the centrality of the Will, he came to see the life-impulse—with which, for Schopenhauer, the Will was more or less identified—as itself a manifestation of the Will-to-Power, that is, the drive of every being to extend or magnify its proper domain or sphere ofinfluence.

3 Kant’s understanding of the inner sense and its relation to time, though influential in the subsequent history of philosophy, is anything but crystal clear. The key statements from the Critique of Pure Reason are as follows: "By means of outer sense, a property of our mind, we represent to ourselves objects as outside us, and all without exception in space" (1929, p. 67). "Inner sense, by means of which the mind intuits itself or its inner state, yields indeed no intuition of the soul itself as an object; but there is nevertheless a determinate form [namely, time] in which alone the intuition of inner states is possible, and everything which belongs to inner determinations is therefore represented in relations of time. Time cannot be outwardly intuited, any more than space can be intuited as something in us" (p. 67). As I understand it, the basic idea seems to be that, experience as such—"the mind [which] intuits itself or its inner state"—necessarily involves the fact of succession (what James will later call the "stream of consciousness"), and so the form of time. There is also, to my mind, the mysterious role of the will which Schopenhauer (1966), in his revisioning of Kant, considered the true noumenon and which, as I suggest later in this paper, might play a crucial part in the manifestation of time.

According to Nietzsche, this drive is as manifest in the life-affirming worldview of classical paganism as in the life-denying spirit of late-antiquity and historical Christianity. Ignorance of the nature of life—and indeed, of all human striving, however idealistic or spiritual—as an expression of the Will-to-Power constitutes a form of bondage. The bondage is doubly oppressive in the case of the world-deniers, whose illusory "beyond" serves not only, as Marx would put it, as the opium of the people, but as a vampiristic drain on life’s nobler impulses and possibilities for authentic happiness.

By contrast, the liberated, because self-conscious, Will is portrayed as manifesting an unconditional blessing or affirmation of life, of what was, is, and shall be—an unqualified and joyfully uttered "Yes!" to the whole causal nexus, the entire sequence of moments within which the present is embedded. This blessing is a radically free act, which at the same time is yoked to an awareness of a universal and inexorable fatalism (a yoking which Nietzsche expresses with the phrase, amor fati, the love of fate). That this awareness does not lead to a sense of oppression or despair, but instead is, or can be, accompanied by a boundless joy, is the result of his insight into the nature of time as eternal recurrence, an insight which he nevertheless characterizes as "The greatest weight."

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: "This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence--even this spider and this moonlight between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!" Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: "You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine." If this thought gained possession of you, it would change you as you are or perhaps crush you. (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 273)

The more general idea of recurrence is of course ancient and wide-spread (see Cairns, 1962), beginning with what might be described as a naturalistic cyclism (e.g., most indigenous cultures, ancient Taoism) inspired by the repeating pattern of the seasons and the periodicity of the sun, moon, and stars. Next, and presupposing the latter, there is an ideal-formal cyclism (Plato, Aristotle, Shankara) which sees the natural or cosmic cycles as embodiments of subtler archetypal patterns. Then there is the stronger form of the belief in eternal recurrence, which involves not only seasonal patterns or ideal types, but every last detail of the cycle of becoming.

This strong view of recurrence, which Nietzsche adopted, is in fact very close to that of the ancient Pythagoreans, Stoics, and Epicureans, and especially the latter two, since they too were materialists.4 Though I suspect there are unknown sources in Nietzsche’s own immediate experience, a feeling for which we can glean from the passage above, he also articulated aversion of the Epicurean argument based on the assumption of a finite set of possible material orformal combinations in a temporally infinite universe.

4 According to Nemenius, the Stoics believed that "in stated periods of time a conflagration (ekpyrosis) and destruction of things will be accomplished, and once more there will be a restitution of the cosmos as it was in the very beginning. And when the stars move in the same way as before, each thing which occurred in the previous period will without variation be brought to pass again. For again there will exist Socrates and Plato and every man, with the same friends and fellow citizens, and he will suffer the same fate and will meet with the same experiences and undertake the same deeds…And there will be a complete restoration of the whole, not only once but many times, or rather interminably, and the same things will be restored without end." (Nemenius, as quoted in Cairns, 1962, pp, 220-221)

If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force--and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless--it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through a calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times.

And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combinations conditions the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game ad infinitum. (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 549)

No one, of course, is swayed by such an argument who is not already predisposed to the worldview it is meant to prove. I, for one, do not find it convincing, though I do find it sometimes compelling and can appreciate the elegance of its logical structure. And while my rejection of eternal recurrence, at least as formulated by Nietzsche, is doubtless grounded in infra-rational, and perhaps also supra-rational, promptings, I also object to the doctrine on logical and phenomenological grounds. Phenomenologically, if each life, each moment, and ultimately the entire history of the cosmos, is one instance of an infinite series of (factually or ontologically) identical instances, then the experience of each instance would also be identical.

There would be no way, empirically speaking, of telling one apart from any other in the series. Logically, according to Leibniz’s Law or the principle of the identity of indiscernibles, we are driven to the conclusion that, in fact, there can only be one of each given instance, whether a moment, a life, or the history of the cosmos as a whole. Still, there is something behind Nietzsche’s insight, something in the quality of the experience as the demon whispers in his ear with the moonlight between the trees, that resists the application of Leibniz’s Law. It is the sense that, though he could not believe in a redeeming afterlife, nothing of value in this life is ever lost—for, as Nietzsche’s (1969, p. 333) Zarathustra proclaims, "all joy wants eternity —/ Wants deep, wants deep eternity." The moment, however, must not only be simply preserved in the manner of a dried flower or even a particularly vivid memory, but must somehow sur-vive, blessed as it flies, in Eternity’s sunrise.5

The best illustration I can think of at this point to express what I am trying to get at comes from a dream I used to have periodically. I would discover a secret room in my family’s house, filled with all kinds of objects from my childhood. Among these was a stack of the most amazing kind of photographs. Seen from the corner of the eye, as it were, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but as soon as I focused my attention on one, the scene would come to life. I remember one in particular, where I am splashing happily in the shallow, sun-sparkled water at the lake where we used to spend our summer vacation. It is perhaps a five to ten second scene, almost like a video clip. As long as you attend to it, it is "playing." Not in the manner of a loop tape, however—and here the analogy breaks down—since nothing in the scene is repeated. Not the eternal recurrence of the same, in other words, but the scene as somehow eternally occurring.

5 Blake’s lines in "Eternity" run: "He who binds himself to a joy/Does the winged life destroy:/But he who kisses the joy as it flies/Lives in eternity’s sunrise" (1988, p. 56).

Journey to Platonia
Despite Nietzsche’s prominent role in initiating the post-modern turn, his cosmology retains a more or less Newtonian view of space and time, in the sense that they are conceived of distinctly as infinite container and continuous forward flow, respectively (the circular character of the eternal return involves the patterns or configurations of matter rather than the temporal flow itself). All of this changes with the new physics. The dominant tendency, with respect to time, has been to consider it in some fundamental sense an illusion, "even if a stubborn one," as Einstein said (referring to the distinction between past, present, and future).

"Since Einstein," Paul Davies notes, "physicists have generally rejected the notion that events ‘happen,’ as opposed to merely exist in the four-dimensional spacetime continuum" (1995, p. 253). The germs of this tendency are actually already hidden in Newton, Descartes, and Galileo with the formal geometrification of nature and has its roots in the Parmenidian/Pythagorean/Platonic stream of the Western philosophical tradition and its preoccupation with the geometrical and mathematical ideals of stasis and symmetry.

Julian Barbour has recently produced a fascinating and substantial argument for the dominant post-Einsteinian view—or perhaps, more accurately, for an original direction that is consistent with this view—in his book, The End of Time: The Next Revolution in Physics. At the core of the argument is an extension of Machian mechanics, which is to say, a vision which does away with space and time as the "ultimate arena" of matter and instead conceives of motion and inertia purely in terms of differences between relative configurations of the totality of objects which constitute the universe.

Sean M. Kelly, Ph.D. is Professor in the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco. He has published numerous articles on Jung, Hegel, transpersonal theory, and the new science and is the author of Individuation and the Absolute: Hegel, Jung, and the Path toward Wholeness (Paulist Press, 1993). Sean is also co-editor, with Donald Rothberg, of Ken Wilber in Dialogue: Conversations with Leading Transpersonal Thinkers (Quest Books, 1998) and co-translator, with Roger Lapointe, of French thinker Edgar Morin's book, Homeland Earth: A Manifesto for the New Millennium (Hampton Press, 1999). Along with his academic work, Sean has trained intensively in the Chinese internal arts (taiji, bagua, and xingyi) and has been teaching taiji since 1990. Email: skelly@ciis.edu [5:30 PM, 10:18 AM]

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