01.12.2010

Different Worlds

Our Universe is personal and unique to each of us
A few days ago, I saw a young Irish woman who had a difficult cancer. She and her parents were not religious but she told me, with some amusement, that her six year old daughter has recently taken up with God. The daughter - let's call her Annette - prays to Him regularly and wants to go to church. God is a concept that makes perfect sense to a six year old. He made the world and he can cure anyone he wants. Only adults have problems with that.

Similarly, children know what the universe is and where they fit within it. They write their address using a formula such as 16 William St, Maryville, Queensland, Australia, the Earth, the Solar System, the Milky Way Galaxy, the Universe. A child can easily master conceptual words such as "God" and "Universe". There is an intoxicating thrill in learning new words and using them accurately. In fact, Annette could have been using those terms with more psychological benefit than her mother.

As adults however, we know that being able to use a concept is quite different from understanding what it refers to. We can drive a car without knowing how it works. I know the world was created 13.7 billion years ago, but I can't begin to imagine what that means. Annette knows what dogs are, and how to enjoyably relate to them, but she doesn't know the essential nature of either dogginess or any particular dog.

Most philosophers and scientists now assume that we can never understand anything without the contaminating influence of the observer. It is quite impossible to know a dog or God or the universe from an objective viewpoint. We can't even know a dog in the way that it understands itself. Whenever I use the word "dog" I am always referring to "my concept of a dog". We never see the thing-in-itself, only our images of things.

Moreover, our concepts are far more limited and idiosyncratic than we are inclined to admit. Even the most ordinary thing - a gum tree or a cheese sandwich - is saturated with our individual associations. Our concepts are limited by our human perspective. We can't even start to imagine the smell world of a dog. Nor do we realise that most species on Earth are virtually deaf compared to us. We even hear birdsong in far more detail than the birds that make it.

Our concepts are further constrained by the capacity and structure of the human mind. The philosopher Kant said that our brains are too small, too ignorant, too short-lived and too deficient in both software and hardware to ever understand the mind of God, let alone that of an amoeba. We are hardwired from birth to slot the 'buzzing, booming confusion' of sensory data into just a few predetermined categories. Whatever falls outside the boxes doesn't exist for us except as metaphysical speculation.

Even our very best, state-of-the-art, knowledge is never pure. It is always a break-it-down and build-it-up reconstruction of the wisdom, biases and falsehoods of the past. Even the laws of mathematics and physics are provisional concepts vulnerable to correction by new information or better ideas. The world - or to be pedantic about it, our image of the world - is always a work in progress.

Good concepts are so convincing that we forget their provisional nature and regard them as facts. Their value, though, comes not from their accuracy but from their practicality. We use scientific laws to build cities and send spaceships to Saturn. We use religious and political concepts to exert power over others. We prefer a concept to be true, but if it actually works - if it makes us powerful or rich - it hardly matters if it is false.

There is no way we can step outside ourselves and say, "This is the truth" about anything. If we tried to, whose eyes would we use? Whose brain would construct the image? And yet we can't quite believe it. Just like Annette, it feels like we know God. We know the dog. We feel the world we know must really be the world as it is, to everyone and everything. No matter how frequently we are proved wrong, this conviction remains our default position and we constantly bend the facts to maintain its psychic integrity.

So a sentence such as "God made the world" automatically makes sense to us. It is logical, consistent and grammatically sound. It inspires confidence, especially when we consider that millions of people of Annette's mental age would find it meaningful. Yet the slightest reflection tells us that the sentence means nothing until we clarify which God and what kind of world it refers to.

God comes in many different versions, not all of which are compatible. There is God as creator, although it is hard to imagine that he would be interested in our small affairs. We see God more commonly in every religion as the Big Brother enforcer of morality and law. He invariably upholds the status quo, the superiority of men over women and the divine rights of the aristocracy over the working classes. He enforces obedience through conscience and guilt, and through beliefs such as Hell and reincarnation. We know this particular God well.

We can also think of God as a guardian angel or protector. God in this interior sense is a valid global symbol for our intuitions, our immune systems and our instinct for survival. Finally, there is God as the ultimate transcendental goal of Light, Love and Eternity, the end of all bad things and the retirement home in the sky.

In contrast, the word "universe" or "world" seems to refer to something so concrete and practical that it gives all the appearance of being a fact rather than a belief. As a child, I read Time Magazine avidly and was well informed about world affairs. I felt I knew the world well and I did - for a 10 year old. But when I travelled a few years later, I was utterly shocked. The world was nothing like what Time Magazine had led me to believe. It was not that Time and I had divergent perspectives on the same realities - no mental gymnastics could hide the fact that we really saw different worlds.

I now see a multiplicity of worlds wherever I look. I now see that the worlds of men and of women, of children and of old people, of Europeans and Asians, of birds and flies may use similar building blocks, but they are clearly different worlds. Nor do I see them all as equally valid. Millions of people are caught in delusional, self destructive worlds that are just plain bad and wrong. Personally, I would like to privilege the world of white, educated, European males as being the most correct one, but I know I can't get away with that.

Because I like my (concept of the) world to be influenced by science, it changes at a dizzying rate. Nor is this situation likely to settle down any time soon. The great scientific jigsaw puzzle of trying to harmonise all knowledge now seems a fantasy of the past. There are now strong hypotheses that say we will never arrive at a final integrated vision. We will never be able to say, "This is the universe and how it works." Our minds like predictable certainties and laws, but the world doesn't seem to operate that way.

In the face of this dynamic confusion, I often wish I could revert to Annette's simple vision. I wish I could say that "my" world is "The world" and leave it at that. As a meditation teacher, however, I know there is a high prestige, opt-out position.

The formula of the mystical vision is that "All is One". This argues that we are all part of one divine, universal, eternal, blissful consciousness. If we can transcend our egos and become enlightened, all pain and suffering will be revealed as self induced illusions and evaporate into thin air.

This idea may be a useful metaphor of a certain psychic state, and it may prompt further enquiry. Otherwise, it seems narcissistic, the fruit of too much navel gazing. "All is One" means "My truth is everyone's truth" or "I am the universe". This grand vision is actually a very small world, the size of one man's head. Its quality of thinking feels more infantile than adult. Because this is such a difficult position to maintain against the evidence, the mystics of the past tended to be crotchety men who hated dissent and who were disgusted by the messy confusion of life.

I think even Annette would find this attitude silly. At six years old, she would have realised that she is no longer the centre of the universe. Nor would she assume that people who disagree with her are deluded or spiritually immature. She would be far too grown-up for that.

The value of any concept comes not from its accuracy, but, rather, from its practical applications. Any idea, no matter how noble, is just an indulgence unless it influences our behaviour. My conceptual universe appears to be vast. It contains quarks, evolution, krill, galaxies, death, history, any number of stories and huge amounts of junk.

But the world that really matters to me happens moment by moment on a much smaller stage. Infinity is the distance I can walk in a day or in a few days. Eternity is the 20 or 30 years I can reasonably expect to live. Love is not my boundless true nature, but the somewhat fumbling way I relate to the people around me. Wisdom is making reasonable guesses about what to do in any particular situation.

This is the world in which the action occurs. We each have a world like this, constructed over decades and unique to ourselves. It could be the only kind of world that matters.

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