words he uses, nor the spelling of those words, nor the breath
necessary for speaking them, nor the movements of his tongue and
lips, nor the psychological working on our brain, nor the
physical sound in our ear, nor the physiological effect on our
nerves. We realize that these things, though interesting and
important, are not the main things of the moment, but that the
meaning and idea is what concerns us. We should have the same
feeling when confronted with a work of art. When this becomes
general the artist will be able to dispense with natural form and
colour and speak in purely artistic language
One of the great feats of evolution, perhaps the greatest, has been this triumph of the interior environment over exterior nature. Inside, we might say, has fought invading outside, and inside, since the beginning of life, by slow degrees has won the battle of life. If it had not, man, frail man with his even more fragile brain, would not exist.
Unless fever or some other disorder disrupts this internal island of safety, we rarely think of it. Body controls are normally automatic, but let them once go wrong and outside destroys inside. This is the simplest expression of the war of nature — the endless conflict that engages the microcosm against the macrocosm.
Since the first cell created a film about itself and elected to carry on the carefully insulated processes known as life, the creative spark has not been generalized. Whatever its principle may be it hides magically within individual skins. To the day of our deaths we exist in an inner solitude that is linked to the nature of life itself. Even as we project love and affection upon others we endure a loneliness which is the price of all individual consciousness — the price of living.
It is, though overlooked, the discontinuity beyond all others: the separation both of the living creature from the inanimate and of the individual from his kind. These are star distances. In man, moreover, consciousness looks out isolated from its own body. The body is the true cosmic prison, yet it contains, in the creative individual, a magnificent if sometimes helpless giant. John Donne, speaking for that giant in each of us, said: “Our creatures are our thoughts, creatures that are borne Gyants…. My thoughts reach all, comprehend all. Inexplicable mystery; I their Creator am in a close prison, in a sick bed, anywhere, and any one of my Creatures, my thoughts, is with the Sunne and beyond the Sunne, overtakes the Sunne, and overgoes the Sunne in one pace, one steppe, everywhere.”
This thought, expressed so movingly by Donne, represents the final triumph of Claude Bernard’s interior microcosm in its war with the macrocosm. Inside has conquered outside. The giant confined in the body’s prison roams at will among the stars. More rarely and more beautifully, perhaps, the profound mind in the close prison projects infinite love in a finite room. This is a crossing beside which light-years are meaningless. It is the solitary key to the prison that is man.
If, as some thinkers occasionally extrapolate, man was so ubiquitous, so easy to produce, why had two great continental laboratories, Australia and South America — “worlds,” indeed — failed to produce him? They had failed, we may assume, simply because the great movements of life are irreversible, the same mutations do not occur, circumstances differ in infinite particulars, opportunities fail to be grasped, and so what once happened is no more. The random element is always present, but it is selected on the basis of what has preceded its appearance.
There is no trend demanding man’s constant reappearance, either on the separate “worlds” of this earth or elsewhere. There can be no more random duplication of man than there is a random duplication of such a complex genetic phenomenon as fingerprints. The situation is not one that is comparable to a single identical cast of dice, but rather it is an endless addition of new genes building on what has previously been incorporated into a living creature through long ages. Nature gambles but she gambles with constantly new and altering dice. It is this well-established fact which enables us to call long-range evolution irreversible.
“A name is a prison, God is free,” once observed the Greek poet Nikos Kazantzakis. He meant, I think, that valuable though language is to man, it is by very necessity limiting, and creates for man an invisible prison. Language implies boundaries. A word spoken creates a dog, a rabbit, a man. It fixes their nature before our eyes; henceforth their shapes are, in a sense, our own creation. They are no longer part of the unnamed shifting architecture of the universe. They have been transfixed as if by sorcery, frozen into a concept, a word. Powerful though the spell of human language has proven itself to be, it has laid boundaries upon the cosmos.
No matter how far-ranging some of the mental probes that man has philosophically devised, by his own created nature he is forced to hold the specious and emerging present and transform it into words. The words are startling in their immediate effectiveness, but at the same time they are always finally imprisoning because man has constituted himself a prison keeper. He does so out of no conscious intention, but because for immediate purposes he has created an unnatural world of his own, which he calls the cultural world, and in which he feels at home. It defines his needs and allows him to lay a small immobilizing spell upon the nearer portions of his universe. Nevertheless, it transforms that universe into a cosmic prison house which is no sooner mapped than man feels its inadequacy and his own.
He seeks then to escape, and the theory of escape involves bodily flight. Scarcely had the first moon landing been achieved before one U.S. senator boldly announced: “We are the masters of the universe. We can go anywhere we choose.” This statement was widely and editorially acclaimed. It is a striking example of the comfort of words, also of the covert substitutions and mental projections to which they are subject. The cosmic prison is not made less so by a successful journey of some two hundred and forty thousand miles in a cramped and primitive vehicle.
To escape the cosmic prison man is poorly equipped. He has to drag portions of his environment with him, and his life span is that of a mayfly in terms of the distances he seeks to penetrate. There is no possible way to master such a universe by flight alone. Indeed such a dream is a dangerous illusion. This may seem a heretical statement, but its truth is self-evident if we try seriously to comprehend the nature of time and space that I sought to grasp when held up to view the fiery messenger that flared across the zenith in 1910. “Seventy-five years,” my father had whispered in my ear, “seventy-five years and it will be racing homeward. Perhaps you will live to see it again. Try to remember.”
And so I remembered. I had gained a faint glimpse of the size of our prison house. Somewhere out there beyond a billion miles in space, an entity known as a comet had rounded on its track in the black darkness of the void. It was surging homeward toward the sun because it was an eccentric satellite of this solar system. If I lived to see it, it would be but barely, and with the dimmed eyes of age. Yet it, too, in its long traverse, was but a flitting mayfly in terms of the universe the night sky revealed.
So relative is the cosmos we inhabit that, as we gaze upon the outer galaxies available to the reach of our telescopes, we are placed in about the position that a single white blood cell in our bodies would occupy, if it were intelligently capable of seeking to understand the nature of its own universe, the body it inhabits. The cell would encounter rivers ramifying into miles of distance seemingly leading nowhere. It would pass through gigantic structures whose meaning it could never grasp — the brain, for example. It could never know there was an outside, a vast being on a scale it could not conceive of and of which it formed an infinitesimal part. It would know only the pouring tumult of the creation it inhabited, but of the nature of that great beast, or even indeed that it was a beast, it could have no conception whatever. It might examine the liquid in which it floated and decide, as in the case of the fall of Lucretius’s atoms, that the pouring of obscure torrents had created its world.
It might discover that creatures other than itself swam in the torrent. But that its universe was alive, had been born and was destined to perish, its own ephemeral existence would never allow it to perceive. It would never know the sun; it would explore only through dim tactile sensations and react to chemical stimuli that were borne to it along the mysterious conduits of the arteries and veins. Its universe would be centered upon a great arborescent tree of spouting blood. This, at best, generations of white blood cells by enormous labor and continuity might succeed, like astronomers, in charting.
They could never, by any conceivable stretch of the imagination, be aware that their so-called universe was, in actuality, the prowling body of a cat or the more time-enduring body of a philosopher, himself engaged upon the same quest in a more gigantic world and perhaps deceived proportionately by greater vistas. What if, for example, the far galaxies man observes make up, across void spaces of which even we are atomically composed, some kind of enormous creature or cosmic snowflake whose exterior we will never see? We will know more than the phagocyte in our bodies, but no more than that limited creature can we climb out of our universe, or successfully enhance our size or longevity sufficiently to thrust our heads through the confines of the universe that terminates our vision.
Some further “outside” will hover elusively in our thought, but upon its nature, or even its reality, we can do no more than speculate. The phagocyte might observe the salty turbulence of an eternal river system, Lucretius the fall of atoms creating momentary living shapes. We suspiciously sense, in the concept of the expanding universe derived from the primordial atom — the monobloc — some kind of oscillating universal heart. At the instant of its contraction we will vanish. It is not given us, nor can our science recapture, the state beyond the monobloc, nor whether we exist in the diastole of some inconceivable being. We know only a little more extended reality than the hypothetical creature below us. Above us may lie realms it is beyond our power to grasp.
I feel like you owe it to yourself as a distinct and sentient individual, with free will and arguably boundless potential, to remove yourself from the restrictive expectations of your parents. The challenge they will face is that they have succeeded, if you are happy - but that is not your burden to carry. Let them work that out; instead, embrace the idea of success that is most true to yourself - not one, I stress, that is any less intellectually and physically rigorous than something your parents may ordain (more, even), but one that objectively recognizes the immense efforts you have put in - without accurate and genuine benchmarks, and without a legitimate reward system, I fear you, as a person - may be limited.
You know you’re successful. Embrace it. Don’t let some admissions committee tell you you’re not, and don’t let your parents say so either - they have their own challenge to face.
Thus, there is a paradox in Impressionism. Seeking, through realism, to capture the look of the modern, public world, Impressionist artists rely on an increasingly private version of it. They do not render the optical world so much as they record their visual sensations of it. They analyze the tonal continuum away and replace it with discontinuous spots of color, the quality and placement of which depend on their personal choice in the technical process of painting. The public world is only a stimulus for the reflexive, unreflecting, Impressionist response. The way the world looks is not given; it becomes the decision— in a way, the invention— of the artist. Searching for reality, the artist comes to find it in himself. Nothing could be more romantic!
One thing about your current stage, that had crossed my mind, was the commitment and expense involved in starting a university degree. A few weeks back you posted that, in effect, you’d soon be deciding whether to join the student debt brigade, or do something else entirely, like become an artist. At the same time, there are all those larger trends and social currents, like the dropouts who will tell you that university too is intellectually sterile, or the people who say that
universities have been dumbed down as they change from being elite
institutions to something that the majority of society attends; there
are the people who say “you’ll be able to do all courses online
anyway, who needs to go to a campus”, and the others who say that those courses (MOOCs) are just a way to further commercialize,
degrade, and destroy the true spirit of intellectual collegiality and
inquiry that has already declined under the populism of “university
degrees for all”… the view that universities have become technical
colleges, places you go to become a dentist or a lawyer or an
engineer, with e.g. humanities and philosophy as a sort of archaic
leftover that hangs around because it’s traditional…
Oh, and I also failed to mention the iconoclasts of all the disciplines, whose objection to the academy is because it ignores the truth about cold fusion, or the origin of languages, or whatever - the view which says that the academy is just a high-status fortress of dogma, and real thought and real discovery happens outside it. You already know one example of an alternative academy (Less Wrong), many of whose members think they know better than the university mediocrities, and of course there are many other such intellectual islands out there, usually either based on a suppressed topic in a particular discipline (thus the cold fusion example), or occasionally they will be based on some polymath/crackpot who has an opinion on everything, and so followers treat that person and their works as a substitute for the whole university; also there would be new areas of human activity which just aren’t represented in the university yet - this can be cultural movements, subcultures, arts like a writers’ movement, and also technical, stuff like 3D printing or DIY-biology. And finally(?), it’s a wide world, the universities of Iran or China would contain many perspectives alien to anything you’d hear on an American campus.
And then against all this, and especially against the people who say
that American universities are just engines of mediocrity that
perpetuate the idiocracy | warfare state | student debt scam… and
which will collapse when the revolution of new intellectuals | peace
and justice | Internet degrees comes … there would be the somewhat
more standard view that universities do provide a home for quality
thought, they have historically been indispensablee in the advance of
knowledge and will continue to be so, and it’s not a waste of time and
money for you to attend.
A separate issue regarding the adequacy of university, is whether it
would help, or in fact hinder you, in pursuing one of the types of
truth that interests you: existential truth, wisdom about life and how
to live, and so on. Almost certainly you won’t find *that* in a
philosophy department. Most of those people are technicians of various specialized studies; philosophers of broader topics like law and politics are mostly living lives of respectable middle-class
satisfaction, they have weighted up their options and found themselves content to spend their lives in a university office reading books and talking with younger people; and you may manage to find a few people (perhaps in other faculties than philosophy) who are a bit like gurus - they may have followers and admirers - but in general academia demands specialization, so campus gurus are probably going to be narrow in their vision.
There is, however, another and easier though not entirely frivolous side to science. This is a peculiar type of informed ignorance. The scientist’s ignorance is rather different from the layman’s ignorance, because the background of established fact and theory on which the scientist bases his peculiar brand of ignorance excludes a wide range of nonsense from his speculations. In the higher and hazier reaches of the scientist’s ignorance, we have scientifically informed ignorance about the origin of the universe, the ultimate basis of knowledge, and the relation of our present scientific knowledge to politics, free will, and morality. In this particular chapter we will dabble in what I hope to be scientifically informed ignorance about language.
The warning is, of course, that much of what will be put forward here about language is no more than informed ignorance. The warning seems necessary because it is very hard for laymen to tell scientific ignorance from scientific fact. Because the ignorance is necessarily expressed in broader, sketchier, and less qualified terms than is the fact, it is easier to assimilate. Because it deals with grand and unsolved problems, it is more romantic. Generally, it has a wider currency and is held in higher esteem than is scientific fact.
However hazardous such ignorance may be to the layman, it is valuable to the scientist. It is this vision of unattained lands, of unscaled heights, which rescues him from complacency and spurs him beyond mere plodding. But when the scientist is airing his ignorance he usually knows what he is doing, while the unwarned layman apparently often does not and is left scrambling about on the cloud mountain without ever having set foot on the contents of knowledge.
With this caution in mind, let us return to what we have already encountered concerning language and proceed thence…