May 19, 2011

Initially the pieces posted here under the heading of "From Liberty Street" were written for the Harvard Square Commentary. It came out on Monday, so after it went away, I continued to designate the items I wrote on Mondays as falling under that rubric. They were somewhat different from my others postings because they tended to be a little longer -- 800 to 1000 words, rather than 400 to 600. But gradually, I started making most of the pieces I wrote around eight or nine hundred words, and the distinction faded away. I kept on with "From Liberty Street" on Mondays merely out of habit. Since that makes no sense, I have decided to re-configure the series by reserving it for a certain range of topics.

How to describe that range is a bit of a problem for me. I have in mind something that is broadly philosophical, but not in any technical sense. The concept "a framework for living" appeals to me, but I'm not sure it will make sense to many. Over time the pieces, if they do cohere, will define the category, and that's probably all I can hope for anyway.

I'll start today with some musings about infinity.

First of all, it's a notion the mind can't grasp. How can anything go on forever? Doesn't there have to be an edge, a boundary, somewhere? Modern science seems to be saying, maybe not. But still we can't really get the idea firmly in mind.

Modern philosophy, since Kant, has been influenced by the inaccessibility of the "thing in itself" or ultimate reality. If there is such a thing, and Kant thought there was, it may, and probably does, lie outside the penetrative capabilities of the human intellect.

The thing in itself remains unknown to us. All we can know are the appearances, or representations as Schopenhauer called them, that is the constructions our minds make in response to the sensations we receive. So why should we care about anything other than the appearances? If they're all we can access, then they are our reality, and if there is an ultimate reality, different from what we can ever perceive, then it must simply be constituted from the appearances of an ultimate knower.

But what does that mean -- an ultimate knower? The common term used for such an entity is God. But when we talk about God, isn't that just a way of admitting that we don't know. If God is ultimate, and if we can't get through to ultimate because of who and what we are, then how can we possibly apprehend the appearances, or representations, God makes for himself?

And these godly representations, which we say are ultimate because God is ultimate, what right do we have to call them reality? At the point we begin to speak of reality in that mode, doesn't the definition of it simply blow up?

Suppose God's representations are, like ours, hidden behind a veil. Then what's on the other side of that veil? Can we call it an even bigger reality? You can see how this could go on like the little girl on the Morton salt box.

I have known people who claim to be distressed by the thought of an endless series of anything, whether those things are universes, or appearances, or ever bigger gods. But why are they distressed? If the Kantian hypothesis has merit, if because of who we are we can't penetrate even the first veil, why should the thought of a tenth veil, or a hundredth veil, or a billionth veil distress us any more than we are distressed already?
What if out there, on the other side of some large-numbered veil there is something that is influencing our lives? If there is, it will have to come to us as an appearance, and we will have to struggle with it as we do with all other appearances.

I am gradually beginning to find some comfort in the concept of infinity. If the number of influences that might, through some wiggling process, modify some of our appearances is limitless, that means anything is possible. Anything, of course, includes good things, bad things and all things in between. But it does provide a sense of adventure.

What I'm groping towards saying is that the notion of an infinite number of realities presenting themselves to limitless types of knowers might increase the supply of our own appearances, bringing forth possibilities we have not even begun to imagine. And not only that. The growth of appearances and possibilities will never stop.

I realize such speculation is so fantastic it can become tiring. When we get fed up with it, we go back to the appearances we have firmly in hand. Shaws is on Main Street and I can go there and buy a potato. And, actually, I can, even though all of my going and buying is no more than an appearance.

Most of the time I'm content with Shaws and the potatoes. But when I'm not, when, late at night, my mind descends to fearfulness, the thought of infinity is not a bad place to turn.

P.S. I'll try to produce something for "From Liberty Street" about once a week. But those items will no longer come on a specific day.

©John R. Turner

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