The Great Way is without limit, fathomless and subtle, beyond comprehension, beyond words. – The Ceasing of Notions
To imagine that the world can be contained by a system is a fairly quick route to the madhouse. Even so, the temptation to encapsulate the world by a system of thought has proved irresistible for western minds particularly. Physics might make the boldest claim in this regard, and yet physics has no final answers, only models. In any case physics is merely instructing us on how our representation of the world works, not what the world is itself. It doesn’t require too much thought to realize that our mind gives shape to the reality we perceive. It doesn’t create that reality – we are not God, but evolution has refined the way our minds see reality so it gives us a survival advantage. Even time and space are constructs of our mind, as is causality and the fact we see the world composed of objects. Read Kant if you want a fuller appreciation of these facts.
The philosophers also fall into two groups based on systemic thinking. Spinoza and Kant were system thinkers, creating a framework for the nature of reality. In my opinion Spinoza’s system is flawed in that he implicitly believed we had a God’s-eye view of the world, and that space is a real thing. Even so his analysis of the nature of the human mind and emotions is second to none. Kant on the other hand builds a system to actually destroy the knowledge we think we have. In any event these philosophers are not diminished by their system thinking, but if we are to appreciate reality we have to let go of systems, as the existential philosophers did – and specifically Nietzsche.
A person buying into a system that claims to represent reality is unnecessarily cramping their world view. It is perhaps the greatest of all human illusions that we can encapsulate reality within a system of thought. In any case human thought has similarly been fine tuned by evolution to give us a survival advantage and is a highly conditioned thing.
From a perspective of instrumentality systems are fine. Newtonian mechanics allows us to put a man on the moon, and there would be no smart phones without quantum mechanics. What distinguishes these instrumental systems is that they make no claim to provide a full understanding of reality – they are useful, instrumental, functional, but not true – despite the pretensions of physicists.
That brings us to the notion of truth – a Holy grail that has been pursued by religious folk and philosophers throughout the ages. So here we are, we human beings imprisoned within our own sensory and conceptual prison, pretending we can know “the truth”. Yes, of course we can know truths of fact – the sky is blue, and logical truths A=B and B=C therefore A=C, but these do not represent “the truth” – does existence have a beginning, why is there something instead of nothing? It turns out that philosophers tend to build a system of thought, and establish truths that simply reflect their own biases. For Kant this was the determination to show that even though we can know nothing our behavior should nonetheless be pious. Spinoza was driven to show that all is contained within God, and Schopenhauer was hell-bent on demonstrating that the world is one almighty shit-show. The truth is not something we have access to, we mortal creatures imprisoned in our sensory and conceptual prison cell.
Finally we come to the notion of laws. Physicists flatter themselves when they say the world obeys the laws of physics. I think the reverse is more accurate, since the world existed before physicists tinkered around until they found equations that approximate the behavior of things – as such the laws of physics obey the universe. But beyond mundane laws that apply to physical objects we have religious folk and philosophers claiming there are laws that operate in the domains of morality and existence. The law of cause and effect is taken as a given, and yet before Kant no one asked whether this law might not just be a feature of the way we see the world. Laws of morality and behavior suffer similar delusional foundations. There are no laws other than the ones we invent and find useful. As such, the laws of the state serve the power possessors and in no way reflect some God-given imperative.
So here we are trying desperately to make sense of the world through systems, laws and truths, when no such things exist outside our own creations. Those creations might be useful, but they are not absolute – we cannot know the absolute. At a personal level this means you can abandon your attempts to put a strangle-hold on life, and in the process make yourself a good candidate for the madhouse. You can also abandon your notions of absolute good and bad, and that the “truth is out there”. I don’t know about you, but that is such a relief. I think I’ll have a donut and a cup of tea.