Saturday, November 19, 2016

Could the world have been otherwise?

Often I feel like I'm dreaming, or not quite sure if there's a difference between asleep and awake. Like Descartes, I wonder how I can trust my senses. All of life feels so trapped "inside," like my mind is a chamber from which I never really leave. Ultimately I can't prove that what I experience inside ever really comes from outside. Maybe it's all just my imagination.

On the other hand I'm quite convinced it's not my imagination, because if it were, I would enjoy so much more freedom. Why is it such a fixed law that I cannot pass through solid objects? Why, in order to get from point A to point B, must I pass through all the points in between? Why am I subject to forces, unable to turn them off, so to speak? If I could turn off gravity at will, making it no longer universal but applicable only when I wanted it to be, then I could fly at will. But I could do better; I could simply decide to change my location at will. There would be no physical constraints.

There would still be constraints, of course. Wouldn't logic always constrain my thoughts? As long as one is one and two is two and three is three, one and two make three; it simply cannot be any other way, even in a dream world. It is only the rules governing physical events that seem arbitrary to my mind, not the laws of thought themselves. If I saw someone instantly move from one point to another, I would think I am dreaming, but I would not think there is no difference between falsehood and truth. In a world where people can teleport, they can still be right or wrong about what they think, can't they?

Still, there are at least two things that puzzle me. One is time. Is time logical, or merely physical? When we imagine time travel, we are able to get a long way before we run into irreconcilable paradoxes. We create entire stories based on time travel, but they are always written to carefully avoid the details that bother us. If I can go back and change my own past, then how can I be who I presently am? As my past changes, I change, and therefore I can never actually be who I presently am. That seems to be a logical absurdity, not merely a physical one.

But the deeper puzzle, in my opinion, is how, if at all, I can imagine a world of my own without simply rearranging what I experience in the "real" world (assuming there is such a thing). If I dream up a world by visualizing some new landscape, are there not colors? Are not those colors those I have already seen with my eyes? And if I don't visualize, must I not at least hear or feel something? And how can I possibly imagine sound apart from "remixing" the sounds I have already heard? Or what can it possibly mean to feel other than what I actually experience every day? Is it possible to totally invent a new sensation which has no connection at all with what has already been imposed on me by life in this world? I confess I have tried many times, but I utterly failed.

This is frustrating, because I am aware that there are many sensations which a being could theoretically experience in this "real world" which I cannot. There are animals which hear higher and/or lower frequencies of sound than I ever will, or see different frequencies of light. There are creatures which tolerate different temperatures; do they then have different experiences of temperature? Yet all of these are simply differences of degree, after all. Each of these things can be put on a scale with a number assigned to them, and there are indeed precise mathematical relationships between those numbers. Double a frequency and you go up an octave, or cut it in half to go down. One can almost imagine going higher and higher or lower and lower in frequency with no limit. For me it is much more difficult to understand how different frequencies of light would lead to different experiences, but maybe it is possible, in principle.

The fact that these basic experiences are so attached to mathematical relationships suggests that maybe there is something fundamental about them. Perhaps even in a dream world one could not escape them. Although one can amuse oneself by wondering if anyone else sees the exact same color blue as in one's own mind, maybe the truth is that there is only one color blue, just as there is only one musical note that one hears at 440 Hz. It might be hard to say the same about feelings--how can smoothness, roughness, softness and hardness be quantified? Yet the mere fact that such feelings exist on a continuum suggests that even these might be literally quantifiable and, on some level, fundamental.

In other words, maybe there inheres in all things that exist some fundamental principle of existence. If so, is this not God Himself? But is God's creation of the universe an act of the will, or is it almost a forced decision, a mere logical outworking of principles which even He cannot contradict? Can God himself decide that the laws of logic do not apply? If this is absurd, what if it is no less absurd to think that God could have created a different color blue?

It seems to me impossible to state which would be preferable--that God Himself is subject to laws beyond His own control or design, or that God made the universe according to an arbitrary act of will. The first implies God is not really God at all, but rather an impersonal force which may not have a will of its own whatsoever. The second implies that God is an arbitrary dictator, forcing us to live in a world which very easily could have been different, and for which we may therefore rightly complain about Him.

But if we reject the dichotomy, insisting that in some mysterious way both of these assertions are true--God created the universe both according to His will and according to laws which cannot be altered--we find the world suddenly illuminated with meaning. Nothing is merely arbitrary. Everything possesses some special relationship with that which is absolute, eternal, profoundly mysterious and beautiful. Every single thing. The color blue is worth meditating on. The frequency 440 Hz is worthy of our contemplation. The intervals studied by music theorists are not merely patterns found in our own music; they are divine creations, which can be explored even by the mind and the heart. The laws of physics are no longer constraints, for through them we have access to that which has no location--the divine Himself.

Still, one wonders then what becomes of prayer. If all these relationships are so precisely attuned to God's own will, how can He change them? Why would He ever intervene with a miracle? Why would He ever listen to our input? But our own minds must have some eternal relationship to Him; if language is related to our own actions, why not His as well?

I make no attempt here to resolve these paradoxes. I just find them delightful.

No comments:

Post a Comment

I love to hear feedback!