Sunday, 2 February 2020

Mirror of the Cosmos: Farrerian Reflections on Mind and Nature, Again!

by Simon Smith

Part 7: Arriving together! Did the Cosmos Move for You? 
This is a manifold to which consciousness assuredly belongs, quite possibly as the vital ingredient. If that cosmological revolution which transformed inert matter into participative agency is correct, as both physics and metaphysics suggest, then we who explore it must belong to it. We are, as Einstein avowed, ‘part of the whole, called by us “Universe”.’[1] Huxley agreed, as we have seen, insisting that ‘[h]uman intellectual constructions, together with machines and societies, birds and plants, and minerals and suns and nebulae, are all part of the one cosmic process’.[2] Our exploratory activities, then, are an integral element in the nexus of process and pattern wherein the universe we are exploring is manifest. Those activities make what we call “The Universe” a uni-verse, a whole. What else, since the ‘diagrammatic unity’ of the construct is, Farrer reminds us, nowhere but in the diagrammatising mind. That is the lesson of Schrödinger’s famous feline experiment. Our activities contribute to the collapse of an indefinite range of coexisting quantum possibilities into a coherent, mapable, history; or, as Conti trenchantly put it, ‘[a]cts become facts’.[3]
Crucially, it is in these unifying projects, in the coalescing of consciousness, ‘including all [its] spiritual properties and achievements, with the rest of the universe’,[4] that the downgraded analogue of personal agency is thoroughly upgraded. With a full turn of the hermeneutic circle, what began as projection returns as self-reflection, an image of longed-for harmony and wholeness, of completion or perfection, of infinite otherness.
The transformative potential of such evocative constructs, for human development and for the universe of which that development is a part, becomes clear. Such images - mirrors, masks, personae - reveal the uni-verse as it is known and the mind which knows it. ‘Know thyself’; so sayeth the Delphic oracle; don the mask and speak truth. Wise counsel, indeed; but Sagan’s imagery echoes a more “upwardly mobile” spirit, for ‘[w]e are a way for the cosmos to know itself’.[5] Likewise, Huxley made a lunar leap when he said, ‘[a]s a result of a thousand million years of evolution the universe is becoming conscious of itself, able to understand something of its past history and its possible future’.[6]
In such images of cosmic consciousness the analogical upgrade soars far beyond its origin, towards a ‘transcending archetype’. Farrer called it a ‘“crypto-apprehension” of Infinite Act’, where ‘Infinite Act’ is itself a divinely inspired metaphor; providential embrace interpenetrating (pro)creative acts.[7] This hints at our own infinite extensions, psychologically informed metaphysics reminds us, because it is essentially dialectical, participative, interpersonal. It reflects, simultaneously, both what we are and what we might be: consciousness engaged in its own cosmological extensions. “Crypto-apprehensions” and reflections of perfection invite consciousness to re-conceive itself; no chastened distillate of thought nor unmeant mechanism, but as creative participation in its own projects. Only by entering into them may we overcome what Einstein described as ‘a kind of optical delusion of… consciousness’: the persistent belief that ‘our thoughts and feelings [indeed, all our activities] are somehow separate from the rest’; species, “universe”, and all our others. The scientist advised against taking our limitations too much to heart, be they physical, metaphysical, or psychological. To free ourselves from them and the delusions they provoke, that, he said, giving astrophysics an anthropo-theological flourish, is ‘the one issue of true religion’.
Feuerbach’s point precisely. If the cosmos is, as Huxley maintains, full partner in consciousness[8] then the theistical mind shall countenance no constraint on personal participations. For a ‘limited consciousness,’ Feuerbach declared, ‘is no consciousness’; no consciousness, at any rate, of the cosmos or its interpersonal affirmations and affiliations. ‘Consciousness, in the strict or proper sense, is identical with the consciousness of the infinite’.[9] The infinite nature of consciousness lies in the conscious appropriation of and by the dialectic. Therein lies our own reflection; the image of consciousness cognising and re-cognising, thereby realising, itself as an expression of infinite creativity. That means ‘nothing else than the consciousness of the infinity of the consciousness; or, in the consciousness of the infinite, the conscious subject has for his object the infinity of his own nature’.
Whether Farrer would approve of such Germanic circumlocutions we may never know. Undoubtedly, however, he would applaud the psychological and theological, sentiments. He called it ‘cosmic personalism’.[10] In so doing, he sought, as William James would say, to do the universe the deepest service he could; like Einstein, Sagan, Huxley, Feuerbach, et al., he would say “thou” to it; more, he would, as Whitman did, say:
I, turning, call to thee, O Soul, thou actual Me.

Modelling our explorations of the universe on such dialectical extensions – as Farrer adjured – overcomes the deadlock between personalism and “impersonalism”. The physical and psychological outreach of “personhood”, creative participation in the becoming of others, where conscious acts are embodied in and as a universe becoming conscious of itself: there is the vital clue to the re-integration of mind-and-world.
That re-integration opens the door to a convergence of speculative cosmology with personalist and pragmatic theist; a convergence far deeper than scholars in their respective camps may realise; deeper, certainly, than the “closed category”, subject/object, thinking which still dominates philosophy, theology, and science could ever allow. That convergence is, of course, our real beginning; for conscious exploration and extension; for discovering the unity of our own deeper natures ‘with others and with the rest of the universe.[11] And in such discoveries, does consciousness or personhood become the root of unlimited freedom, the jumping-off place for infinity; or so Huxley thought. It becomes, as we do think and Farrer might have said, the embarkation point for the very grandest of metaphysical experiments.

Phew! Well, I’m sure we’re all glad that’s finally over. And that really is the end – the sexy end! Oh yeah, and so on and so forth. 

[1] My emphasis. Possibly a letter of 1950, as quoted in The New York Times (29 March 1972) and The New York Post (28 November 1972). However, The New Quotable Einstein by Alice Calaprice (Princeton University Press, 2005: ISBN 0691120749), p. 206, has a different and presumably more accurate version of this letter, which she dates to February 12, 1950 and describes as “a letter to a distraught father who had lost his young son and had asked Einstein for some comforting words”.
[2] Huxley, 120.
[3] Conti, Metaphysical Personalism 184.
[4] Huxley, 120.
[5] Sagan, ‘The Shores of the Cosmic Ocean’ 6 min, 40 sec.
[6] Huxley, ‘Transhumanism’, in New Bottles for New Wine, London: Chatto & Windus, 1957, pp.
[7] Conti, ‘Austin Farrer & the Analogy of Other Minds’ 53-4.
[8] Huxley, 122.
[9] Feurbach 2-3.
[10] Farrer, Saving Belief, 63.
[11] Huxley, 267.