The Deification of Abstractions & its Discontents 

With his publication of the theory of General Relativity, Einstein shook the Newtonian foundations that had supported the physical sciences for centuries. In 1915, in his presentation of what have come to be called the Einstein field equations, Einstein posited a new model of the universe, which finds space & time melded together by gravity into an single undulatory manifold. Nevertheless, even an hundred years later, this manifold remains largely abstract. According to his conventions of thought, the typical westerner experiences space & time as qualitatively different (or thinks she does). Indeed, wavy spacetime warped by gravity seems to defy common imagination: time flows while space persists—even in a windstorm. Spatially, the western civilian still imagines a material universe subject to the pristine logic of Euclidian geometry & the immutable commandments of Newtonian physics. Time, alternatively, is faithfully told by hourglasses, iPhones, & grandfather clocks as the future continually perishes into history. We considered this conventional paradigm & its implications in earlier pieces in the Beyond Cartesianism series. We now return to such consideration at The Lizard-press only because the charter of journalism impels us to an examination of what we discover in our investigation, whether we like what we discover or not. When we, therefore, encounter the mythology of Scientific Materialism masquerading as science proper—science as institution & not as spirit—we find ourselves compelled to expose it.

In fact, implicit in the difficulty we encounter in attempts to apprehend General Relativity & it’s implications is the suggestion that the metaphysics which informs our conventional physics is outdated. To recapitulate this Cartesian world-view as we examined it in earlier segments at The Lizard-press: the world consists of two “entirely distinct” substances—bodies & mind.* As Descartes himself articulated his Cartesian Dualism in 1641 in his seminal work Meditationes de Prima Philosophia:

Each substance has a principal attribute, and . . . the attribute of the mind is thought, while that of body is extension…
Body is by nature always divisible, and the mind is entirely indivisible….
Thus extension in length, breadth and depth, constitutes the nature of corporeal substance; and thought constitutes the nature of thinking substance. For all else that may be attributed to body presupposes extension, and is but a mode of this extended thing; as everything that we find in mind is but so many diverse forms of thinking.

Bodies are extended in space while mind is non-local, thinking transpiring only in time. We may express our conventional understanding in this way, employing a fourfold partition of our experience into the concepts of
& time.
Bodies subsist in space while thoughts do not; rather the latter swim like invisible fishes through a sea of time. Alternatively we might call these categories matter & mind, which likewise inhabit their respective media. Once we have so neatly segregated these concepts asunder, we find ourselves confronted with the problematic task of reconciling this model with the implications of Einstein’s field equations & a slew of other advancements in post-modern physics, not to mention our actual experience. Indeed to adopt General Relativity & simultaneously retain our grasp on these concepts is impossible without all manner of intellectual acrobatics & contortionist maneuvers. One is reminded of a monkey-trap that consists of a half-a banana & a Ball jar:
the creature approacheth,
poacheth the fruit,
graspeth it,
& refuses to relinquish his prize despite that his fist won’t fit back out of the mouth while still retaining its possession, and the monkey himself becomes therefore the new object of poaching by a hindu in New Delhi. Perhaps it runs in the phylogenetic family that we as naked apes hold onto our own possessions no less-dearly, no more-lucidly, & with no less inconvenience to our real interests. Our trouble in the particular enterprise in question is that we have surreptitiously reified space & time (not to mention matter & mind). We have taken these abstractions to be wrought of sterner stuff than that which dreams are made of; in short, we have turned these concepts into things.

We speak of space as the medium of bodies & time as that of mind. Nevertheless, this only makes sense within our particular system of conceptual abstractions. In fact, we never actually experience any one of these four phenomena (i.e. space, time, bodies, mind). Instead, we experience metamorphosing qualities, which we might alternatively call processes, and which live, weave, arise, & ultimately pass away back into the cosmic dynamo. Bodies & mind are qualitatively different, but not quantitatvely so because quantity itself is a product of the selsame system of abstractions, together will all measure, number, & weight. Space & time are qualitately different but not categorically so—they both arise as permutations of our experience. It is likewise with the counterparts of bodies & mind.

Consider, for example, that we never actually experience matter at all. Instead we experience qualities such as weight, hardness, smoothness, color, etc… & then abstract matter in the form of a mahogany coffee-table. Descartes takes an abstraction as the fundament whereon to construct his entire ontology; a cathedral builder in a quagmire!

We could consider an analogous process in the genesis of time: in fact, one thing happens, & then the next. From an eternal bloom of activity, we isolate a discreet sequence of events, & thence in we abstract chronology itself. As Shunryu Suzuki describes this in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind:

You may say, ‘I must do something this afternoon’ but actually there is no ‘this afternoon’ … At one o’clock you will eat your lunch. To eat your lunch is, itself, one o’clock.

Furthermore, just because we eat our lunch inside the space of a mess-hall doesn’t mean that space is a thing. Space & time commingle, merge, & beget the eternally unfolding experience we call “place.”

From this perennial & infinite plenum of living processes that constitutes our unadulterated experience of place, the promise of predictive utility impels us to abstract particular concepts to form our model of conventional physics. As heuristics, the concepts of this physics (like space, time, mass, charge, & spin, etc…) are sufficiently accurate representations of the said plenum to engender all the technological proliferation that we have come to enjoy, adore, & worship in our modern age. Here at The Lizard-press, despite our prehistoric tendencies, we deeply appreciate these modern conveniences, & indeed acknowledge that all the contents of our modest periodical sprang from the silicon loins within the processor of a single iPad & furthermore finds advancement exclusively through “the series of pipes & tubes” that we also call “the Internet.” Nevertheless, we also acknowledge that humanity’s bargain for technological prowess was totally Faustian: our physical sciences advance in inverse proportion to our spiritual sciences & our philosophy: facts supersede understanding, we mistake the pointing finger for the Moon, & we hoard knowledge at the expense of gnosis.

In short, utilitarian concerns impel abstract thinking to fashion the concepts of physical science from our unadulterated experience. Then, distracted thinking forgets that it did this, mistaking the resulting models for truth. As a result, we suffer in a continual struggle to reconcile the internal consistency of this fable convenue with our actual experience. Space, time, mind, & matter are not the living jungles of Ecuador, but rather the theoretical Equator that conceptually passes through them. The latter fits neatly into an atlas on the (previously-mentioned) coffee-table; a square inch of the former beggars all quantification. Atomic theory & Newtonian physics, as useful models, bear a similar relationship to the universe as the topographical map to the dusky rainforest, with gigantic reptiles, great cats, & howler-monkeys, etc…. We might call our proclivity to “mistake the map for the territory,” as Alfred Korzybski expressed it, “the reification of abstractions,” & our collective amnesia about our own agency in this project “the deification of abstractions.” Technological advancement demonstrates that first activity is a useful enterprise; in the second, however, the engineer himself is hoist with his own petard,
& ’twill go hard
for us as we find ourselves imprisoned in an interminable labyrinth of our own intellectual machinations.

*In fact, Cartesius actually delineates three substances: the two said substances & a third whereupon the former dualism depends. This ultimate substance, which supports the two relative ones, he calls “God.”


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