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The Politics of Eternity

There is a tradition in metaphysical philosophy of defining transcendence or ultimate reality by a special relationship to time. Specifically, the transcendent or metaphysical is supposed to be what is eternal, with a special mode of being which is outside of time. That tradition expresses the assumption that there is something deficient and derivative about change, about becoming, things that are ephemeral, things that eventually transform into something different, and about time itself. It was thought that temporary presences, continually passing away and being replaced by other temporary presences (including the world-within-time), could not be real as such, but must be a kind of illusion explainable as effects, creations, expressions, or distortions of some other mode of Being which is eternally the same and so perfectly real. Supposedly, only the perfectly real could be the ultimate ground or cause of the transitory things of ordinary experience. For ancient philosophers, identifying the eternal metaphysical source of changing appearances would be knowledge properly so-called, since only eternal objects can be objects of genuine knowledge or reliable references of names, which they thought necessary to make language meaningful. (Behind that is an idea of discovering the ultimate unity of language, thought, and objective reality.) Possibly it was the shock and fear of death approaching, of personal not-being, that inspired this fascination with eternity. Possibly it seemed that achieving knowledge of eternal Being would overcome the apparent inevitability of death and so achieve a kind of immortality.

However, that ancient philosophical reverence for eternity is peculiar, perverse, and self-defeating. If anything is well and truly dead it is eternity. Eternity is not immortality. The kind of life that is definitive of human individuals is impossible without change and becoming. Living intelligence is devoted to an evasion of finality or completeness, an evasion of being finished and forever the same. The crucial point, though, is that this assumption of the superiority and priority of eternity or Being immediately sets up a top-down structure of reality and places ordinary life and experience in a disadvantaged or deficient position. It projects a parent-child hierarchy onto the cosmos at large, with a senior layer in control of a junior layer. It denigrates the life of human intelligence and especially the life of individual intelligence which is so clearly ever-changing when flourishing, and flourishing only ephemerally. That conception of a hierarchical structuring of reality at the largest scale has social and political consequences, because there are cultural factions of humans who mimic the structure in that fable of metaphysics and use an association with symbols of eternity such as monumental architecture, art, and institutional scale and stability to support their claims of superiority to, authority over, and ownership of the lives of ordinary individuals.

The top-down structure of reality codified in the metaphysics of eternity is still current and foundational in conceptions of modern science. Although things move and grow and die and decay in the objective world, scientists proceed with the identification of eternal natural laws, mathematical patterns, or underlying elements that do not change, eternal foundations within the objective world through which change is reducible to permanent formulae. So the objective world, to which in science anything and everything reduces, can be made, finally, to reveal the truths of eternity. If the individual life of intelligence is to be rescued from that ancient philosophical perversion, then it should be the freedom of a life in time rather than eternity which is recognized as transcendent. When freedom, instead of eternity, is identified as transcendent, then the conceptualization of reality as a whole becomes dramatically different and presents us with a bottom-up structure.

There are many culturally ingrained suggestions that we are not competent to confront profound issues, that we should accept authorized teachings, a recognized creed, a formula, given us by authorities of our culture, but those suggestions reveal only a culture constructed to be disempowering. Authoritative declarations of individual incompetence are just reprints of Christendom’s fable of original sin. One form of warning away from questions of transcendence is something like: transcendence is so remote from common experience that it can’t be encountered and critiqued by people in general. However, it turns out that common experience is full of the transcendence constituted by teleological time, which is not remote in the least. In a re-conceptualized bottom-up system of reality, everything that is supernatural, metaphysical, and transcendent gets restored from cosmic objectivity to individual subjectivity, where it was and is actually experienced in the first place. Some find it difficult to let go of parental deity and sovereignty, but recognizing those as bogus does nothing like plunging us into an abyss of meaningless chaos. We can deal with this re-conceptualization of transcendence, along with a thorough re-conceptualization of nature and community. Critical thinking is strongest when applied to a whole system of reality, starting with the most revered and supernatural features, and weakest when applied piecemeal to individual claims and assertions.

Time, Transcendence, and Brute Actuality

Individual freedom is what is transcendent in bottom-up metaphysics, and freedom is exactly the opposite of eternity, it is having time, as intelligence does and the voice of intelligence does, and as nature does not. All physical things are strict actualities, and in nature this instant of brute actuality specifically and categorically excludes the existence of all other instants. Time reveals very little about nature but a great deal about intelligence. Time, as experienced in ordinary life with plans and expectations (teleology) and an increasingly complicated and remote past, is a personal construct of non-actualities. All expectations and intentions are non-actualities which encounter actuality at some point (are always pointed or aimed at doing so) and in doing so accumulate an increasingly rich and enduring orientation-past structured of non-actualities. Memories are points or positions of re-orientation. Time is an illusion but not a delusion. Rather, it is a magnificent non-actuality constructed and deployed in acts of an intelligence (builder and deployer of non-actualities) to be free in the world, to live and keep personal particularity indefinite, incomplete, or open. Any intelligence needs non-actualities (interior to its orientation) to survive as a living being in the world. Non-actualities are meta-physical, which is to say, they are not part of determinate nature. A crucial point is that there is no justification for exteriorizing what is meta-physical, for alienating what is non-actual from the interior orientation of individual intelligences.

There are a couple of crucial things that make bottom-up metaphysics distinct from the top-down variety, although what is transcendent is still defined by a special relationship to time. Individual freedom can’t claim to be the cause of nature at large or of everything that exists. Bottom-up reality is a pluralist instead of a monist reality. The bottom (the freedom of individual subjects-in-time) of bottom-up metaphysics is still outside physics because it is not pre-determinable in terms of universal laws or any other universals. The particularity of subjects-in-time is always indefinite because they continuously re-creating themselves merely by continuing to live. However this creative power is not omnipotent, universal, or unitary. Subjectivity is limited, localized, embodied, ephemeral, individual, and plural.

Most systems of reality include a large supernatural super-structure in the form of disembodied and immortal spirits, including gods and demons, or eternal metaphysical realms (heaven), invisible transcendent causes, forces, substances, or special arcane states of being. Such systems are always top-down with respect to ordinary individuals because the individual is explained as a product, result, creation, or effect of prior, larger, or higher forces and structures, often some form of omnipotent will. Whenever ideas, forms, laws, classes, or categories are considered to be prior to ordinary individuals, more real or important than individuals, you have a top-down system. However, attempts to describe naked actuality at large, to go beyond common objects-as-experienced in an effort to describe universal nature or what would exist if there were no embodied intelligences or their cultures, are always based on speculation, wild guesses and imaginings, hopes and fears, blatant and bogus objectification (projection) of subjectivity. As soon as you depart from the immediate presences which are the non-actualities (such as expectations and intentions) constructed and deployed by yourself or some other embodied intelligence, you create a delusional fable by objectifying features that make sense only within the orientation construct of a particular intelligence functioning and carrying on a life in the world. A person does not need to speculate about matters of direct acquaintance.

There is a distinction to be emphasized between the reality of individual intelligences and the “reality” of abstract ideas and categories constructed by intelligences in order to orient ourselves in the world of actuality. Ideas, classes, and categories are all non-actualities which have their being only in the interior orientation of individual intelligences. William of Ockham (Ockham’s razor) was correct that abstractions are all subjective non-actualities. He was on the bottom-up side of a Medieval debate on this issue, the top-down side asserting that “universals” were objective actualities, with a reality prior to and independently of ordinary intelligences. Abstractions are always ideas, which is to say, interior creations of an ordinary embodied intelligence, and, as such, non-actualities. When presented as subsisting independently of ordinary intelligences, such things are being illegitimately objectified, projected or exteriorized, sorted into the wrong category. This applies also to numbers, quantities, measurability, and comparability. Such non-actualities have the character of dreams, but that does not mean they are trivial or frivolous in any sense. They are crucial acts of intelligences constructing their freedom.

Bottom-Up Self-Acquaintance

The goal in contemplating bottom-up metaphysics is acquaintance with personal identity as a particular, autonomous, and spontaneous creator and builder of effective non-actualities, of completely personal states of orientation. Coming to that acquaintance requires a re-conceptualization (partly a de-conceptualization) of the standard modern system of reality, which normally guides what we expect and will accept in perception and experience. You become acquainted with the free creative self by focusing on the distinction between actuality and non-actuality in your own experience, and then the specific importance and role of non-actualities in personal orientation and freedom, all of which is clearly re-thinking an elemental level of personal experience. Although that consciousness is reached by a thinking process, it isn’t the conclusion of an argument. It isn’t a proposition but a direct experience, an encounter, a self-acquaintance of the questioning in your own gaze. Freedom isn’t a proposition but instead is personal orientation, teleological time itself. Of course self-directed reorientation is teleological within the framework of being in a life, crucially indeterminate and impossible without being built laboriously along guidelines of satisfaction to intelligence: sustainability, gratification, playfulness, making an accumulating mark, and interconnectedness with other intelligences.

Transcendent Self-Possession

There is here a special sense of self-directed re-orientation, based on bottom-up self-identification, as opposed to the top-down identities assigned by ambient society, stipulated in terms of cultural, religious, and economic categories from on-high, accompanied by claims of ownership from on-high. Thinking philosophically is acting on the determination never to give away the right to define who you are. As the craft of autonomous self-acquaintance, philosophy is the beginning and foundation of bottom-up political force. Any form of being owned is slavery, by definition and in practice. Since the creative questioning you encounter is essentially free, it can’t be the property of, can’t be owned by, anything, and this bottom-up self-identification is a transcendent self-possession. There isn’t anything deficient about the life-in-time of individual intelligences. Instead, that is exactly where transcendence flourishes.

Copyright © 2015 Sandy MacDonald.