Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Thoughts on Three Questions: The First Question


My friend Alberto asked me a set of three quite interesting questions in relationship to the question of how impressions fall into us and form, in combination with our psyche and our soul, a character — that is, an individual being of a particular quality.

The First Question: Why are there differences between individuals? Where do they come from?

Creation of itself is a process of differentiation. If we take this question from the perspective of cosmology and physics alone, before the Big Bang, all of what is now a universe was compressed into a singularity, a unified state of (presumably) infinitely low entropy. 

The instant that it expanded, its unity was compromised and the collapse into higher state of disorder was assured. Relative to the state before the Big Bang, everything that has ensued is infinitely more chaotic: regions and objects of both high and low entropy are scattered about across the universe. 

So the universe is, by its nature, an engine of differentiation: creation, whether physical or metaphysical, serves first as a generator of difference before it does anything else. Difference has a primacy of nature which is so obvious it generally goes unexamined. “It’s just that way.”

This is the physics and the science of it; things are by their nature different. 

It has been an observation of mine, since I attended the birth of my own children and was present almost immediately after the birth of some others, all of which took place when I was in my 30s, that children arrive here with who they are already in them. 

Each child is different; and the intelligence, the awareness, the nature of that child is already fully formed in the way that it is when the child is born. It’s not as though the awareness and the consciousness of the child arrives later, or is present at birth only as a tiny seed that grows. My daughter was exactly the person she is today that she was the moment I first saw her when her head cleared the womb. All the characteristics of her intelligence and the way that she processes her world were already present. They didn’t come from her exposure to the outer world. All the outer world has ever done since is impress itself into her pre-existing being during the course of her life. This is a corollary to the Buddhist koan of “what was your face before you were born?”

The same is true of my son. It’s commonplace, with children, to intuit essential qualities about how they are and will be intellectually, emotionally, physically on the very first day they are born. Thus all of the fairytales and legends about soothsayers who tell the parents (or King or Queen or what have you) what the child’s destiny is aren’t implausible after all. This is because the child arrives as he or she is in a very exact way; and the path that their life makes available to them, their possibilities and their fate, are somehow predetermined.

The tension between free will and predetermination in metaphysics and Christianity is long-standing; and the general supposition is that one must have the one or the other, that they cannot coexist. Yet what if they do? This would certainly confound us; and since we are already so well and truly confounded by the universe as it stands, why not this?

I think the point is that Being comes from a place beyond nature itself. It is supernatural; it flows, as Meister Eckhart points out, into the soul from the unknown. This is the same thing as saying that Being flows into the soul from God, because God and the unknown are synonymous in Meister Eckhart’s teaching, as they are in most of esoteric Christianity. Jeanne de Salzmann equated love with the unknown in her personal journals:

We have to free ourselves from the known. Once free, we can enter the unknown, the void, the complete stillness,

where there is no deterioration—the only state in which we can find out what life is and what love is. (The Reality of Being, p. 175)

As Swedenborg pointed out long before JDS, there is no difference between God and love. Swedenborg went further and threw wisdom into the equation; and that makes sense, because wisdom must be of God. After all, as Walt Whitman reminded us when confronted with a child’s simple question about leaves of grass, we ourselves have none:

“A child said What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands;

How could I answer the child? I do not know what it is any more than he.”

We pretend to wisdom; yet we always fall short. 

The universe does not just present differences; it demands them. The premise of its very existence rests on differentiation. If things were to remain the same, there would have been no Big Bang. 

This rather lengthy preamble leads us to the heart of the question: what is it that demands a difference?

Physics and science would seek the reason for difference in the purely material. They do not see a tension between the fact that things began as absolutely indifferent, in the sense of a perfect and infinitely compressed order of the highest magnitude, for an unknown (and possibly infinite) amount of time, and then transitioned in an instant into a universal state of absolute difference. 

The premise of the Big Bang rests on this. The state in which the universe existed before it existed (awkward, but this is the only way we can refer to it) was stable for an unknown amount of time; and then an instability arose. We do not know what that instability was, or how it could even arise in a state of such high order. What we do presume to know is that there was a triggering event. 

Because we know absolutely nothing about the true origin of the universe, only about the physical consequences of difference that ensued, we can say nothing about this other than that something came about which had the apparent intention of arousing difference. That arousal of difference produced what we call intelligence: and intelligence could not have arisen if it was not already inherent in the pre-universe before the Big Bang. For the sake of a better word, we refer to that intelligence as God.

 There was an intention towards difference because knowing cannot take place within sameness. That which is same already knows itself, to the extent to which it is aware; and this might well be described as the state of the universe before the Big Bang. It knew itself within the limits of what it was because all of it was the same. A wish arose, however, to know itself not through sameness but through difference; and this required a change of a radical kind.

Here we gaze into the unknown. A great mystery lies in this action; and in a certain sense every enterprise in which intelligence is engaged turns around this mystery. What does it mean to say “I am?” What does it mean to say “I wish to be?” These questions are more compelling than the action of the statements themselves; and this is what a search is made of.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.

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