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Human and ultimate consciousness; the pitfalls of rationalist cosmology.

The human understanding is a limited one. Thrust into an existence incomprehensible, unjustified, and possibly absurd, we grasp at fleeting sensory tendrils, like hot puffs of steam in the night, attempting to catch and retain some clues as to our own essence--an essence that ultimately eludes us. What person, looking out into the sublime vault of night or the soft-edged blossom of dawn, can claim to possess an explanation of the experience? Beauty, love, heroism, inspiration--there exists a body of impressions and ideas whose epic sweep exceeds the human facility for rationalization.

Humankind, sensitive to such extra-logical presences, has never been able to confine them in the palm of its thought. But it has, in the words of Martin Dysart, the troubled protagonist of Peter Shaffer's Equus, paid them "so much homage" from the beginning. The world of old was rife with systems of thought and behavior that propounded an acceptance of mystery--attempts to integrate humankind's imperfect understanding of itself with a comprehensive world awareness. The ancient mystical doctrines, exalting mystery in intermittent, intense ritual experience, successfully incorporated the unknowable into human life.

With the scientific innovations of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries came the advent of a new world view and a shattering of the old. Isaac Newton, defining nature's forces in the stark confines of mathematical equations, spurned centuries of worship. What Newton, the esteemed president of the Royal Society, began was essentially a process of demystification--of wrenching the veiled objects of human worship into science's uncompromising limelight. The process continued during the Enlightenment, the fevered budding of rationality that dominated intellectual trends in the eighteenth century. Enlightenment thinkers, elevating the rational devices of humans to the places previously occupied by the glorious pantheons of old, defined human understanding as limitless. Reason could conquer the intangible mysteries that had stared down at humankind from the night sky since the dawn of time. Rationalist thought, elevating humankind from a dark millennium of barbarism, would justly become one of the most vital legacies of the Western world.

Indeed, the modern world which we inhabit is very much a product of the Enlightenment, a world in which human impulses are curbed to suit the empirical canon of well-being as defined by science. Ours is a world in which the intuitive pursuits of a full life are subverted by the feckless dictations of logic. "Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers," lamented Wordsworth. The Existentialist movement of the early twentieth century affirmed that which the Enlightenment had implied: human consciousness is ultimate consciousness. Myth and worship have no place in a world governed by the entrenched belief that all existential elements are within the human sphere of understanding.

We are just beginning to understand the consequences of our world view. For human understanding is not limitless; the failures of science, that stern deity that has shouted down its commandments for well nigh three hundred years, are becoming apparent. Einstein's theories of special and general relativity, repudiating the clockwork Newtonian cosmology, opened our eyes to a frighteningly arbitrary natural order that bucks attempts at categorization. Modern psychology must countenance the unmappable and enigmatic portions of the human brain, represented in Shaffer's Equus by the mysterious horse gazing out of the cave of the psyche. Such indications of science's shortcomings abound in the twentieth century. Thus, in construing human consciousness as ultimate consciousness, we fall prey to a slough of despair: believing that our own, incomplete understanding of life is the only understanding of life, that the universe does not exceed the often paltry confines of human interpretation.

Joseph Conrad, mocking the Romantic sublime, spoke of the typical romantic as "tingeing the world to the hue of his temperament." The wistful irony confronts us that it is, in fact, those who seek to define the world through the human rational facility who are "tingeing the world," excluding the glorious infinitudes of emotion and mystery from their awareness of life as they debase existence to purely logical standards. Reason cannot encompass the whole of life and excludes some of its most vital essences. The rational mind cannot reconcile itself to elements outside of its powers of analysis. The squat battalions of reason, confronting the airlike hosts of passion, beauty, and love, cannot conquer them; thus they choose to ignore their existence. The invigorating mysteries of our shared existence do not exist in a rationalist conception of the universe simply because they cannot be explained. Perhaps the greatest peril of living in a demythologized world is just this: by accepting the incomplete spectrum of a single-mindedly logical existence, we forfeit our experience of mystery. It is our birthright as humans, and our grace, to lust after epic sweep. A logical cosmology denies us this, prompting us to the darkest despair: knowing nothing larger than ourselves. And there is, of course, the question of passion.

Passion is the stirring of our humanity within us. It is the unbridled expansion of song in our breasts--a song to our splendor and our sadness. It is a wellspring of fire in our hearts, gushing a delicious lust to save us in those moments when we are overcome by our own smallness. As such, it is uniquely human: we alone of creatures known have the power to perceive the scope of life, and the sentiment to tremble at our own inconsequence. In all its forms, passion seeks to immortalize humanity in a feverish bid against time and the world. The Greek tragic hero, glorying in hubris beneath a crimsoned dusk sky, and the young Romeo, quaffing moonlit love on a warm summer night, both are fueled by the wellspring of passion. Though no suitable definition exists, we can perhaps best understand passion in the homage of Tennyson: "To seek, to strive, to find, and not to yield."

If human consciousness is construed as ultimate consciousness, wherefore do we seek, strive, and find? In a rational cosmology, no divinities overarch our frail deeds--there remains nothing to push outward against. No glowering gods exist to thwart the hot quest of humankind against its own mortality. No longer hemmed in by the hushed press of mysteries, our impulse to experience and conquer these mysteries is outdated. The Tennysonian understanding of passion is made absurd. Passion is an emotion distinctly associated with impetuses outside ourselves, with elemental power and beauty that justify a dedicated expansion of all things human. Assuming our existence to be one subjected entirely to human awareness, there is no cause to strive. The challenge to immortalize humanity, to make our lives majestic in the face of majesty all impenetrable, is gone. Passion--that burning seedling that has kindled the greatness of humankind down through the ages--is extinct in an age when greatness is no longer sought, when the whispering tides of epic seas and the halo of dawn's pale hues over legendary mountains are forgotten.

Science and the processes of logical thought essential to it have greatly improved our society. A return to the antique acceptance of mystery does not mean a repudiation of science or a revival of the ignorance that accompanied the worship of old. What must be repudiated is science as cosmology--the all-encompassing philosophy of scientific analysis and deconstruction that does not countenance the existence of the unexplainable. In the words of Aldous Huxley, we must "decentralize and use applied science, not as the end to which human beings are to be made the means, but as the means to producing a race of free individuals."

Mystery is, in all cases, intact; we must reconcile ourselves to an awareness of it. Such a reconciliation will represent perhaps the ultimate stage of human maturation, bringing us into a social adulthood where science will not eclipse the primeval flame of passion, where we will settle into our common and beautiful humanity as the stars settle into their blue fold of night. To us, those stars will be burning orbs of gas, of known distance and chemical composition.

And they will be so, so much more.
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Author:Jamison, Peter
Publication:The Humanist
Date:Jul 1, 1998
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