A SUNDAY AFTERNOON WITH GEORGES ON AN ISLAND IN THE COSMOS
"Any individual who does not live poetically or religiously is a fool." Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript, Existential Pathos, 2.
Georges: I am surprised, Richard, that you have found my theory about pointillism to be of value in understanding the cosmos.
Richard: It is not at all surprising, Georges, because the thought of an individual always reflects the entire universe. You have hit upon something of profound metaphysical significance - without realizing it yourself.
Georges: Please, I brought optical science to the art of composition of a painting. Do not confuse my work with metaphysics!
Richard: You may have brought optical science to painting, but all science is founded on metaphysical suppositions. Most scientists keep them in the shadows. However, my thoughts on the subject are rational and greatly rely on science for their legitimacy. Let me tell you how.
The contribution that modern physics has brought to philosophy is very significant. It has exploded the notion that the past no longer exists. And I don't mean that it exists in the collective memory of Homo sapiens or as antecedents to present events or as great accomplishments that persist. No, the study of time has revealed that there is no difference between the past, the present or the future. It is a human illusion that they are different. The only reality is space-time existing as a seamless whole.
Georges: That sounds ridiculous to me. Of course, I have a past, an all too short one but one of which I am proud. Unfortunately I no longer have a future, yet others do. Here now is the present in which we are conversing.
Richard: My thoughts sound ridiculous to you only because of your habits of thinking. If you had studied Kant instead of optical science, you would know what I mean. Your ideas about time stem entirely from your own brain and not from reality. They are a useful shorthand for getting on in the world but of no value in understanding its nature. Now that physics has finally caught up with Kant, perhaps his ideas will have more currency in our society. The prestige of science does wonders for neglected ideas.
But it is not my intent to elucidate the relativity theories of Einstein and his epigones - I don't have the ability or the desire to do so. What interests me are the radical metaphysical implications that they bring to light. Suddenly the question of death and immortality are seen in a new way.
Georges: What has all this got to do with my theory of pointillism in art?
Richard: Patience, Georges, patience. One must proceed slowly in metaphysical matters.
The special problem of every individual is the apparent transitoriness of his life. All of his other concerns are minor compared to this one. Death means oblivion; he could tolerate all manner of ills if oblivion were not the inevitable specter at the end of his efforts. This is why the promises of Christianity are so appealing to him. Christianity promises him immortality if he subscribes to its tenets. Never mind that these promises have been long recognized to be ill-founded. They meet an essential need of his nature. Human beings, to use Spinoza's phrase, wish to persist in their being, which means to live on indefinitely.
Georges: I never expected to live forever, no matter what the priests told me. I resigned myself to my mortality - as does any intelligent person.
Richard: Yes, but in the depths of your soul you were unhappy about it. As well you should be, since it would be a tragedy that a man of your intellect and achievements should suddenly vanish from existence. But this was not the case: what happened was that a limit was placed on the temporal dimension of your being as it is on every living thing. You still exist in the space-time continuum of the cosmos. You yourself are a vibrant brush stroke on the pointillist canvas of eternity.
Georges: You are telling me the same kind of fairy tale that the priests did! This makes no sense to me, it could not be true.
Richard: I won't dwell further on how it can be true. In my view, it has been established beyond a shadow of a doubt. You would have to read the popularizers of Einstein to learn for yourself how it can be. You would have to suspend your intuitive common sense and plunge into the language of physics and mathematics. This is difficult for anyone accustomed to his life-long perceptual intuitions about time. You must trust the reliability of physics in its own domain without necessarily limiting your mind to its discoveries.
The implications of Einstein's demonstrations go beyond physics. Here we enter into the province of philosophy. Before we talk of pointillism, I want to tell you of a vision that came to me one night in a half-waking, half-dreamlike state. I don't claim that it is an exact depiction of existence. That would be too much to ask of anyone trying to discern ultimate realities. I am convinced, however, that something like it is true. Furthermore, in my judgement, it is a picture worthy of the critical faculties of homo sapiens and one that does not violate his intellectual conscience.
I became aware that the existence of a first principle, an ultimate reality, or if I may use the term without offense, a Deity that underlies existence, is such a compelling thought and its rejection is so absurd that no thinking person, other than a few fanatics of materialism, could deny its truth. This Deity "expresses" his nature in manifold ways; thus the cosmos with all its ramifications has appeared. Initially, matter was spread out in the vastness of intergalactic time and space. Although its dimensions were enormous, they lacked the necessary subtlety to do justice to his nature. Matter followed exact laws laid down by him, which gradually became repetitive and monotonous. Deity's plastic powers looked for new directions for its expression.
Then, in a distant corner of the universe, he produced a new form of existence we call life. This new creation existed in an infinitesimally small part of the space-time continuum, but this smallness was compensated for by its qualities of spontaneity and development. Its compression into minute dimensions permitted a vitality that was impossible for sidereal matter. Still, it was only a crude expression of Deity. The tree of life bloomed, but still did not satisfy his creative desires.
At last, however, life was endowed with a new property called thought, which by its nature must be free. Suddenly (cosmically speaking) all things became possible for this life form. Homo sapiens could remember, plan, create, form abstractions and generate consciousness. In its creativity, it began to resemble Deity although I consider it exaggerated to say this form was created in his image since all life forms, including homo sapiens, have a limited time dimension. They are mortal. This seemingly gives a tragic quality to the otherwise deity-like aspects of a person possessing thought.
It is essential to remember, though, that for Deity there is no such thing as transitoriness because he is not limited to the time dimension imposed on the perceptions of living creatures. There is no past or future for the perceptions of Deity; all realities are eternal for him. No individual "brush stroke" of being ever disappears from his gaze. Thus we come to the pointillist canvas of eternity.
Georges: I was wondering if you would ever get to that point - no pun intended.
Richard: Your patience is finally rewarded. You discovered a new art form resulting from the application of individual brush strokes. It is applicable not only for canvases appearing in the exhibition halls of the world, but also for the totality of individual human beings endowed with thought. Each human life is like a luminous brush stroke applied upon an eternal cosmic canvas. To the extent that it develops its unique individuality, each human life enhances the canvas. The event of death for a human is not his end in the eyes of Deity who experiences all space-time as the continuous whole of mathematical physics. The result is an eternal pointillist canvas endowed with qualities that no individual point in it could ever possess. Thus human life is not transitory but has its eternal existence on the cosmic canvas.
Now one day even this cosmic canvas must be delimited within time and the human race will have fulfilled its destiny. I doubt that this canvas can be Deity's final expression. You must remember I defined Deity as the ultimate principle of being without further specification - a negative theology. There may be other forms of being in universes spatially or temporally distant from ours. There are even other dimensions known to theoretical physics that are unknown to human perceptions. Perhaps there are parallel universes present at this very point in space and time containing more adequate expressions of Deity. Here one approaches impenetrable cosmic mists beyond which, as Aristotle says in his Metaphysics, human thought should not extend.
Of course, there are those whose soul has not been touched by an ultimate reality and they will dismiss my report as a myth, not understanding that the meaning missing from science can be found in myths. They provide their own explanation of the phenomenon of man. They say he is a statistical aberration in the flow of entropy, a quirk occurring in an infinite time span. They do not recognize any meaning to the human condition and refuse to accept any form of knowledge other than that provided by their laboratory instruments. Experimental verification to them is the hallmark of truth; without this imprimatur, they deny the possibility of knowledge. They reach heights of insufferable arrogance by confining truth exclusively to their methods of natural science.
You, Monsieur Seurat, should feel privileged that in your brief life you hit upon a fundamental feature of the cosmos, albeit you had a different goal in mind. So did Columbus when he discovered America for the Europeans. Even if the cognoscenti of the art world had never valued your canvases, you yourself would have a prominent place in the vastly more important pointillist canvas of eternity.
Georges: You seem to have much enlarged my concept of depicting nature by points and dabs. Tell me more about this artist-Deity who uses my technique.
Richard: There is no more that I know. My report is finished.