On the Crumbling Metaphysical Foundations of the Modern Era, II
“Something unknown is doing we know not what” — physicist Sir Arthur Eddington
InfiniteWarrior sent me a link this morning to an article by the astrophysicist Adam Frank. The article, in Aeon, is entitled “Minding Matter” in which Frank explains why materialism ultimately cannot account for “the riddle of consciousness”. More importantly, it provides further insight into what I earlier wrote about the crumbling foundations of the Modern Era, or, put alternatively, the disintegration of the mental-rational consciousness structure, as anticipated by Jean Gebser in his Ever-Present Origin.
Now, strangely as it may seem, the challenges posed by quantum physics for conventional cosmology and our understanding of matter and consciousness, as described by Frank in the Aeon article, tie into the aspects of the pop culture Poppy meme I spoke to in the last three postings, as well as to Caroline Orr’s very interesting work on internet propaganda that I linked to yesterday. In a very peculiar way, they all provide a peek behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtain. Put simply, they all, in their own way, point to the erosion of the structural foundations of modern consciousness.
I chose to introduce this post with that famous quote from Arthur Eddington — something unknown doing we know not what — because it really underscores a great deal of what is so strange about the contemporary milieu. That includes, also, Frank’s discussion of the Uncertainty Principle and the Measurement Problem in contemporary physics, or the sciences, more generally. Franks’ article provides further insight into what the physicist Jacob Bronowski earlier spoke to as the irruption of the paradoxical and the attendant “crisis of mechanism” in his great series of lectures published as The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination.
“Something unknown is doing we know not what” reflects Nietzsche’s remark that “Since Copernicus, man has been rolling from the centre towards X“. So, let’s call this mysterious something “Factor X” for short. What Adam Frank has done in his article is lift the curtain a bit, to show that the ostensible (or presumptious) certainties of the conventional physicalist or mechanical models rest upon nothing but “running water” (in Nietzsche’s phrase, rather than “Ground of Being”). So, we may take that “running water” as synonymous with Factor X.
Frank’s article thus provides a very good point of reference for interpreting the more general erosion of the structural foundations, or metaphysical foundations, of modern consciousness. Something like wave action upon a shoreline is not a bad comparison or metaphor for Factor X, or for what Gebser calls “irruption”, and which I have linked to the meaning of the word “irreal“. The irreal and the eerie, and the ironic and paradoxical, are closely related, and the irreal doesn’t fall neatly into our conventional dualistic logics of “real or unreal”, of “true or false” and “either/or”.
So, the emergence or irruption of Factor X throws the mental-rational structure into perplexity and confusion, anxiety and paranoia (especially about “identity”) since there is also a close connection between paradox and paranoia. In those terms, the emergence or irruption of Factor X is implicated also in the present as a period of “chaotic transition”.
The mysterious “something unknown doing we know not what” is, as Frank shows, open to a number of interpretations or “points-of-view”, and we seem presently a far cry from that “universal way of looking at things” that Gebser anticipated as “integral consciousness”. Science thus seems no more immune against the “post-modern condition” than the popular culture is. The fragmentation and atomisation of the cultural milieu is equally reflected, and perhaps rooted in, the transformation of the university into the “multiversity”. The multicultural and the multiversity are coincident phenomena — or perhaps we should say, the polycultural and the polyuniverse. There is, correspondingly, a breakdown of the principle of universality and of “reality” itself. “How Real is Real?” asks Paul Watzlawick in a book by that title, subtitled Confusion, Disinformation, Communication. Pretty much a must read, too, for our chaotic times.
Many people feel like drowning sailors, clinging to any flotsam and jetsam that happens to float nearby, which accounts for what is sometimes called “zombie logic” or “symbolic belief”. Many scientists are no more immune to this than anyone else. They are likewise drowning in Factor X. “Something unknown doing we know not what” makes people, scientist or lay-person, profoundly uneasy. It is natural for people to want to put a face or identity to the unknown, but the”Non-visualisability” of Factor X for the sciences means how you attempt to visualise Factor X just becomes a matter of your predilection or personal preference, as Frank notes. And in pop culture, this takes the form of shadowy conspiracies, like the “Illuminati” or notions like a secretive “Committee of 300” (or “301” perhaps).
(Aha! The exact number of subscribers to The Chrysalis, official organ of the Committee of 300!)
The content of a structure of consciousness really doesn’t matter so much as the structure itself. This is what Marshall McLuhan was trying to get at with his formula that “the medium is the message” — the structure itself rather than the contents of that structure. Pop culture and the sciences do, in those terms, reveal the same structural crisis. The mysterious “something” we’re calling “Factor X” which so unsettles the sciences simply appears as the mysterious “they” of pop culture, or as the hidden, secret occult forces called “Illuminati” that the Poppy meme plays upon. It’s supposed to be ironic, but many people take “they” and “them” very seriously.
Factor X arouses all sorts of “memes” — the mysterious force of “creative destruction”, or “nihilism”, or “satanic” (my own personal preference is for Shiva and the Dance of Shiva to visualise Factor X). For some it is a dragon; for others the “creative forces”. For Nietzsche, it was the Dionysian irruption. For Gebser — and perhaps for Jung, too — it was the “irruption” of a new consciousness structure — or “return of the repressed”. Factor X it is that often makes people feel like they are little more than dry leaves being blown about by powerful winds (or “running water”). In one sense, they may not be far wrong in that. Factor X is what gives rise, in Gebser’s terms, to that “maelstrom of blind anxiety” that Gebser believed would end in global catastrophe.
(The forth-coming movie called Annihilation intrigues me in that sense, since it seems to also try to put a meaning to “Factor X”).
Factor X bears some resemblance to the Heraclitean flux. For the time being, just think of it as the Dance of the Nataraj.