Human and Ultimate Consciousness; the Pitfalls of Rationalist Cosmology

By Jamison, Peter | The Humanist, July-August 1998 | Go to article overview

Human and Ultimate Consciousness; the Pitfalls of Rationalist Cosmology


Jamison, Peter, The Humanist


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. …

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