A Beginning of Things

When I was fourteen or fifteen I decided I wanted to find out everything and somehow write it all down. I imagined a complex, detailed, annotated diagram ordering the universe, every object, every human activity. I stuck a huge piece of paper to my bedroom wall and began.

Or rather I tried to begin.

I could classify most of the natural world according to conventional sciences: physics, chemistry, geology, geography, biology and so on. But as soon as I began to reflect a little more, to consider, for example, what went on in my head as I went about trying to organise this system, I realised it was impossible.

How the Earth came to be, how mountains rose, how oceans formed, how life itself originated, these are all infinitely fascinating. But we can only appreciate any of this through our senses and interpret them through language and however it is our brains organise thoughts.

No sooner had I started trying to understand everything in the universe than I realised I needed to understand understanding itself. So what began as a diagram in which I naively thought everything would somehow balance – that is the physical world of stars and planets, rocks and rivers, sitting on one side, then the living world of plants, animals and humans on the other, I realised the internal universe of the human mind, of my mind, would take a disproportionately huge amount of time and space to map, or describe, or illustrate. It was an impossible task.

Furthermore, there is infinite regression. For every material thing I considered cataloguing then there would be a complex sequence of thoughts which accompanied that process of cataloguing which would need to be included too. And if I were to include these thoughts, then the cataloguing of these would require further reflection and consideration. This, too, would have to go on my wallchart.

Thought itself had to be excluded from my system or the system would create a feedback loop of explosive proportions. There would be no wall, no building, no mountain big enough on which it could be set out. But the exclusion of thought had to mean the exclusion of perceptions. Weren’t perceptions experienced as thoughts? If this were true it meant to exclude thought meant shutting out the world completely.

Even if I somehow managed to exclude thought processes and concentrate on what we would naively assume to be the real world of things, I discovered another problem. That of scale.

Imagine yourself as infinitesimally small. Smaller than atoms, smaller than the constituent parts. The universe you inhabitant is distinctly different from the universe of human beings. Objects merge with their surroundings, their outlines are blurred. As you shrink smaller, so there is more empty space, less solid matter, more currents of weird energy. Take a ride on a neutrino, you can fly through solid matter. So is this the real world? Now imagine yourself infinitely huge. Your hands can cup galaxies. You float through a universe which is as different again. Our human scale determines the way we see the universe. It is particular to our physical constraints.  The idea that we can be objective is laughable. Go on, laugh. It’s hilariously funny.

It’s funny because we have to assume that what is out there is real or we could not survive. We would go mad. You’re on a walk with some friends and one says ‘Look! What a beautiful yellow flower!’ But there is no beauty out there. There is no colour out there. And, remembering that scale determines the universe we perceive, then maybe there is no flower, just a heap of interactions. The universe is not made of things, it is a series of processes. If you lived for a billion years maybe trees flash up through the soil like lightning. Mountains surge like waves. Or think of your existence lasting only a matter of nanoseconds. Then lightning lasts almost all of your lifetime. Lightning exists in your nanosecond sky as the Sun does in human time.  Lightning in that universe looks less like something happening than a solid object. Just as the Sun looks to us: an object not a process.

My desire to describe the universe collapsed in on itself. I felt limited and ensnared. How could my system include everything if everything keeps growing? How could I begin to understand the human world and everything beyond if I couldn’t come to terms with the nature of objectivity itself? My idea for a system disintegrated into a million fragments.

And from then on, I suppose, I became wary of certainty. If I was an adherent of any belief system at all, it was to scepticism. I went to art school. I drank now and then. I fell in love a few times. I wanted to be Marcel Duchamp, James Joyce or Philip Glass. Art, literature, music. This is where I realised I belonged. With artists, writers and musicians, Many of them fascinating, wise people who had given up the quest to know, or even to understand. Somehow they grasped their own limits and by doing so could explore that enclosed terrain. They were like scientists of their own invented universes. But unlike scientists few of them made any claims about absolute truth. Outside of the art school I met plenty of people who were certain of the world beyond their heads and felt no need to question it. They were like a different species. I envied them, and still do.