A Brief Stop at the Human Intersection

Jeff Carreira Philosophy 28 Comments

If you think about the Universe as a vast unknown then you can think about human knowledge and understanding about the universe as the “human intersection with the universe.” Our knowledge about, and understanding of, the universe is exactly where we as conscious beings intersect with the universe. Many of the fundamental polarities that have confounded humanity for all time revolve directly around how we perceive this human intersection. On the one hand you could see human knowledge about the universe as a tiny intersection, a tiny speck of known in a vast perhaps infinite sea of unknown. On the other hand you might imagine that human knowledge was almost at the point of fully encompassing reality. In this case you would sense that human understanding was perched on the precipice, right on the brink, of understanding everything.

Romantic thinkers (like myself) tend towards the former while more empirical thinkers generally tend, perhaps ever so slightly, in the other direction.  Scientists can be either Romantic or Empirical. Catherine, our commentor who is also a respected physicist in France, will tell you that European scientists tend to be of the more Romantic variety, pursuing knowledge for its own sake, while American scientist tend to be driven more by utility and direct application. I suppose this can be argued, but there is probably some truth in the generalization.

If we imagine back to a time before the human capacity for reason was very developed there would have been no way to imagine that there might be more to reality than what you could see, hear and touch. And there would be so many things that you could not understand. If lightening struck the ground next to you, you might assume that someone must have thrown it at you from the clouds. And that someone must be much more powerful than you and so it must have been a god.

With The Enlightenment human reason began to find new ways to understand the workings of the universe. Imagine the shift that must have occurred in human consciousness with the advent of the first scientific instruments that allowed us to perceive more of the universe than ever before. The telescope showed us a universe much vaster than we had ever realized and the microscope introduced new universes of the very tiny, and sailing ships took us to a “new world” that existed right here on this world. The sense of wonder and awe must have been overwhelming. Suddenly it was clear that there was much more to the universe than we had ever been able to imagine. At the same time there was also an awe emerging from the fact that at precisely the moment when humanity was begining to see that there was a great deal more to the universe than it had imagined, it also saw that the universe appeared to be running according to universal laws. There was unity in the universe. There weren’t gods in clouds throwing things down on us. There was electricity that we could observe as the static electricity that pops when we touch metal after scrapping our shoes on a carpet, or as the lightening that falls from the sky. In both cases the laws that govern its activity were the same. In short, the universe might be bigger than we could ever image, but we could, given enough time, figure it all out.

And so human understanding has progressed and I propose that one of the fundamental polarities in the way different people see the world lies in whether their leaning is toward the awe that comes from how huge and unknown the universe is on one hand, or the possibility of understanding all of it on the other.

Romantic thinkers tend to be obsessed with the unknown. Imagine arriving on a completely alien planet and being sent out to explore the area around your spaceship. The twist is that you are wearing blindfolds that only allow you to see through drinking straw, you have cotton stuffed in your ears and you are wearing boxing gloves. You walk around for hours examining the world with your impaired senses and come back to make a full report. How closely would your report reflect the reality that you would perceive if you were to remove the blindfolds, the cotton and the gloves, and then repeat the exploration? We know that our eyes only see a tiny sliver of the electromagnetic spectrum. What if our total ability to perceive was ten times more impaired than the spaceman wearing boxing gloves? 100 times? 1000 times? etc.

Because they are so enamored by the vastness of the unknown, Romantics are less interested in knowing more about what they can already perceive and more interested in expanding the doors of perception further. They don’t experiment on the world; they experiment on themselves – sometimes living dangerously close to the brink of self destruction. They use emotion, intuition, art and altered states of consciousness to take themselves beyond the barrier of the known into the uncharted territories afforded by new perceptions. They gave us the image of the lone scientist sleeplessly pursuing a new discovery and the tortured artist on the unending quest for novelty. They were creative souls extraordinaire.

I would disagree that Romanticism represents some earlier stage of development that we have gone beyond. I think that Romanticism is one end of the polarity between the known and the unknown. That polarity creates a tension that drives human creativity through all stages of development as we explore the universal crossroads of the human intersection.

About the Author

Jeff Carreira
Jeff Carreira is a mystical philosopher and spiritual guide. He is the author of eleven books on meditation and philosophy. He teaches online programs and leads retreats throughout the world that teach people how to let go of their current perceptual habits so they are free to participate in the creation of a new paradigm. To put it simply, he supports people to live a spiritually inspired life, free from the constraints of fear, worry and self-doubt, and aligned with their own deepest sense of meaning and purpose.
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Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

Hi Jeff, after reading this blog, I found myself in the situation where there best part of me as a scientist wants both of the two worlds; it is in awe in front of the vastness of what we don’t know, of the unknown, but at the same time it wants with the same fierce passion to explain it all. This creates the tension and the passion. Science is ( for me) exactly about finding the universal laws of the universe. I have the strong belief that universal laws are in everything that exists, and that they are simple under… Read more »

Leslie Kim Gray
Leslie Kim Gray
12 years ago

Thank you for the space to think a bit further in a different direction. Yesterday I had been viewing my existence in the world. Funny how as an acupuncturist I see many trapped in the human body and the suffering felt physically. I wondered if it is the attachment to being so physical and the forgetting that we are spiritual in a human body. Then began thinking of how much am I in my head thinking out different planes of my existence that I feel involved with. So wondered if many others are wonder similar thoughts of being? I can… Read more »

Carl
12 years ago

My sense is that the greatest scientists revel in standing at the edge of the Unknown, ever-curious what lies beyond, and excited about penetrating the Mystery as the infinite layers of curtains part. Great science faces into the Uknown, while false science sits in the corner clutching the Known, holding on for dear life. I feel that the true scientists, like Andrew Cohen and B.F. Skinner, spend their lives using everything they can to uncover the Truth, working at different levels of observation according to their specialties. Some are closer to the metaphysical than others (e.g., Feynman the Physicist), while… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
12 years ago

Hi Jeff When I ‘m thinking about the topic “Romanticism” you brought, I find the link between “the creative impulse” what Shelly Souza is inquiring about on her blog, also inspiration from Irish poet and philosopher, John O’Donohue. It seems to me that the Creative Impulse recognized within the individual called soul. And we can say “The Creative Impulse pull us into the unknown” vice versa “ We place profound trust in the act of beginning”. Bible say “Love never fails”,Shelly say “Nothing to fix because nothing is broken” which comfort my inner sanctuary. Yet my reality of facing up… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

Hi Carl, your comment about the Unknown inspires me a lot. What s the Unknown , it is what we don’t know , or it is the Edge of knowledge ? I would opt for the latter. Meaning that to reach the Unknown we have to get at the frontier of the Known, and know where this knowledge ends. To do as if we don’t Know is not the Unknown, it is just mere lazyness. it is the Krishnamurti saying: “Intelligence starts when Knowledges ends” but for Knowledge to end, one has to really to to the frontier of it… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

About Feynman, Wheeler etc.. , a physicist like Feynman would never go to such a daring statement as the following by Wheeler : “Wheeler has speculated that the laws of physics may be evolving in a manner analogous to evolution by natural selection in biology. “How does something arise from nothing?”, he asks about the existence of space and time (Princeton Physics News, 2006). He also coined the term “Participatory Anthropic Principle” (PAP), a version of a Strong Anthropic Principle. From a transcript of a radio interview on “The anthropic universe”[5]: Wheeler: We are participators in bringing into being not… Read more »

Lisa
Lisa
12 years ago

I wonder if there is a race to try to understand the world, universe, and life on earth, humans, and how it all fits together. I feel a panic of sorts coming from people about the future and if we will have one in a few years. As I recall, this was the same feeling people were projecting a few years before the year 2000. 1.The panic of the “unknown thing” that was going to occur due to the “year” 2000 that began around 1990. 2.Followed by a true traumatic event 9 11. The FBI, CIA, and those who were… Read more »

Joanna
Joanna
12 years ago

Jeff, trying to explore the cosmos outside the spaceship through the view of a drinking straw, wearing boxing gloves and with cotton wool stuffed in our ears does not sound like much fun at all. Much more fun to have completely unbound and limitless access to the indescribable beauty of just absolutely merging with the whole vast and brilliant cosmos. Pure ecstacy, awe and wonder.

Carl
12 years ago

Catherine, Maybe this doesn’t go far enough, but some of the scientists I have known, or whose books I have read, stare (as you say) from the edge of what is known into the unknown with a kind of wonder and excitement about what might lie beyond. I also find that they sometimes seem to “look back” at what is known about aspects of creation and are in awe of it, in part because they know more about its complexity and elegance than most people. It’s kind of the “How amazing it is to think that this could even BE,… Read more »

Shizuka
Shizuka
12 years ago

When you consumed with passion,fire,what to do ?

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

Yes Carl, as you beautifully said… I completely agree with you. Today I had lunch with Tony Leggett ( Nobel Prize 2003 form many things, but Tony is a specialist in superfluidity); frankly he impressed me. The curiosity he was showing and the innate passion in this oldish guy were a tribute to where Science can bring great scientist. And still… I had the intuition at the retreat, that Andrew was pushing us, the intellectuals to go even beyond this, somehow to surrender our intellect completely and transcend it. How to do this is a mystery for me. For the… Read more »

Joanna
Joanna
12 years ago

Hi Catherine, It’s not just the intellectuals who need to surrender the intellect and completely transcend it believe me. Although I can see perhaps how much more challenging this would be as the whole life of the intellectual is based on great respect and high esteem for the intellect and for good reason. Did you participate in the meditation virtual workshop this last weekend with Enlightennext? When you asked the question about how to surrender the intellect in your comment above – the instructions Andrew gave on this last workshop (taken from Tuscany) were so very simple and seem to… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

yes Joanna, I think you are right. Actually since I don’t have that much time for meditation and I want to be very serious with those teachings [ it is this intuition that if one is not dead serious with them, those teaching will be just useless; there is not half way with them !] then what I do is to practice those instructions all the time, as much as possible. Since the retreat in Tuscany, I also put my best to practice “ no relationship to thought , memory , fear or desire” even when I do some intense… Read more »

Mette
Mette
12 years ago

Jeff, could we say that the romantic approach is a need to turn in the interior truth? It is obvious that the materialistic worldview is mostly about the exterior truths. Is it not our intention to bring it all together – inner and outer truth? I believe thats also the idea in the discovery cycle. So we have to be both romantics and materialists in a way 🙂

Joanna
Joanna
12 years ago

You are right Catherine, the instructions for ‘no relationship to thought, memory, fear or desire’ also do apply to life aside from meditation. Because I can start having an obsessive thought train about something and then remembering these instructions is also good then. I think being involved in these teachings, perhaps we become more intuitive, we stop worrying so much and the answer comes from a deeper place quite surprisingly sometimes without stressing and straining about it.

Joanna
Joanna
12 years ago

Shizuka, I love your comment!

‘When you consumed with passion,fire,what to do ?’

Brian
Brian
12 years ago

Jeff said, “Romantic thinkers tend to be obsessed with the unknown.” True, and also the unknowable. Given how much there is to learn within the knowable, it’s pragmatic to focus on that.

Joanna
Joanna
12 years ago

Brian, your comment is interesting because it reminds me just how impersonal our responses are. When ever people used to talk about aliens or flying saucers I used to have the same response – there’s so much to do here in the known realm of manifest existence so why spend so much time thinking and wondering about something that is so unknown and unproven as ‘life on mars’ or ‘outer space creatures’. Surprisingly though now, I am even open to this unknown possibility, it’s as though another much vaster more cosmic perspective has opened up. Now I think well there’s… Read more »

Carl
12 years ago

I’m thinking that the focus should not be on the inherent limitations of our intellect as much as on the vastness of the unknown and on giving up certainty about what we think we know. It’s more about doubting that we know everything and less on doubting what we actually do know. It’s about removing obstacles to moving forward — both in our “personal” lives where we often let concepts and ideas preoccupy and worry us, unnecessarily limiting our movement forward; and in our broader intellectual lives where we often think we know more than we do, or arrogantly presume… Read more »

Carl
12 years ago

Actually, though, the other side of the coin — as Jeff suggests by contrasting the Romantic with the Scientist — is that when it comes to “understanding” the Whole of the Universe, the totality of what we can experience, the cognitive function and its products, concepts, are inherently incapable because concepts require discrimination between this and not-this, and the Whole by definition includes and therefore transcends all possible discriminations between this and that. The Whole is the ineffable or the great mystery to which such great scientists as Einstein have referred. Nonetheless, the mind can take us a very long… Read more »

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

I agree with the rule book for being human except the last point: how can we know that the entirety of reality is bigger than we will ever know ? This is typically something that I am sure I don’t know … ! and it is precisely this last “not knowing” which defines for me the modern scientific mind. Maybe it would be good at this point to differentiate between relative knowledge and Absolute Knowledge. Absolute Knowledge comes to all scientists who take their job seriously ( and in this sense to do Science is not incompatible with the enlightenment).… Read more »

Mette
Mette
12 years ago

Catherine, I’ m not sure how to get what you mean with knowledge seen from “the absolute”. If you mean a place where everyone and everything is One, then I dont think we can talk about knowledge there, cause knowledge includes sepating things somehow. But with an inspiration from that absolute I believe we can grasp things better and come closer to a description of truths.

Catherine
Catherine
12 years ago

Dear Mette and Jeff, yes I believe that we can, at best, only asymptotically approach the Truth with Relative Intelligence [ the intelligence which compares and calculates]. One loose but still accurate way of describing the Absolute Intelligence is Intuition. It is a knowledge which comes to you as a whole; just like this “ pang ! ” any scientific discovery, even the smallest one requires a grain of this Absolute Intelligence. This act of pure understanding, this contact with the grain of Absolute Intelligence, is already a contact with the Ground of Being. It is a Path towards Realization… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Hi Catherine, re: “do intellectuals like us stop completely to rely on what they know, and jump into emptiness illuminated by the sole Intuition ?” It seems this is what happens re: what is true: We go for long whiles accepting what is agreed upon collectively based on the authority of those who decide these things but then some smarty pants may come along to dare to question that acceptance of what comes to pique curiousity and doubt about that veracity. Investigations further that doubt and leads to diclosures and discoveries that reinforce the need to challenge the accepted view… Read more »

Frank Luke
11 years ago

Re: “If you think about the Universe as a vast unknown then you can think about human knowledge and understanding about the universe as (the human intersection with the universe).”

I won’t contradict your statement but posit that Earth and Humanity are our intersection with the Universe. Without humanity, would consciousness of the Universe even exist?