Two Universes (3)

We live simultaneously in two universes –the metrical and the non-metrical, the universe that can be counted and measured and the universe that can’t. Everything of value is in the non-metrical universe.

It is not a new idea to say humans live in more than one place. Sir Thomas Browne’s famous depiction of Man as “that great and true Amphibium” able to move between two worlds reflects a dichotomy that has plagued Western thought for a long time.

To say that split got worse with Rene Descartes’ Discourse on Method and subsequently with what is fondly described as “the rise of modern science” would be an understatement. Yet what is most troubling is not the dichotomy (whether between body and spirit, faith and reason, or mind and matter), but that one side of the equation increasingly seems to be left off the page. For a sustainable future, this has to change.

Browne and his contemporaries had great philosophical and religious debates on the dichotomy in human experience. In various forms, those debates carried on into the beginning of the 20th century. By the beginning of the 21st century, however, such public debates are no longer main stream.

Instead they are more likely to be found in the cloisters of religious institutions among groups of those already convicted of the answer. In public, secularism holds sway. Religious or spiritual concerns are at best private and, at worst, they are evidence of a lapse in critical thinking and judgment not to be shared.

That such conclusions are both flawed and dangerous will be the subject of more thoughts to come. For now, I want to focus on a different dichotomy, spawned by the physical sciences at the start of the 20th century, which continues to unfold.

The development of Einsteinian physics in its various forms – whether relativity or quantum theory – did more than supplant Newtonian physics. Whereas in the world of normal sense experience Newtonian mechanics continued to be used and valued, when it came down to issues about “matter,” much doubt was expressed about the fundamental nature of reality – but from a scientific as opposed to a religious perspective. There was a dichotomy, at the least, asserted between mind and matter. As matter became less substantial, the dismissal of mind as a subject fit for scientific investigation became less convincing, however.

When Arthur Eddington, soon to be knighted for his role in demonstrating the general theory of relativity through an investigation of the 1919 solar eclipse, offered a Gifford lecture published in 1928 as The Nature of the Physical World, he commanded both attention and respect – at least until he got to the end of his book.

After an authoritative and succinct statement of the nature of the universe, Eddington drew out the implications of claiming that Einsteinian physics made matter insubstantial. Titling those last four chapters “Pointer Readings”; “Reality”; “Causation”: and “Science and Mysticism,” Eddington drove home the crucial point: In relation to the fundamental properties of matter and the nature of reality, science was not far off saying the sorts of things found in mysticism. It caused enough of a furor that the following year he published Swarthmore Lectures called Science and the Unseen World, trying to elaborate on the idea.

Eddington cleverly sidestepped the problem of providing proof for the “unseen world” by going after the concept of reality itself. The observable universe revealed especially through science and its counterpart in daily experience was a world able to be counted and measured. He referred to it as a universe of “pointer readings.” It was a universe of appearance, if quantum physics was to be believed, even if it was observationally and practically “real.”

Calling this “the metrical universe,” it was set against the “non-metrical universe,” which could neither be counted nor measured. The non-metrical universe contains all of those aspects of life that are unable to be observed, except in their effects. Chief among this was mind – the universe, he said, was made of “mind stuff.”

Through modern physics, Eddington helped to revive what Browne and his contemporaries had really meant by their debates. Humans don’t face a dichotomy between mind and matter, but live in both universes simultaneously. The problem Descartes made worse was to think that there was a split between the two. He proposed, and others developing what became modern science insisted, that there was a split between thinking and extended matter, between mind and the world, between whatever was located in our thoughts and with whatever could be kicked. The dichotomy became “either/or.” It was a choice – mind or matter, never both.

If we live as though we have two brains, operating serially in two universes, however, the integration and synthesis of both perspectives is impossible. A robust religious life across most traditions requires integration and synthesis of beliefs with actions, seeing evidence in the metrical universe of pointer readings of the reality of the non-metrical universe of mind – and of value. “Either/or” is an unacceptable attitude – it needs to be “both/and” instead. It is not a dichotomy, but a duality.

We live in both universes, simultaneously. The metrical universe is the world of daily experience in which Newtonian mechanics holds sway, so we do not jump of bridges or walk in front of trucks without knowing exactly what will happen and why. Yet the universe of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, emotions, passions, this is where we live as human beings. You could say that everything of value is found in the non-metrical universe, and that when we lose sight of this, we become less than human.

Yet if we consider the duality of life today, one of the reasons it is so hard for sustainability to gain ground in changing how we live together, one of the reasons the Old Savage remains oblivious to the effects of his tools, is that the non-metrical universe of value is ignored and discounted.

Economic measures of all things persistently trump any other kind of analysis. We might pay lip service to the idea that every human life is precious and of incalculable value, but in the choices we routinely make, we put a price on life, for a variety of material reasons. We live amongst the pointer readings, by the rise and fall of currency markets and stock exchanges, GDP, GNP, unemployment rates and trade imbalances. We trade in future pork bellies, without asking ourselves whether anyone wants pork, or whether it can be supplied, or whether it is good for the planet. Certainly no one is concerned about what the pigs might think of all this.

Sustainability requires us to consider not just whether we can do something, but whether we should, and why, and for reasons that go beyond what can be counted and measured.

Sustainability requires us to realign ourselves with the universe of values, with the non-metrical universe in which what is important can never be weighed out in a balance, commodified, calculated, measured or exchanged.

We live in two universes, simultaneously. There is duality, to be sure, but not dichotomy. We need to reclaim the public space for a discussion of all of the dimensions of human experience.

It is only way we can work toward the cultural transformation required for a sustainable future in for all the children of Earth.