“No man is an island”

It’s a fact that we might be loath to accept, but the act of experience changes the constitution of reality.  Indeed, no fact exists in glorious isolation – even as an act of self-knowing that seeks no other point of reference: “I think therefore I am”.  Tellingly, there is an artificial objectivity in this rank subjectivity: to set thought apart as a ‘thing in itself’.  Furthermore, there is an underlying subjectivity in our ambitions to know the world objectively – for the idea of a factual firmament existing apart from our knowledge requires a momentous act of imagination.  The point is that neither the subjective nor the objective does justice to the knowledge that is now a blend of both, and anything we purport to know outside of that ‘now’ amounts to a speculative abstraction.  Similarly, it is unrealistic to say that the truth must be ‘one thing or another’ – since all the evidence tells us that ‘the reality’ is both one thing and another, and there is no static world that sits in the middle – except when construed as a point of reference for the understanding of what has become.  How else are we to understand the fact of an insensible universe that is knowable by a part of it, a lesser part at that, but which is nonetheless sufficient to confirm that the reality is now both conscious and unconscious?  Then what might a greater ‘reality’ or ‘truth’ amount to?  What might make humanity more than a passive cog in the mechanism of nature?  Alternatively, what technical possibility allows a biological ‘mind machine’ to deceive itself with its beliefs?

The trouble is we are inclined to hang onto truths as representatives of the whole truth, as if our experiences cannot fail to guide us – as if change is wholly predictable from the fact of what is.  However, change also bewilders us.  For instance, are we to assume that the biological facts, in making us what we are, actually recognise this fact of themselves without the intervention of ‘our assumptions’?  On the other hand, ‘the whole’ that is more than the sum of its parts remains nothing apart.  So what gives the biology beliefs and ideas about itself?  What allows us to imagine that there is more to thinking than the physical functions of the brain – even though there is nothing else to see when we stay focused on the brain alone?  And what obliges us to believe in ourselves, to see nothing beyond the empire of our humanity in the facts of culture and biology?  But where would culture be without imaginative thinkers like William Shakespeare or John Donne?  Therefore, whilst it remains true that Shakespeare drew inspiration from his surroundings, it doesn’t mean that we can explain his contribution analytically – as if his creativity is no more than a summation of mindless causes that can reproduced by a suitably programmed machine or replicated at random by the antics inside a suitably equipped ‘infinite monkey cage’?  Likewise, the immortal meaning in John Donne’s dictum is both distorted and diminished in being detached from its original context of belief which reaches out to the wholly inexplicable possibility of a yet higher purpose.

Mike Laidler


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