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PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Infinity Under Our Feet

Everything we call real is made of things that cannot be regarded as real.
| Neils Bohr

Infinity Under Our Feet

Many years ago, I drove out west to see the Grand Canyon. I remember standing in front of a trail sign atop a wooden post with a diagram of the immediate view across the gorge and some text noting that the rocky prominence on the other side, despite appearances and the sort of spatial assumptions one would make based on more familiar distances, is three miles away. As the sun arcs across the sky, striations of purple, orange, and red rise and fall among shadows that seem to elongate and vanish into the rock face like ghosts. At its deepest point, the floor of the canyon is a mile straight down. Here, the earth seems extraterrestrial.

When I ventured within twenty meters of the abyss, I began to feel the gravitational tide. More than cautionary, it felt primal. There are places where stocky guard rails stand between visitors snapping vacation pictures and the craggy nothingness beyond, but the thing is so massive, most of it is open and accessible to the few intrepid souls who are determined to get a closer look. Despite the almost neurological aversion I was feeling, I walked well back from the rim until I found a rock jutting out over the chasm and made up my mind that I would venture out and sit there while my daughter captured the moment with her camera. Through sheer force of will, I inched my way onto the rock holding my breath and sat, cross-legged. My daughter took the shot, and when we came upon it later, we saw that I was leaning backward some thirty degrees. It left me wondering how astronauts feel on a spacewalk in that moment when they look up and behold the cosmic expanse hanging before them, and if they have the sense that they might fall into it at any moment. Gazing at that photo of myself, sitting on that rock with every survival nerve in me firing to resist the vertiginous pull of nothingness, I thought of the Mohawk high-steel workers who had constructed the World Trade Center, and I wondered what they had coursing through their veins that allowed them to move about blithely on open girders hundreds of feet in the air with infinity under their feet as though they were taking a stroll down Fifth Avenue.

It’s not just at the dizzying edge of the Grand Canyon or on the high-wire skeletons of skyscrapers that the reliable foothold of terra firma suddenly falls away. There are other kinds of abysses, and philosophy is no stranger to them. Ontology, for example, the branch of philosophy that examines the nature not of particular beings but of being itself, begins with the strange question, “Why are there things rather than nothing?” It is an oceanic question of incalculable depth, one that pulls us toward nothingness as the primordial void out of which the whole universe arises into existence each moment. The new physics has come to the same conclusion, viz., that the so-called objective world around us, at the most intimate levels of matter, disperses into a gossamer realm of phantom entities flashing in and out of existence, neither wave nor particle, and more like a dream than a machine. Beyond that realm is a vast, perhaps infinite field of energy best described as “zero.”

Zero. Infinity. Nothingness. The same delimiting value shows up in epistemology, the branch of philosophy that deals with theories of knowledge—with how we know things, what it means to know, verifiability and falsifiability, and so on. Here, too, we see that all of our knowing is nothing more than an approximation, a collection of assumptions and suppositions laid out along a tenuous rope bridge suspended over a chasm of mystery that may be unraveled at any moment by the next discovery. Perhaps this is why when Chaerephon approached the Delphic Oracle and asked if there was anyone wiser than Socrates, the Pythia replied, “No one is wiser,” yet Socrates’s wisdom lay in his knowing he had none. Today, one can hardly find this depth of humility. Experts abound in every field, promoting their educated guesswork as absolute truth, and in this posturing, we have lost far more than we have gained. As William James writes in The Will to Believe:

We may talk of the empiricist way and of the absolutist way of believing in truth. The absolutists in this matter say that we not only can attain to knowing truth, but we can know when we have attained to knowing it; while the empiricists think that although we may attain it, we cannot infallibly know when. To know is one thing, and to know for certain that we know is another.

Socratic humility—which means never forgetting that our knowledge is subject to error and thus revision—is essential to philosophical self-work, the liberating of belief from constricted states of false opinion and contradiction, and the expansion of awareness that allows it to embrace greater, ever more encompassing truths. There is little that hinders the process more than the hubristic assumption that our conclusions are infallible, which places us in danger of losing our balance and falling from a great height.

I was not afraid of the cavernous power I felt standing beside the Grand Canyon. I respected it. The hands that had fashioned it, that had brought forth our prolific living planet from nothingness amid a clockwork of other planets in a sea of space too vast to comprehend, also had fashioned me. The yawning drop from the rim to the bottom filled me with awe and a new awareness of the immense drawing power of infinity that lies under our feet all the time, even when we’re busy taking the world for granted and thinking that anything at all is ordinary or holding our conclusions with counterfeit certainty. Because our being and our knowledge, along with everything else, are rooted in mystery, dialectical transcendence and change for the better are possible at any moment. With a little humility, the possible becomes probable, and with a bit more, inevitable. The willful ego may cling fiercely to its false opinions, but it is in bowing before the depths of the mystery that we can be made whole, and standing before the sheer heights of existence, discover that we have wings.