Why is this post about metaphysics appearing at a website devoted to traditionalism, which is primarily concerned with culture? Because if a people is to make sense of its culture, and feel truly acculturated, and feel that their acculturation fits them well for life in this world – if, i.e., they are to feel, or be, truly sane – they must understand how their culture agrees with the order of being. In respect to that agreement – or, these days, mostly disagreement – and through no particular fault of their own, the people of the West are now quite obtuse. How do I know? I’m obtuse myself.
Perhaps it was ever thus. But, perhaps not. Either way, this culture has only a few years to get its bearings.
So, from time to time I may post about how metaphysical notions that can seem quite incomprehensible at first glance are expressed in our experience – in all our experience. We don’t generally notice these aspects of experience, and in fact picking them out can be quite difficult – at least, I have found it so – because they characterize experience per se. You can’t have an experience at all without expressing these metaphysical notions. But this makes them – like motion or time – very hard to notice, or therefore to think about.
The point of connection to traditionalism is that these basic notions have, it turns out, all been worked through comprehensively by our forefathers. They lie at the core of what it is to be a member of our culture. As it behooves us to understand and honor our patrimony, it behooves us likewise to understand its basic philosophical axioms.
I don’t mean for a moment to suggest that I do yet understand them. On the contrary; I’ve been thinking about this stuff for a long time, and I still feel mostly confused. But, sometimes a light goes on in my head.
How did I get to be “in” this moment that I am now in, this moment of experience in the career of such moments that is my life? Where did this moment come from? When I search for the root of my own being – the being that is this moment of me, right now – I cannot find it. It is as if there is nothing there to be found in the first place. My origin is a mystery.
I can, to be sure, see the connections between my past moments. I can see how one thing I did, or that happened to me, led in orderly fashion to another. Also, I can see the connections between past moments of my life and other occasions in the world, those that formed my environment. But these connections I can see only ex post facto. Of the future, I can see nothing. Indeed, if there was something there in the future to be seen, that future would not be future at all, but rather a part of the past. The future would in that case lose all of its character of futurity.
And, while I can see how the moments of my past influence this moment, they did not provide or produce it. If the production of this present moment were something we could properly refer to the past, then this present moment would be nothing more than an aspect of the past; and while this moment feels intimately related to its past, it feels also utterly different than that past. If it were not thus different, why then it would not exist as itself, at all. The past is the past, is complete and whole; it has a surface, a character of its own that is just its own, and that it presents to its future – to these moments we are in right now – as an accomplished fact. If it did not, how could it appear to us as past, or as fact?
The past does not intrude or merge into this present moment, for that would make it not really past. To the extent that any aspect of the past is found in the present moment, it is as a quality of the present moment that is also a quality of some past moment. But the fact that a past moment and a present moment are both characterized by the same quality does not make them somehow ontologically continuous with each other, any more than the red maple leaf and the red ball are continuous parts of the same entity just because they are both red.
Of the present, the moment that is forming right now, I can see the influences arriving from my past, and from the past of the world. They are arriving at some terminus ad quem, some point, where they are all as it were collected and accounted for, and combined into a synthesis, which is the way this moment feels. With Plato, let’s call that point the Receptacle. I cannot discern the origin of the Receptacle of this moment. Indeed, it seems to me that it was not, at all; that, before these influences from my past began arriving at the Receptacle, there simply was no Receptacle. But then, before there was a Receptacle of the form of me at this moment, there was no me at this moment to apprehend any Receptacles.
When you are knitting a net, and you are about to tie a knot, where is the node in the nexus that your knot will form, before you have knit it? How can you tie a knot at a node that does not yet exist?
So, perhaps the way this moment feels to me – and the way it feels to you – is what it is like to be created ex nihilo.
We tend to think of creation ex nihilo as something that happened at the origin of the world, but the process of creation is not something that happened once and was then done with. Not in the order of time, anyway. In the order of eternity – i.e., as things most truly are – creation is indeed something that is happening once, and simultaneously at each occasion of becoming. But in the order of time, creation ex nihilo is operative at each occasion of becoming in sequence.
These deliberations were prompted by a conversation with Joseph Arimatheus over the past year or so. I am indebted to him for sharing his fascinating notion of henadic strings. Apologies to Thomas Nagel for the title of this post.