The Beauty of Ultimate Truths - A Few Personal Thoughts
The Beauty of Ultimate Truths
Have you ever experienced in the process of trying to understanding something the final moment when you begin to see the bigger picture, finally see the underlying unity or law behind all the different particulars? Can you remember the deep and meaningful excitement that you experienced in that moment? This seems to be a universally human experience, one which we can exercise on any aspect of our reality, and try to do so every day. But what if this idea of seeking more and more fundamental explanations for reality could continue deeper and deeper until there was only one unifying reality left? Wouldn't that be the ultimately meaningful goal and piece of knowledge? Not too long ago I came across a very interesting video from the Perimeter Institute in Canada. It was given by a scientist, Neil Turok, and was entitled "The Astonishing Simplicity of Everything." In the talk, Dr. Turok talks about the quest within the discipline of Physics to find the ultimate unifying theory of the universe. Contrary to what one might expect, Turok lays out the case that the more universal in its explanatory power it gets, the more simple and elegant it seems to become. What an interesting correlation, that universality and simplicity seem to be inextricably connected.
In actuality, though, this shouldn't surprise us whatsoever because the human search to understand reality, the desire to know truth, the whole philosophical endeavor is based around this idea. The more and more evidence I can acquire, the more particular examples I can analyze, the more I can begin to understand what is common amidst all the differences. I begin to understand what is at the heart of reality, rather than its fringes. What lays at the core of being as its commonality must get simpler and simpler as one moves away from the individual particular beings into the uncovering of what's common to being, itself.
Philosophy as the Question, "What is it?"
The Ancient Greeks introduced Western culture into this same search in a more formal way through the birth of philosophy. The first, and really central, question of Western philosophy is, "What is it?". Philosophy began as an inquiry into the dual nature of reality, trying to understand how things can always be changing all around us yet still retain their identity as a particular type of thing through those changes. The Pre-Socratics all supplied their own theories as to how this fundamental question could be explained. After all, in explaining this question, we can then understand and explain all other questions in light of it. Plato, maybe more than any other philosopher, made this dichotomy in nature crystal clear when he proposed that the identity of things was their participation in a perfect and universal form of the thing, whilst their changes were explained by it being an imperfect and material version of it. Aristotle incredible work The Physics and The Metaphysics are dedicated to this very question. Both of them realized that the highest "science," or body of truths had to be metaphysics, as this dealt with the most universal, deep, and primary truths of reality. Zeno's paradoxes are also strikingly important on this topic. He showed that matter cannot be the fundamental reality because either matter is infinitely divisible or it has no extension in space. I have written more on this topic in a previous post, here.
19th Century Abandonment of the Search for Truth
The searching for answers to this fundamental question has continued in philosophy until today, though one could argue that in the 19th Century there formed a school of philosophical thought which gave up the idea that there was a truth to be discovered. The 19th Century Anti-Rationalists, such as Nietzsche, Marx, Feuerbach, Comte, and others, rejected the notion that there could be any unifying truth which implied a larger pattern among the particulars of experience. This is well documented in Henri De Lubac's book The Drama of Atheist Humanism. In Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols he attacks the whole discipline of searching for a unified reality as "sick spinning webs." I have also written more about Nietzsche, here. What is interesting here is that at the same time that philosophers were giving up the search for unifying truths, physical scientists began to take up the question and make many a break through. Think, for example around this relative time period, of the discovery of the Big Bang and expanding universe, of atomic theory, and quantum physics. The disciplines of the sciences that we so revere today, replaced philosophy in taking up the search and asking the question, "What is it?".
Modern Science and Ultimate Truths
What is a bit ironic, though, is that many of the scientists who dedicate their whole lives and careers to unlocking the deep and fundamental secrets of the nature of reality (such as the talk mentioned at the beginning by Dr. Turok) at the same time deny the implications of the very theories they discover. Many operate out of the worldview of Methodical Naturalism, rejecting the reality of anything that cannot be physically detected. But, think for a moment, if the search for the simple and fundamental formula of the universe (which by the way is an abstract mathematical formula) and the belief that only physical realities exist, are actually compatible. It would seem to me that for science to even be able to operate in the search of equations, unifying theories, patterns in sets of data, mathematical analysis, etc implies that these more fundamental truths exist. It implies that reality has an intelligibility to it. It implies that there is no such thing as pure randomness. The most accurate description of reality that we have is an abstract mathematical equation. Reality is understandable on a deeper and deeper and more unified level. The deeper we dig, the more understanding, order, and design we find. As Plato so beautifully pointed out, the more universal something is, the less and less material it is, as the material world is always particular, individual, and singular, while ideas, equations, and essences are always abstracted and stripped from their physical singularity, by definition to be a deeper truth. The deeper we go in understanding reality, the further and further we get from the material world. The deepest parts of reality seem not to be physical at all. If you are not following me here, please watch this video from Sir Roger Penrose, the great physicist, express the same thoughts here.
This also means that science operates off of the principle called the "principle of sufficient reason." This basically means that for every phenomena, there is an intelligible causal reality behind it. The more we search, the more answers we find to the nature of things, the more and more universal the fundamental laws of the universe become, the more clear the parameters of existence manifest themselves, and the more and more simple they continue to get. There is no such thing as randomness as such. There is only randomness within a relative principled framework. You can throw some dice and claim that the outcome is random, but it is always relative to the designed framework of the sides and numbering of the dice itself. And so, if this seems to be true as far as we can tell, as far as we can really search so far into the nature of reality, it seems to hold that this journey of discovery into the nature of reality must terminate in the heart of being. This heart, so to speak, must be so universal and all encompassing that it contains all being in its potentiality within itself in a way which fully actualized in every way. In Aristotle's words, it must be perfectly simple, having no parts. The completely universal has no distinctions or singularity to it. St. Thomas Aquinas would argue, in fact, that not only is this the logical outcome of the search for the reality of things, but that it is absolutely necessary to be the case for anything to exist at all. If everything we know is causally dependent on what is more universal and fundamental than itself, there must be something which is ultimately universal and fundamental as its prime reality.
|"God is to be (verb) itself through himself subsisting" - St. Thomas Aquinas|
And thus, in the Platonic, Aristotelian, and Thomistic traditions the search into the nature of reality always, by definition, must culminate with the discovery of God. To understand God's existence is the most enlightening truth that we can possibly understand. And to know God in a personal way is the most formative reality that there is. That is why Pope John Paul II said that, "Christ reveals man to himself." As St. Thomas says, while we can prove that God exists and what he must be like, we still cannot comprehend what the essence of God is in itself. Thus, the philosophical journey of uncovering more deeply the reality of being must continue. And it is in continuing this search for ultimate and unifying truths that we will find meaning and happiness as we will come to understand our purpose here and who exactly we are.