#14 Seeking twilight among perceptual and cosmological shifts
Against Method by Paul Feyerabend, pages 159-208
Chapter 16, or rather Appendix 1, of Feyerabend’s Against Method is a rich exposition, one of my favorite and in my opinion complex parts of the book, on how the ancient Greeks’ worldview changed as seen through the grammatical lens of their literature and their artwork. There are so many points I can touch on, but I must limit myself to what I want to discuss here.
What I found refreshing is how Feyerabend opens his argument drawing on anthropologist Benjamin Lee Whorf’s theory that language is not limited merely to describing but also shapes one’s world (see also: linguistic relativity; Sapir-Whorf hypothesis), how one conceptualizes their world and their place in it. He argues there are two cosmologies in ancient Greece: cosmology A followed by cosmology B. In cosmology A we can see how the Greeks perceived their world. They were more or less like automatons, their actions determined by the Gods, devoid of any sense of an “I.” This sense was represented in their artwork, especially in their designs on pottery and frescos. Whether someone was standing, fighting, or lying dead, the same ancient Egyptian-hieroglyph-like pose can be seen in cosmology A’s art. Cosmology B, on the other hand, shows a more developed sense of agency on the part of characters in stories and artwork. The characters have a sense of imagination, they appear to be less dictated by the will and whim of the Gods. They entertain hypothetical situations and play with words in a way unlike that found in cosmology A.
Feyerabend says we cannot operate in two cosmologies, that one can perceive only one or the other, one at a time. The content and language of a particular cosmology can only be understood by a member of that particular cosmology (p. 206-208). Earlier in the text he shows some optical illusions of three-dimensional representations of corners and cubes. In one instance the corner pops outward and upon looking closer one can see the corner moving inward on itself, fading into the distance. A third view is also available, that of a mere two-dimensional representation, however, that’s not what I saw at first, possibly because I had been reading Feyerabend’s thoughts about this on the previous pages, or perhaps, I would see the two-dimensional representation first had I been doing mathematics, looking at points on x- and y-axes. I cannot remember whether I saw the outward or inward representation first. I don’t know why I find this important, but I wonder (1) which representation people see first and what this means about visual perception, and (2) why can’t we see the shift between perspectives? I suppose this is the impossible idea of trying to see seeing. One cannot see the seeing act itself. What lies in the in-betweenness of perceptual shift? Is this ability so cut-and-dry, black and white? Is there no twilight region, so to speak, between the two (or rather three) regions? I’m fascinated by this just as much as Feyerabend was.
Now, back to cosmological and scientific paradigm shifts. Unlike the perceptual shift mentioned above, these abrupt shifts do not happen overnight in actual lived life. The shift is slow, but how do we measure the shift, what might our standard be for measuring the shift from one way of experiencing our reality to another? Off the top of my head, we might measure it generationally, that is to say, every thirty years. We would also consider the overlap of generations, likely at a maximum of three generations simultaneously experiencing, and (some scientifically minded individuals) trying to figure out the nature of, the same reality. This seems to be the most logical standard of measuring the shift between cosmologies since reality must be experienced, there must be a vessel, in this case the human being, to experience reality. The experiencing of reality does not happen in a vacuum.
What must be said of individual persons among and between generations for this slow shift to happen? Time is one aspect. For example, Einstein’s general theory of relativity could not have been given credibility until the solar eclipse of 1919 showed that light bends around planetoids (e.g. around our moon), thus, we presume spacetime is likely curved. So, not only is time a factor in the length of a generation and the overlap of generations, but time also is a factor in waiting for proper conditions to test reality, of experiencing change in real time. The psychedelic researcher, for example of LSD, must wait a number of days for the LSD to be metabolized by the body because taking LSD over consecutive back-to-back days nullifies the visionary experience. The body must “reset” or “recharge” to its default blank slate, free from the effects of previous experiences for the necessary LSD effects to be able to be studied.
I’ve spoken much about generational time and clock time, and I’m sure there are other (relative) time factors that do not come to me now. So, let’s talk about space. What spatial considerations were at play that might have changed the ancient Greek cosmology from A to B? How might spatial considerations have changed the view of the human being from a God-fearing and God-directed automaton to one increasingly free from the Gods and a more advanced consciousness with which to examine one’s own mind and imagination? I acknowledge begging the question here, but imagination would have provided the means to explore irreal and hypothetical situations. One could make up scenarios, live them out, make decisions, etc., from their own mind, and the sky’s the limit as to what one can imagine. The question is: what spatial considerations led one from automaton to a free-wielding user of imagination? Maybe there was a religious crisis the more people philosophized and the more they learned of mathematics, similarly seen in our modern era since the slow and steady Scientific Revolution beginning in the 16th century until today. Believers in the Gods would have needed physical space, e.g. land, to build their temples, and the temples themselves would have been spaces for members to pray and offer sacrifices to their Gods. Something must have happened spatially in addition to time that would have challenged cosmology A. What that is I do not know. Some sort of climate crisis? I just don’t know.
I don’t know why this idea popped into my head, but are we like house dogs or pets, confined most of the time to our master’s house? Like a puppy that comes to its master’s home for the first time, it would realize (if it were conscious) that there was an outside world prior to coming to its owner’s home, that it had another life, a canine biological mother rather than its human mommy, puppy siblings, it came from another area that is not the master’s home; likewise, some of us might know or at least speculate that there was/is an outside world prior to our consciousness awakening within us. The conscious dog that leaves its home for veterinarian checkups, walks around the neighborhood, etc., especially for the first time, would see that the world was much larger than it had realized, especially that it lived in a human world, a world built around this creature, a world fashioned around its owner/master. Although the human’s physical/built world is larger than the dog’s in comparison, the dog’s concept of planet is larger than that of the human. I don’t know where I’m going with this. Perhaps this: do we share something with the dog, that is, our home (the master’s home) is our planet, our galaxy, our universe, but like there is a whole world outside of the confines of the dog’s home, might there be other realities, other worlds outside or parallel to our own? Is it possible to leave our secure world to explore and realize potential other worlds outside of it, worlds within worlds, turtle shells all the way down, the fractalization of reality at infinite scale? Psychedelics are one way to experience these speculative worlds, or, specific psychedelics might give access to substance-specific worlds, while other forms of consciousness alteration give rise to completely different worlds.
For our purposes here, let us say we are currently in a cosmology Y scenario; what is cosmology Z? What unforeseen factors, already in motion or yet-to-come, are changing or will change the way we experience reality? What factors should we be paying attention to, to what factors should we devote time, energy, and financial support? It boils down to what we want to know more about, what kind of knowledge we seek, what knowledge will benefit one person, everyone, or an elite class? Upon what problem, puzzle, or query will we (or our society’s trailblazers) direct our intentional focus? Cosmological shift does not happen overnight, we know this from history; so how to become more aware of the present moment, to see the unseen, to step back and be in the present to better predict the future of our civilization, our science and philosophy, and our consciousness?
Feyerabend, P. (1993/1975). Against Method (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Verso.