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Overcoming the World

Roberto Mangabeira Unger18 November 2016

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Roberto Mangabeira Unger, one of the leading philosophers and political thinkers in the world today, argues for a political and spiritual revolution in The Religion of the Future. In this extract from the book, he writes about the idea of overcoming the world, and the historical presence and metaphysical vision of this thought in Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religious traditions. In the current political moment in the U.S., it is tempting to seek the consolation and promise of life after death when liberation feels out of reach. Roberto Unger asks us intstead to consider the content of a religion that can survive without faith in a transcendent god or in life after death

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The vision of the world embraced by this first direction in the religious history of humanity is one that has always been exceptional in Western philosophy since the time of the Greeks. However, it has been predominant in many other civilizations. It is the position to which, outside the modern West, philosophy and religion have most often returned. (The focus on impersonal being at the heart of this view of reality weakens the distinction between religion and philosophy.)

The Indic Vedanta, the Upanishads, early Buddhism, and early Daoism represent the clearest instances of this religious and philosophical path. In these traditions it has had any number of metaphysical elaborations: for example, Nagarjuna’s doctrine of emptiness (sunyata) in the context of the Madhyamaka school of Indian Buddhism. It describes aspects of the doctrines of Parmenides, Plato, the Stoics, and the neo-Platonists, especially Plotinus. In modern Western thought, the teaching of Schopenhauer is its consummate expression, both as metaphysics and as practical philosophy. We can also find it, however, under different cover, in both the monism of Spinoza and the relationalism of Leibniz: the decisive common element is denial of the ultimate reality of time and thus as well of distinctions among the time-drenched and seemingly mutable phenomena for which we mistake the real. The overcoming of the world resonates in the mystical countercurrents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In Jewish, Christian, and Muslim mysticism, the opening to a personal God risks being sacrificed to a vision of impersonal, unified, and universal being. This vision in turn inspires an ethic of selfless benevolence and a quest for indifference to suffering and change. It does so, however, on the basis of a devaluation of the reality of time and of the distinctions among beings, including the distinction among selves. No wonder these mystics have regularly fallen under the suspicion of heresy in each of the Semitic monotheisms.

The metaphysical idea informing this approach to existence is the affirmation of a universal being lying behind the manifest world of time, distinction, and individuality. Our experience is the experience of the reality of time in this one real world. It is an experience of a world in which there is an enduring structure of different kinds of things and the individual mind is embodied in an individual organism. The philosophy and theology of the overcoming of the world tell us, however, that time, distinction, and individuality are unreal, or that they are less real than they seem to be.

In the history of thought, this view has taken both radical and qualified forms. The radical versions of this view (as we have it, for example, in the Vedas or in Schopenhauer) deny time, distinction, and individuality altogether. They proclaim the illusory character of each of these features of our experience. However, even these radical teachings acknowledge that there must be some limited element of truth in these illusory experiences: enough truth to explain why the world appears to us under the disguise of a differentiated structure of distinct types of being.

Unified and timeless being becomes manifest, according to this radical form of the metaphysic of the overcoming of the world, in a manifold of distinct natural kinds: types of being. Some of these types of being possess sentient life and will. They find themselves housed in a particular body, with a particular fate, susceptible to the ills and risks that attend embodiment, and doomed to die. They may be tempted to form an idea of their own distinction and reality that the truth about the world fails to support. In fact, they are passing expressions of what is really real: the one, timeless being that stands behind the screen of time-bound and divided experience.

But why has unitary and timeless being become manifest in divided and time-bound  experience? We cannot know. No philosophical statement of this worldview (not even Schopenhauer’s) has ever provided a developed account of why or how underlying being becomes expressed in phenomena that generate such illusions. Why does there exist not just a world but a world that appears—at least to us—under an aspect contradicting its ultimate reality?

Within the bounds of such a view of the world, this question may remain unanswerable. We dare not attribute to unified being the intentions of a person. We are separated from this ultimate reality by the abyss of embodiment and by all the illusions accompanying it. For the metaphysic of the overcoming of the world, our most reliable connection with the one being and the one mind is the experience of consciousness, understood to soar above the divisions that are imposed on this ultimate reality by the incarnation of universal mind in individual bodies. Nothing in the experience of consciousness explains why universal mind should appear to us thus partitioned in the form of individual minds. Nothing in the metaphysical systems associated with the overcoming of the world accounts for why the supposedly illusory experiences of time, distinction, and individual selfhood should form part of the process by which the truth about unified and timeless being is affirmed. The prevalence of these illusions in our experience seems to represent a superfluous and mysterious detour.

This radical version of the metaphysic of the overcoming of the world rests on two bases: one, cognitive; the other, practical. The latter may be stronger and more appealing than the former.

The cognitive basis of this radical metaphysical doctrine is the claim to make sense of a world in which all distinctions are impermanent. The trouble is that impermanence is not the opposite of being or reality. The distinctions among beings in the world may be real, although they are impermanent, if time is real. Then we must form an account of how things turn into other things, in the course of time. To provide such an account is the proper goal of science.

On the other hand, if time is not real, as the radical philosophical statements of the overcoming of the world commonly claim, we can give no account of transformation. Transformation presupposes time. The distinctions among things, or beings, must therefore be illusory. Moreover, the hold of this illusion on our experience must be explained.

The strong point of this radical version of the metaphysics of the reality of the world is its notion of the impermanence of all types of being. Its weak point is its denial of the reality of time. Impermanence with time affirmed means something very different from impermanence with time denied, and has very different implications for the conduct of life and the significance of history. These contrasts come more clearly into focus when we consider them in relation to the discoveries and disputes of contemporary cosmology.*

There is much in what science has discovered about the universe and its evolution to suggest the impermanence of the structural distinctions that we observe in nature. We are familiar in the life and earth sciences with the principle of the mutability of types: there is, in the history of the earth and of life on earth, no permanent typology of natural kinds, whether the kinds of being are living or lifeless. Every part of this typology is historical; its content changes, albeit discontinuously in time. The types of being change. So does the character of the ways in which one natural kind differs from another. An igneous rock does not differ from a sedimentary rock in the same way, or in the same sense, that one animal species differs from another.

The mutability of types is in turn connected with a principle of hysteresis or path dependency. The history of mutable types is the concomitant product of many loosely connected sequences of change that cannot persuasively be reduced to one another or inferred from a higher-order explanation: for instance, in Darwinian evolution the relation among the distinct influences of natural selection, of the structural constraints and opportunities created by an established repertory of body types, and of the historical movement and separation of land masses, studied by plate tectonics.

The larger meaning of the principles of path dependency and of the mutability of types becomes clear in the light of a third principle of natural history: the coevolution of the phenomena and of the laws of nature governing them. It is only by sheer dogma, without consequence for the practice of scientific explanation, that we can, for example, suppose that the regularities governing life preexisted its emergence.

We now have reason to believe that these principles, rather than being restricted to the phenomena addressed by the earth and life sciences, apply to the universe as a whole. The most important discovery of the cosmology of the twentieth century is that the universe has a history. The best interpretation of this history is that there was once a time when the rudimentary constituents of nature, as they are now described by particle physics, did not yet exist.

In the very early history of the present universe, nature may not have presented itself as a differentiated structure. There may not have been a clear contrast between states of affairs and laws of nature governing them. Susceptibility to change and the range of the adjacent possible may have been larger than that susceptibility and this range subsequently became in the cooled-down universe studied by the physics that Galileo and Newton inaugurated. It is only thanks to an anachronism, amounting to a cosmological fallacy, that we suppose nature to wear no disguises other than those that it exhibits in the universe as we observe it now, long after its fiery beginnings.

This reasoning may at first suggest that the intransigent form of the metaphysic of the overcoming of the world, rather than being a philosophical fantasy, finds support in the revelations of science. The specific forms of being are evanescent; this metaphysic teaches that it is only being itself that remains. As soon, however, as we introduce into our thinking the idea of the inclusive reality of time, we find that this apparent affinity between the course of modern science and the radical metaphysic of the overcoming of the world starts to vanish.

It is not just the typology of natural kinds that changes in the course of the history of the universe as a whole, as well as in the course of the history of the earth and of life. Change also changes. The ways in which things are transformed into other things are themselves subject to transformation. This susceptibility to uneven and discontinuous change, including to the change of change, is what we call time. If time is not only real but also inclusive, nothing can be beyond its reach, not even the laws, symmetries, and supposed constants of nature. They, too, must have a history and be, in principle, mutable. Their mutability is consistent with the stability that they display in the cooled-down universe, with its well-differentiated and enduring structure.

The prevailing ideas in physics and cosmology take a different direction. They either equivocate about the reality of time or deny it altogether. In rejecting the idea of a fixed background of space and time against which the events of nature take place, they nevertheless reaffirm the notion of an immutable framework of laws, symmetries, or constants of nature.

If time is inclusively real, and everything is subject to its ravages, if it is the only reality that does not emerge, there can be no such unchanging framework. On the other hand, however, if there is such an unchanging framework, there then also exists a basis for a permanent differentiated structure in nature, or a typology of natural kinds, if not in the derivative and emergent phenomena studied by natural history, then in the more fundamental constituents of nature that are explored by physics.

The radical metaphysic of the overcoming of the world affirms the ephemeral character of all distinctions among types of being, at the same time that it denies the reality of time. Its similarity to the scientific view that I have described is therefore merely apparent. In this view all structure is mutable precisely because time is inclusively real. Moreover, the metaphysical conception informing this approach to existence must account for how and why we come to entertain the illusions that it dismisses. In so doing, it cannot appeal to our experience, which is thoroughly penetrated and shaped by those illusions.

By its reliance on this conception, the overcoming of the world arouses the contradiction that I earlier remarked between the theoretical and the practical antidotes to the threat of nihilism. Its theoretical answer to the fear that our lives and the world itself may be meaningless is to cast aside the beliefs, the attachments, and the engagements that prevent us from recognizing our participation in timeless and universal being. By casting them aside, however, it weakens the sole practical antidote to the threat of nihilism, which is life itself, with all its engagements and attachments. On the pretext of increasing our conscious participation in that being, it dissuades us from the complications that give an actual life its fullness. Such invulnerability as we attain risks being achieved through the demoralization and the thinning out of the only kind of experience that we can really undergo.

If time is real, the distinctions among things are historical and therefore transitory, but they are not illusory. They are real so long as they exist. We can understand them only as products of a history of transformation.

The importance of this difference between a view denying the ultimate reality of both distinction and time and a view affirming the inclusive reality of time while insisting on the historical character of transformation becomes clear when we consider its consequences for action in the world. A conception that insists on the illusory character of phenomenal distinction, of individual selfhood, and of time undermines the will from two directions. It does so, first, by attacking the seat of the will in the self. It does so, second, by discounting the reality of the habitual objects of the will. These objects assume the reality and significance of the distinctions and changes that the radical metaphysic of the overcoming of the world denies. If there are ultimately one being and one mind, there is nothing that this one being and one mind can will other than to be themselves.

The overcoming of the world thus becomes, as well, an overcoming of the will: the development of an attitude to the world that is, so far as possible, will-less. We might call this orientation to existence overcoming the will rather than overcoming the world. The dismissal of time, distinction, and individual selfhood and the supersession of the will are thus the two fixed and central points in this metaphysical conception. The campaign against the will in turn serves as a bridge connecting this metaphysical view to the ideals of serenity through invulnerability and of detached, universal benevolence that are characteristic of this approach to life.

By contrast, a view that recognizes the contingent and mutable character of all types of being and affirms the inclusive reality of time assures the will of both a basis and an object. Its basis is the real, individual self. Its object is a world of distinctions that are no less worthy of attention for being ephemeral. For such a view, history is not a shadowy backdrop to our engagement with timeless and unified being. It is the setting in which everything that we have reason to value is created or destroyed.

The metaphysical extremism of the view that denies the reality of time, difference, and individual selfhood has always had a practical as well as a cognitive foundation. Under the disguise of metaphysics, it has offered self-help. It has promised a route to happiness even more forcefully than it has offered a road to reality. This promise has taken both a minimalist and a maximalist form.

The minimalist form of self-help is the hope of becoming invulnerable, or less vulnerable, to the sufferings that result from our entanglement in the world. By no longer crediting the distinctions and changes of the world with reality, we also cease to give them value. We diminish their power over us. Our relation to a world the distinctions of which we endow with both reality and value is a relationship dominated by the will. The will at odds with a world that it cannot master is the source of all our suffering. To escape suffering we must overcome the will. The best way to overcome the will is to deny its object: the illusory world of change and distinction. In this minimalist mode, the promise of happiness is a promise of invulnerability, or of diminished vulnerability.

The maximalist form of self-help is the hope of establishing contact with the only true reality and source of value: hidden, unified, and timeless being. If there are one being and one mind, then our best hope of happiness lies in overturning the obstacles to our experience of absorption in that one being and one mind. On such a basis, we can experience our kinship with all other manifestations of the One, and ex- press this kinship in an inclusive fellow feeling.

The metaphysical vision of the overcoming of the world has more often appeared in a qualified version than it has spoken in the language of the intransigent view that I have just discussed. The hallmark of this qualified version is the idea of a hierarchy of degrees of reality or of forms of being. In the West its earliest and most compelling expression was the middle and late philosophy of Plato: in particular, Plato’s doctrine of forms. It took another expression in the neo-Platonist view of the phenomenal world as the last stage in a series of emanations of the One.

Consider the qualified version of this metaphysic freed from the distinctive concerns and categories of Plato’s or Plotinus’s philosophy. The individual phenomena that we encounter are instances of types of being. These types are in turn formed on the model of invisible archetypes, which may be capable of representation only in the language of mathematics or of a metaphysic eschewing all reference to particulars. What is most present to our experience is less real than what is least present. Our unexamined sense of reality is a delirium brought on by our embodiment and by the consequent limitations of our perceptual apparatus.

Theory can, however, liberate us from the burdens of embodiment and present the world right side up. Once again, however, our practical reasons for adopting such a view will always seem more persuasive than our theoretical reasons. The correct understanding of the hierarchy of being and of reality should allow reason to rule over the action-oriented impulses and these, in turn, to prevail over the carnal appetites. It can equip us to curb our insatiability by overcoming the perspective of the will, entranced with the shadowy world of appearance. It offers to help us achieve serenity in the face of death, which, according to this line of reasoning, annihilates only the lesser reality of ephemeral individual selfhood. It holds open the promise of communion with what is most real and most valuable: the universal being and mind in which we share.

In both the radical and the qualified versions of the metaphysics of the overcoming of the world, the relation between the denial of time and the denial of distinction and individuality plays a central role. The world of individuals and individual things is also the world in which each of these individuals remains subject to the ravages of time. It is a world in which our engagements and connections function as the most important clocks by which we measure the passage of our lives.

Time and distinction are internally related in experience. If different parts of the world, or states of affairs, did not change differently, there would be no time. The reality of time presupposes a world made up of distinct elements that fail to change in lockstep.

On the other hand, if time did not exist, there could no causal interaction among parts of the world. There could be only a timeless grid or manifold (as represented, for example, by the philosophy of Leibniz). Different kinds of being might continue to be distinguished from one another in such a world, as nodes in a grid. Nevertheless, the sense in which things are distinct from one another and identical to themselves would be very different from what it is in the world that we actually inhabit. Their natures would be hidden, at least to us.

We understand a state of affairs by grasping what it can become in a range of circumstances: the understanding of the actual is inseparable from the imagination of the possible—of the adjacent possible, of what can next happen or of what we can make happen next. So if there were no time, we would be unable to understand the grid by appreciating how its different parts work. In a sense, all we could do is stare at it, not even to see it, if seeing connotes a measure of understanding.

The intimate relation between time and distinction is further shown by our ability to put both of them aside in our mathematical and logical reasoning. Such reasoning takes place in time (if indeed time is real). We can use our mathematical and logical discoveries or inventions to represent time-bound events. Newton and Leibniz developed the calculus, for example, for just that purpose.

Nevertheless, the relation among logical and mathematical propositions is not itself time bound. A conclusion is simultaneous with its premise, but an effect must come after its cause. In mathematics and logic we explore a simulacrum of the world, from which time and phenomenal difference (the distinctions among kinds of being) have been sucked out. We consider the world under the aspect of bundles of relations, unrelated to the time-bound particulars that we experience.

We can readily recognize the evolutionary advantages that such a power affords us: thanks to its exercise, we vastly expand our repertory of ways of understanding and of representing how parts of the world can interact with another. We do so, however, at the cost of letting into the inner citadel of the mind a Trojan Horse built against the recognition of distinction and time.

No wonder the qualified versions of the metaphysic of the overcoming of the world—the versions that represent the phenomena as less real than their hidden archetypes—have so often been expressed in the language of mathematics. There is a sense in which our mathematical and logical reasoning gives us a foretaste of the overcoming of the world. The adherents to the overcoming of the world treat this foretaste as a revelation of the nature of ultimate reality. We who resist both this metaphysics and the moral project it helps inspire may prefer to understand mathematics and logic as inquiries into a simplified proxy for the one real world, a proxy reduced to the most general features of reality and therefore robbed of individual difference and of time.

*Lee Smolin and I develop these ideas in The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time, 2014. If the claims of that essay in natural philosophy are well founded, nothing in the entire argument of this volume, or in the philosophical program that it shares with my book The Self Awakened, contradicts what science has to teach us about how nature works: not at least if we learn to interpret the findings of science without the blinkers of unwarranted metaphysical prejudice.

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