Pipe Dreams

For something new and different, we present a joint perspective essay. In a radical departure from past trends, we didn’t end up with a debate or a silly argument clinic full of profundity, pomposity and posturing. Instead, it’s an armchair discussion questioning the meaning of life, the universe and quite literally everything. Of such is a friendship made.

 

Magritte The Treachery of Images

This is not a pipe. And it’s not. As Rene Magritte was rumored to have said, “Try to put tobacco in it.” It’s not a pipe; it’s a representation of a pipe.

There’s not much better than the intersection of art and philosophy. Magritte’s surrealism arises out of continental philosophy dating back to Hume and Kant. It’s impossible to know the “thing in itself.” All our perception of phenomena is characterized, conformed, and clouded by our humanness. For instance, try to conceive the edge of the universe, and what’s beyond. Weird, huh, being caught within time and space?

“”

Inconceivable, as a vertically-challenged villain was once known to say. Yet we bring all our perception of phenomena to bear on such far-flung fields as paleocosmology, and dare to state that our perceptions are authoritative, insofar as they confirm the representational cloud of smoke in which we prefer to subsist. (Would you quit blowing that in my direction.)

At the same time, we miss the “thing in itself” all around us, every day. For instance, we look at a loved one, but do we see that person or the representation we’ve built of them through years of knowing?

“”

Everything we conceive through our senses, then, is a representation in our mind—not the thing in itself—just like Magritte’s pipe. This notion has been usurped by rampant skepticism, much of which appears in our popular culture disguised as that’s just your opinion, and the like.

Nevertheless, there’s something better than the intersection of art and philosophy: the intersection of art and theology. I think the philosophy utilized by Magritte is sound, given certain presuppositions; however, I don’t believe it belongs under the rule and domain of skepticism. In fact, if it were, I doubt seriously we could believe it to be true with anything approaching certainty.

“”

I’m chuckling at your wording, but I also know you’re just going to smile and say, “Well, it’s true, isn’t it?”

Yes, unknowingness is self-defeating. Where do we draw the bounds of this applied agnosticism? Out at the edge of the universe, or much, much closer to home? It seems to me that’s what this amounts to as a consistently applied metaphysics. Working backwards from somewhere beyond, I fail to see a ground of certainty heaving into view anywhere in the sea of thought.

Even if solipsism is concretely false, it’s effectively true. I’m alone in the universe with the inventions of my own mind. My most-beloveds are never truly known, never truly seen. I commit the grandiose arrogance of reinventing them in my own representative concept, a form of self-idolatry and a prostitution of other human souls for my own heart’s pleasure and convenience.

This accusation of invention rings hither and yon when it comes to the invention of gods; yet in fact, it rings truest and deepest when it comes to the reinvention of our most intimate and concrete facets of daily life.

“”

 

How then can we reach further than our representations? Is there a way to reconcile our finite perception with God? Do these two belong together, or can they even coexist?

I think so, and I think the former relies upon the latter. Without the grounding force of God’s existence, we are doomed to the downward spiral of skepticism. Not only do we conclude this is not a pipe, but we should conclude this is not a universe. I am not a self. Evil is not evil. And so on down the maelstrom. Everything I experience is simply a representation. A representation of what? is a meaningless phrase.

“”

Not only is my loved one lost, then, but the very acts of loving. If evil is not evil, then neither is good meaningful. If I am not a self, then all the constituents most valuable in selfness – the giving, the reaching out, the connection – are figments of perception without quantitative value.

“”

But with the universal ground, we’re informed that our representations represent things as they are out there, even if we do not perceive the essence of a thing. Usher in the correspondence theory of truth. Usher in logic. Usher in good and evil. Usher in art, philosophy, and theology. Usher in purpose and meaning, for they all find grounding in God. In short, God alone saves the phenomena.

“”

It’s that saying of yours: “Evil exists; therefore, God exists.” It is one of the truest things I’ve ever encountered. The human tendency is to look to the world to examine evil, but I encountered it within myself first, firmly entrenched within the boundaries of my representative reality. Evil exists within me. A darkness of experience, thought and resultant action that absolutely cannot be defined as good or neutral. It works outward from within me to harm me and harm others.

Evil exists; therefore good exists.

Good exists, therefore God exists.

It only remains to perceive him accurately, and therein we have an insurmountable issue. We can’t touch the edge of the universe, let alone beyond. We can only do our best to represent these extreme abstracts to ourselves, unless something concrete intervenes, something quantitatively out there.

“”

How, then, does divine revelation fare? It’s the word of the one beyond the edge of the universe versus our representation. It’s our finite peering into the depths of the darkness, armed with a telescope lens and our imaging held captive to our finitude, versus the word of the one who was there and the one who grounds the universe itself. Thank God for the internal witness of his Spirit, for without it we are lost. For in Him we live, and move, and have our being.

“”

That claim of independent confirmation by a living, personal and present divine other is much maligned as a perceptual conjuring act untrue to the real facts. But if all is obscured by our representations, the skeptic’s perception of the real facts is itself stuck in the same rudderless boat, and unenforceable as an absolute certainty. The maelstrom takes all.

And yet, even in demonstrating the representation, Magritte (it is rumoured) appealed to the thing. “Try to put tobacco in it.”

We all need to doubt; but also, we all need to believe, or we’re swallowed by the widening gyre. Eventually, we all commit to some base universal (“there are absolutely no absolute certainties” will do nicely, for that matter), and the maelstrom is held at bay. We know it exists, and we know to flee it, even if we don’t grasp its essence.

There is such a thing as a pipe into which tobacco can be put.

~

For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will set aside.”

 

Where is the wise man? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?

 

For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe.

~1 Cor. 1:18-21