The Closed World and the Infinite Universe: The Metaphysics of Freedom

December 13, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Image Removed

[this is a follow up to my “Selective Anti-Modernism and the  Shape of Society”:]

Live Free or Die

Freedom in modern society stands as the ultimate value.  It is the value to which almost all other ones aim, and around which they are organized.  This is most clear in our political and economic ideals, but also visible throughout our moral code or commonly assumed hierarchy of needs.  Equality, for instance, stands as one of the main goals of liberal society, but it refers mainly to equal freedoms and is significant because gross inequality leads to a lack of freedom for the poor or disenfranchised.  Justice is organized to maintain freedom.  Lack of education, poverty, even courage or character are likewise often seen as obstacles to freedom, which is valued in and of itself.

One might be tempted to say that freedom is given higher standing than happiness—especially because various enslavements or dependencies are often seen as fate worse than death.  But I think, rather, that for most modern people it is difficult to imagine a happiness that is not either accompanied by or won through freedom.  Happiness in the absence of freedom has an air of inauthenticity, unearned and ultimately shallow.  Better Socrates dead, we might say, than a pig satisfied.  Happiness—or comfort or security—without freedom is grist for the radical mill, along with other sorts of false or illusory freedoms.  Thus might Marxists decry conventional understandings of freedom, but only in the name of a higher type of freedom, so too with deconstruction and post-structuralism.  Even religion, which has traditionally emphasized a divine law over freedom, has, increasingly throughout modernity, had to meet the cause of liberation at least half-way, recasting God’s will in terms of a gambit of options running from “His” alleged desire for the blessed to be wealthy, to a primary concern with social justice and thus freedom.

It is difficult, in other words, to find a moral or political stance in the modern world that is not ultimately geared toward some sort of freedom or liberation, and usually for very good reasons given the horizons within which we live.  This is so to the extent that many may not realize that there might be any other options, that duty, honor, or responsibility might once have been legitimately posited as the highest good.  These, to modern eyes, look mainly like cruel and unjust forces of enslavement, an illiberal rejection of the ultimate and universal human goal of freedom.  To say, for example, that “you must do your duty” is, as the domain of freedom has spread, seen as kind of shackles.  It is true, I should admit, experiments with alternative forms of ultimate good have over the past several centuries at best been maladaptive and, at worst, responsible for the greatest crimes and genocides of modernity.  Freedom, we might say, is the existential condition of modernity; interference comes with great risk.

But here’s the epochal rub.  Cutting global carbon emissions, or creating an ecologically-minded society that is able to thrive into the future, will require a culture of restraint—possibly one of constraint.  Given freedom’s prominence in the pantheon of modern values, it should be of little surprise that attempts to mitigate human-caused climate change have yet to propose anything that would be of serious threat to anyone’s freedom—at least anyone in the global north.  Until freedom—not only as it is understood in consumer cultures, but, more controversial, as a primary goal unto itself—is put on the table, we should not expect a turn towards anything remotely sustainable.  Rather, we should expect more non-binding treaties that are unwilling to restrict the burning of fossil fuels to the point where anyone (whose voice actually matters) might actually be forced to do something they don’t want to do, or to go without something they want to have.   It is easy to blame this on lack of courage or true leadership, or on the influence of big oil and other corporate money, or even on the unequal distribution of freedom.  But I would suggest that these are mainly high-level stand-ins for a culture of freedom that is not ready to question itself.

For reasons that should be clear from my remarks up to this point, most sustainability movements instead try to position themselves in terms of some sort of freedom or another.  I would argue that this is a losing battle, and that we may need to reconstruct a society, moral code—and as we will later see, a whole new metaphysics—in which freedom, at most, shares the spotlight with other sorts of values

Even “radical” sustainability movements that emphasize extreme  levels of voluntary simplicity will, like traditional leftists, often position themselves in terms of a higher or better sort of freedom—perhaps freedom from consumer culture or the failing middle-class hamster-wheel.  But this is a voluntary lifestyle choice, not all that different from the way religions, exercise routines, or aesthetic styles are still selections taken at the all-you-can-eat buffet of privileged bourgeois self-creation.  This is true of the Transition Movement, the example with which I am most familiar.  It has a marketing strategy–and it naturally employs freedom as one of its prime features.  Its remote hope is that “the true freedom” of a simple, just, and fulfilling lifestyle (yes, lifestyle) will convince the masses to give up their consumer dreams and reunite with their authentic selves.  I do believe that the Transition Movement remains the best thing as of yet conceived—as long as we would live free or die—and is worth a good and solid effort so that we might see if some sort of tipping point might be achieved.  But I’m not holding my breath, or my tongue.

For the sun has long since set and the Owl of Minerva has not yet taken flight.  It may be time to admit that we cannot simply choose to live the way we want to.  The ecological view of reality we have been romancing up to this point is, in fact, placing some non-optional obligations on us.  It is calling for constraint, whether we like it or not.  The self-limiting of freedom, not to mention the limiting of freedom from the outside, offers no easy path: it slices against the grain not only of everything we’ve been taught, but also the most trenchant historical lessons of the past two centuries.  To question freedom is to question the entire world in which we live.

But in order for us to broadly behave eco-logically, almost everything will need to change, including our vision of the ultimate order of things.   Modernism is not only a sort of anti-ecology in terms of its technological assumptions; it is, I will argue, an anti-ecological even in terms of its basic framework of thought and value.

From a Closed World to the Infinite Universe

Practical-minded activists may set out to develop new social practices that bridge the divide between the culture of restraint we need and modern freedoms we demand and according to which all practicable forms of justice with which we are familiar are organized.  I would applaud this selectively anti-modernist bricolage and truly believe it could be an important part of our working dissensus.  But I also think it is worth looking at our over-arching conceptions of the way the world works, and at the vocabularies with which we hope, explain, aspire, and expect.  I am referring to metaphysics, the exploration of our intellectual frameworks and our cosmological assumptions about the shape of the universe and the way its parts fit and work together.  The impatient and restless may think a discussion of cosmology or metaphysics a waste of precious time; perhaps they are right.  But if our conceptual roadmaps were drawn for a land that no longer exists, we have no choice but to find our bearings and reset our course by drawing-up a new map.   Our assumptions about truth, likelihood, and possibility–as with the words and concepts we employ to orient and direct our actions–are shot-through with metaphysical and cosmological beliefs of which we often remain unaware.

Physicists, in this vein, tell us that the universe is infinite, and I have no reason to doubt this.  Yet I do wonder if we’ve relied too heavily on the language and lexicon that physics has used to understand the shape of the entire universe in order to outline our small corner of that universe, which is in fact finite in some very crucial ways.  Physics, we might say, has become metaphysics—or perhaps we have mistaken cosmology for ontology.  At any rate, a language derived from the current views about the nature and mechanics of the universe has come to inhabit an important center of intellectual matters, occupying a place that could just as easily (in another time or place, of course) be held by biological sciences, a theological meta-narrative, or an animistic belief-system. A metaphysics of physics can be seen in all of modern sciences and in all the technological promises that science is said to deliver.  That this view of things may be empirically and conceptually irrefutable, or that it is able to create practical marvels, does not preclude the distinct possibility that the scope of its application may need guidance from another perspective or that we have over-literalized a set of vivid metaphors about the unknown beyond in an attempt to create a modernist metaphysical Lingua Franca.

The birth of this modern scientific cosmology, and its break with a predecessor order, is the main topic of Alexandre Koyre’s pioneering 1957 book, From the Closed world to the Infinite Universe.[i]  The epigrammatic title, alone, is rich with implications and cuts pretty close to the heart of the matter; but let’s read on nonetheless and begin to catalogue some of the implications. In the seventeenth century, Koyre, explains, there was in Europe a “radical spiritual revolution of which modern science is at the same time the root and the fruit.”   There is, of course, a simplistic (and temporally ethnocentric) view that tells us that the Scientific Revolution, and then the Enlightenment, was merely the time in which Europeans rid themselves of their superstitions and myths, so that we their clear-eyed descendants might live a life bathed in truth, freedom, and technological wizardry.  A more historically nuanced approach explains this “radical spiritual revolution” in terms of a new framework involving “the secularization of consciousness” or perhaps the change from “transcendent goals to immanent aims.”  Its notable features have been the rise of human subjectivity or “man” as an object of study; or one might focus on the transformation of scientific work from “the pure contemplation of nature” to the demand for “domination and mastery” exemplified in Francis Bacon’s work, accompanied by the replacement of truths grounded in tradition or revelation with ones that might be tested according to new and evolving methods.

While these descriptions point in the direction of significant features of modern consciousness, Koyre argues that “they are concomitants and expressions of a deeper and more fundamental process as the result of which man—as it is sometimes said—lost his place in the world, or, more correctly perhaps, lost the very world in which he was living and about which he was thinking, and had to transform and replace not only his fundamental concepts and attributes, but even the very framework of his thought” (4).  Before continuing with Koyre’s rich and suggestive elucidation, I would only note my suspicion that we are at such another moment today.  At stake is not just life as we know it within the aptly named Anthropocene, but, because of these stakes, also at stake are our fundamental concepts and the very framework of our thought.  To survive here, which I think we will, we will need to bid farewell to the “world” in which we have been living, the one, I should add, outlined by Koyre.

This seventeenth century rupture, Koyre explains, “can be described roughly as bringing forth the destruction of the Cosmos” (4).  The Cosmos refers to “the closed world” of Koyre’s title.  Replacing it was the Infinite Universe that we modern people take as the measure of all things only at our great peril.  The destruction of the Cosmos, moreover, entails the loss of an entire language of meaning and value–or rather its displacement, its removal to the margins of philosophy where we have been grasping, sometimes nostalgically, for it ever since.  Or as Koyre explains it, this destruction involved

. . . the disappearance, from philosophically and scientifically valid concepts, of the conception of the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole. . . , and its replacement by an indefinite and even infinite universe which is bound together by the identity of its fundamental components and laws, and in which all the components are placed on the same level of being.  This, in turn, implies the discarding by scientific thought of all considerations based upon value-concepts, such as perfection, harmony, meaning, and aim, and finally the utter devalorization of being, the divorce of the world of value and the world of facts.

The terms that stand out beyond the others, of course, are the ones used in Koyre’s title, especially the distinction between closed and infinite.  That “infinite” and “limitless” are keywords in today’s marketing, at once, of political agendas, consumer products, and technological expectations, should be obvious even to the casual observer; these terms are all the more weighted for those of us who have had our ears tuned to the centerpiece of the ecological debate of our time—the collision between the promise and habitual need for unlimited economic growth, on the one hand, and the beleaguered limitations of our finite planet, on the other.

But there should be no question which term wins out in modern thinking, even so called “ecomodernist.”  My outline, here, is less a genealogy than an archaeology, so I will not attempt to trace the subtle vacillations of cause and effect.  But the idea–that because the universe is infinite, so also is nearly every part of human reality–has crept its way into the predominant and ruling sense of things and is questioned only under rare conditions by people from the fringe.  Our every-system—whether we are talking about fractional-reserve banking and a system of trade based on the profit motive, or merely the way we dispose of its products when we are done with them—are premised on the fiction that we are not operating within any limits.  The notion, and the simple phrase, “there are no limits” is the modern myth; it ties together the most clichéd TV drama with its predictable rogue hero to the most distinguished scientific research, and then weaves a web spreading every direction from there.  Modern morality has thus likewise mainly been about removing barriers and limits—sometimes by our rogue hero, sometimes by our esteemed scientists, or by anyone else who has the courage, as Kant put it, to know (semper aude).

And as for the finite planet?  Our allegedly infinite capacity for ingeniousness and innovation can in this view stretch any apparent limits into perpetuity.  As the Ecomodernists declare in their puerile Manifesto, “To the degree to which there are any fixed physical boundaries to human consumption, they are so theoretical as to be functionally irrelevant,” and offer “no meaningful constraints on human endeavors” (10).  One of the only accompaniments to these thoughts that raises the manifesto above a random collection of techo-culture detritus is the authors’ admission that the whole racket depends on the availability of “unlimited energy” (10).

Unlimited energy is, in this late age of infinitude the lynchpin of any sort of eco-modernism, for it alone is what might breach the closed ecology of the Earth or stretch its limits. With enough energy, we can dream plausibly, though not realistically, of a “fully synthetic world,” in which “generations could survive and prosper materially on a planet with much less biodiversity and wild nature,” for with truly unlimited energy, they would propose, we can afford to have all our natural services, “like water purification and flood protection,” performed by “simply building [more] water treatment plants, seawalls, and levees.”  Our limitless energy or ultra-intensive agriculture kills off the bees?  Certainly a couple of billion drones could do the same work.  Need to freshen the air in the absence of trees? Some high-tech air filters should do the trick.  Of course these fantasies don’t account for all the other finite and limited aspects of our big, beautiful, living and breathing planet and the delicate and diverse interconnection and balance they require.  But unlimited energy (or the idea of it, for they are really the same) can fuel the fantasy of a perpetual and growing modernity, even here on Earth.

But I want to dwell a bit longer on Koyre’s descriptions, and on the general differences between infinite (or open) and closed worlds, frameworks, and systems, for the implications of it extends outside a narrow ecological focus to the broader order of things within which an ecological view or the fight for our planet struggles.  In a few sentences that refer to the way an infinite universe “is bound together by the identity of its fundamental components and laws,” Koyre also describes the conceptual structure of modern democracy and a market economy.  Here, value is not inscribed in goods themselves, but is a function of their circulation within an economy or system.  This economy, like a democratic society, is held together, at least in theory, only by the identity of its participants and the rules that are agreed upon.  In Liberal society, moreover, “value-concepts” are relegated to the private life of the individual; society, in contrast, is supposed to be value-free, an infinite space for individuals to pursue their private aims without restraint from the demands of any overarching order, symmetry or metaphysical harmony.  Limits on individual freedom are legitimate only to the extent that one’s freedom might otherwise interfere with the freedom of others.  You can have all the meaning, harmony, and aim that you want behind closed doors; but, as we say, don’t impose in on the rest of us.

In addition to a description of our idealized reality, nearly every term Koyre uses to contrast the closed world and the infinite universe is an important part of the lexicon of liberal or modern value-terms. One hardly needs to explain in the modern context why it is bad to be “closed-minded,” nor its connection to being backwards in general, nor its association with the modern crime of not being sufficiently open to possibility or change.  Or take the near-prohibition on supporting hierarchical arrangements.  True, we certainly don’t live up to these egalitarian ideals, but apologists for the current order of things are likely to suggest, in some manner or another, that we are dealing with hierarchies of fact and not value, of quantities rather than qualities, and quantities that are earned through the exercise of freedom.  Harmony and equilibrium are quaint values, kept separate from the world of facts, control, and growth for growth’s sake.

There is, however, an even more fundamental difference between closed and open systems, and a difference that has considerable bearing on the mentality of our age and thus of the range of solutions we are able to imagine or the sorts of lives we can envision for ourselves.  The open system thinking (and systems) we almost universally employ is battering the distinct limits of the mainly closed ecological system in which we actually live and upon which we actually depend.  We have grounded our reality in astrophysics, we might say, rather than in biological interconnection.  The crucial differences can be observed by comparing almost any closed system to an open system.

In thermodynamics, for instance, a closed system has a tendency to move towards static equilibrium, while an open system moves towards entropy—though this is a sort of misnomer, for a truly open system is not a system at all.   As matter or energy drift off into an expanding beyond, there is a sense in which interconnection becomes lost.  “Causes” may appear to create no distinct or immediate effect.

A closed system, in contrast is heavy with consequence, thick with meaning, filled with value.  This, after all, is zero-sum game, as we like to say, where cause and effect are tied together according to sometimes predictable ratios.  As writers know, a good story must strive to be a closed system, for without a saturation of cause and effect, action and reaction, and the closure of death, there can be no meaning. In a murder-mystery, the literary archetype of a closed and meaningful plot, the perpetrator must come from within the cast of characters so that the mystery is solved from within.  Deconstructive reading, in contrast, understands this well and dismantles the closed artifice with great drama of its own so that we can watch, astonished but murmuring with recognition, as meaning escapes into the world of infinite literary possibility and seemingly endless chains of signification.  So also with “postmodern” fiction which dramatizes the collapse of inherited literary systems as structure is ruptured by infinite play.  In addition to the equilibrium that a closed system tends towards, postmodernism stands against perfection, harmony, meaning, and aim—the very sort of closed world of value also excluded from Liberal “openness.”  Despite radical pretensions, postmodernism is a creative footnote to the Liberal quest for autonomy—a quest for which few legitimate alternatives exist.

I would at this point like to posit the hypothesis that I will pursue at length in my next installment: that there can be no freedom within a fully closed system.  Or perhaps, in reverse, that freedom demands an open system and that the historical rise of both are two ends of a single arc.  Any sort of freedom that people attempt to attain or sustain, therefore, is performed in conjunction with an attempt to turn closed systems into open systems, to lessen or obviate the consequential saturation of a closed system, to relieve actions of weight, to put elbow room or breathing space between cause and effect.

[i] Koyre, Alexander.  From The Closed World to the Infinite Universe.  New York: Harper Brothers, 1957.

Image credit: “Tetradrachm Athens 480-420BC MBA Lyon” by Marie-Lan Nguyen (User:Jastrow), 2009-02-28. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Commons.

Erik Lindberg

Erik Lindberg received his Ph.D. in English and Comparative Literature in 1998, with a focus on cultural theory. After completing his degree, Lindberg began his career as a carpenter, and now owns a small, award-winning company that specializes in historical restoration. In 2008 he started Milwaukee’s first rooftop farm, and was a co-founder of the Victory Garden Initiative, as well as a member of Transition Milwaukee’s inaugural steering committee. He lives in Milwaukee with his wife and young twin boys.

Tags: ecomodernism, freedom, metaphysics