On the Beyond

We material beings are caught between causation and probability, the asymmetric and symmetric, the temporal and the infinite. Regardless of one’s philosophical school, whether transcendental Platonist or material Aristotelian, given what we know of the universe through modern physics and mathematics (as discussed in the previous essay), it would seem that we are, in fact, ruled in such a way, subject to two (radically, and, as of yet, irreconcilably) different theories.1

What is one to do, then, when the universe, from the largest scale to the smallest, is struck through with ambiguity? If causation is simply a useful illusion, how can we ever fully rely upon it? But if we do away with causation altogether, how do we explain so much of our everyday lives? As Mathias Frisch writes,2 causation is a useful, efficient system because “causal inferences … require only very limited, local knowledge of the world as input.” But the limited requirements for causation are also limiting:

“Suppose we wanted to calculate the state of the world just one second from now. If the laws are relativistic—that is, if they stipulate that no influence can travel faster than light—our initial state description would need to cover a radius of 300,000 km. Only then could we account for any possible influences that might reach our location within one second. For all practical purposes this is, of course, impossible. And so we find that, even in physics, we need inferences that require much less than complete states as input.”

We can never be fully certain of the cause of anything. We “see only the patterns” (Frisch), never the full picture.

Previously, I talked about this unsettling question in terms of why: why do we visit monuments, why do we yearn for permanence, why do we seek transcendence—why exactly do we desire the beyond? Here, I want to talk about the nature of the beyond, not so much to define it, but to suggest some useful ways of thinking about it, and/or some useful places to locate it.

If we, though limited in vision, are ruled by an arrow of time, a directional, causal trajectory of existence, to conceive of what lies beyond that arrow, or, perhaps, at its destination, we need another model. Specifically, we need an Archimedean point:

The Archimedean point is a “[m]etaphor derived from Archimedes’s alleged saying that if he had a fulcrum and a lever long enough, he could move the earth. The Archimedean point is a point ‘outside’ from which a different, perhaps objective or ‘true’ picture of something is obtainable. It might be a view of time from outside time, a view of science from elsewhere, a view of spatial reality from nowhere.”

The Archimedean point is a point outside, a point beyond. So, for Frisch to get his complete “initial state description,” for us to have certainty, we must anchor our vision at such a point. This applies for all vision and all vistas: whether one is traveling France, as I am currently, or watching a movie on Netflix in the comfort of their own home, or staring out the window at work, one must step outside the system they currently inhabit if they wish to see it fully and clearly. I would like to discuss the act of stepping outside at three levels, increasing in scope from first to last.

One. In psychoanalytic theory, the talking cure is the prevailing method of treatment for patients with psychological ailments. Once a patient is able to “express[] her repressed trauma and related emotions” her symptoms improve. As Jacques Lacan identifies, this is because trauma is located in the register of the Real: trauma is unsignifiable, it cannot be put into words, cannot be made sense of. The talking cure allows analyst and analysand to “drain the traumatic experiences of the real into the symbolic through free association.” Which means, in the terms of this essay, that the analysand (the patient), is enabled to step outside herself by the agency of the analyst, and, through ever tightening ellipses (in both senses; that is, that the analysand orbits herself, getting ever closer to the core of her trauma, and that, the analysand tightens, collapses, the ellipses, the gaps, the silences, the unsignifiables, in her memory), come to an understanding of her trauma and experience healing. So, one could say that, in encountering the unsettling (or, potentially, traumatic), illusory nature of causation in one’s own life, the individual must step outside himself through therapy, prayer, or some other such self-eliding experience in order to make sense of that which has unsettled him.

Two. There is an ethico-political motivation for stepping outside as well. If you, my reader, remember a series of early essays I wrote for this blog wherein I discussed James Mensch’s philosophy of freedom, subjectivity, and public space,3 you will remember that freedom is found in our others:

“Our freedom is contained in and made possible by the “appearing” of our others. The self, in Levinasian terms, being the limited, finite, “said” (all that a person has been and done; the historical self, as it were), encounters the infinity of the “saying” of its others (that is, the potential or future self), and in that infinity, finds its inherent freedom. But, because freedom is contained in the infinite, excessive potentiality of others, it is, therefore, necessary for the self to engage with those others—necessary in the most imperative sense of the word. If there are no others for the self to engage with and from whom the self can learn new potentialities of will, the self remains trapped within its own finitude and does not attain that most basic and most encompassing potentiality, the raw ideal or capacity for freedom itself. Thus, isolation is not, in fact, freedom, but slavery” (Stein, “All That I Have Met”).

To explain exactly what happens when an individual engages with his others, and how, in engaging, freedom is produced, Mensch refers to Jean-Paul Sartre:

“For man to put a particular existent out of circuit is to put himself out of circuit in relation to the existent. In this case he is not subject to it; he is out of reach; it cannot act on him, for he has retired beyond a nothingness. Descartes, following the Stoics, has given a name to this possibility which human reality has to secrete a nothingness which isolates it—it is freedom4 (Sartre cited in > Mensch, 33-34). 

Which means, in less abstruse⁵ terms, that, if our freedom is found in our others, and freedom precisely in the difference that our others make known to us, it is necessary, then, to step outside ourselves in order to effectively engage with our others, integrate their differences with our selves (one’s existent), and embrace the freedom they offer. Thus, both personal and collective freedom, as well as a healthy public space, require a stepping outside, just as in the psychoanalytic process.

Three. It is no wonder, then, that monuments draw crowds. As I argued previously, it is as if we are gravitationally pulled to these places of transcendence that allow us to step outside time, even if for only a few moments. Freedom and transcendence are linked through space—especially public space—and collectively produced. Perhaps, then, we should—I should—be slower to grumble at all the tourists ruining the atmosphere of these remarkable places. Rather than withdraw from the other pilgrims around me, I should engage with them instead. Because, as the above excerpted passage from Frisch clearly shows, it is a practical impossibility for me to ever attain all the data I need to make a prediction of events at my location only one second into the future. I would need to have available all the data—literally, all—to describe everything within a 300,000 km radius and so be able to make a certain prediction. Predictions aside, certainty in the present moment is a tenuous thing in itself.

I can step outside my trauma through therapy and gain a better understanding of my own mind. I can step outside my community through relationships with people who are part of other communities and so, in turn, gain a better understanding of the immediate world in which I live. I can step outside my country and into another, into different cities and sites and museums, and come to a better understanding of the world and the historical context that I inhabit. But for all this, I still see only the patterns. I can never step far enough.

Or can I?

If our freedom is enabled by our others, and if monuments allow us to better step outside ourselves, what if, in these spaces that draw thousands of people a day, and millions of people a year, there is something true that lies beneath and beyond the commercialism? What if, by participating in such an enormous socio-cultural experience, by interacting with that multitude of people, even just in passing, the difference, the potentialities made known to me, catapult me even further beyond myself then I could ever achieve by my own power? What if the unattainable, fantastical Archimedean point is not so unattainable and fantastical after all?

That’s a lot of what ifs. But don’t you think it’s worth a try?

The idealist in me thinks so.


  1. From Wikipedia, “Theory of everything”: “The two theories upon which all modern physics rests are general relativity (GR) and quantum field theory (QFT). GR is a theoretical framework that only focuses on the force of gravity for understanding the universe in regions of both large-scale and high-mass: stars, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, etc. On the other hand, QFT is a theoretical framework that only focuses on three non-gravitational forces for understanding the universe in regions of both small scale and low mass: sub-atomic particles, atoms, molecules, etc. QFT successfully implemented the Standard Model and unified the interactions (so-called Grand Unified Theory between the three non-gravitational forces: weakstrong, and electromagnetic force. Through years of research, physicists have experimentally confirmed with tremendous accuracy virtually every prediction made by these two theories when in their appropriate domains of applicability. In accordance with their findings, scientists also learned that GR and QFT, as they are currently formulated, are mutually incompatible—they cannot both be right [my emphasis].” 

  2. Frisch, Mathias. “Could We Do Without Cause and Effect?” 2015. Aeon. Web. 

  3. Mensch, James. “Public Space.” Continental Philosophy Review 40 (2007): 31-47. PDF. 

  4. [Mensch’s Citation] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. Hazel Barnes (New York: Washington Square Press, 1966), p. 60.  

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