Looking back to Plato and Aristotle with their competing views of the cosmos, Aristotle reckoned that what we see is what we get; the universe is merely those things we may perceive.
His teacher Plato thought that there was a framework underpinning the physical world, the so-called realm of forms. What we could see were imperfect representations of the truth, which was held in some conceptual realm.
In this realm, we could find the perfect triangle of three lines of zero thickness intersecting at three notional points. In our world every triangle has mass and thickness and imprecision, even if we draw it with the finest of pencils and the straightest of rulers, and the perfect triangle is something we can only imagine.
Six centuries after Plato, the philosopher Plotinus refined Plato’s ideas into three primary hypostases – literally “understandings” – all dealing with entities which could not be perceived directly.
He called this things “The One”, “Nous”, and “Soul”.
Soul is consciousness, something we all possess. Not thought or memory or reason or heart, but awareness.
Nous is the framework, the forms, the triangle that we can imagine but never see in the world. It is the way that things in the physical world operate, and it dictates everything from why gravity makes water flow downhill to how a complete vacuum may still contain radio waves.
And the One is Plato’s “Good”, the source of everything. Ineffable, incomprehensible, unknown, one without a second, indivisible, eternal, unchanging.
I like the model of Plotinus. Reality for him is not the world we can see, where water vapour makes clouds, seeds become trees, mountains rise and fall. All the things in the physical world change and pass away. Our planet will one day be nothing but dust, or some strange plasma in a black hole, as it once was. What we see, with lakes and flowers and birds, is nothing more than a fleeting glimpse.
For Plotinus, reality is the changeless and eternal. Throughout the physical universe, pi is the same. The ratio of the circumference of the perfect circle to its diameter is a constant from one end of the cosmos to the other. It never alters over time, not even by the tiniest change in the trillionth digit.
Unlike the physical world of Aristotle, the land where chunky fellows declare that “this is reality” by banging rocks together, and where we search in vain for consciousness and the divine, here we may find something that may reasonably also be called God, and we may find our own selves.
What are we if not pure consciousness? At the very core of our existence, we are not our bodies, our passing thoughts, our failing memories, nor anything which may be examined and measured. But we most definitely are.
Science looks in vain for any life force. There is nothing but chemistry and electricity animating us, but we are aware that we are aware, even if scientists cannot explain how that happens, except to say that it is an emergent function of complexity.
And although Plotinus has no room for gods and demons who parade through the physical world interacting with us, sending down thunderbolts and cancers, answering prayers and sending us signs, we may see the divine in the One, and Nous, where all is timeless and unchanging, omnipresent and omniscient.
Look into a mirror, you are looking at the flicker of the soul, which is a manifestation of Nous, which is sparked by the One.
I like that. We can comprehend the divine by contemplating our selves, or the spark of a distant star, or the purity of a dewdrop. We may find it in meditation, when all thoughts and movement of the mind fade away, and we can still ourselves to experience pure bliss. Maybe for a moment, maybe for an hour, but there it is.
When Rome adopted Christianity, Plotinus happened to be there with the right connections, and his ideas were taken aboard as a framework for the Trinity. Heresy also crept in, and ever since then, Christians have wondered about the precise nature of the Holy Ghost, or how Jesus could have a heavenly father.
All there in Plotinus, who would have firmly rejected the notion of a young man in the world and an old man in the clouds. But he would have embraced the holy spirit, so long as you didn’t try to do anything but accept its eternal, unchanging nature.
That’s it, I’m afraid. Nobody has come up with a third model that isn’t some form of Plato or Aristotle. You may bang two rocks together and declare that you hold reality in your hands, or you may point out that the rocks will one day crumble to dust and be ripped apart into their fundamental particles, but the rules of the game will always be present.
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