When the best telescope focuses on even a small patch of the night sky it sees countless galaxies of stars. They are receding away from us and from each other at incredible speed. Into what are they receding? We wonder if the space in the physical universe goes on for ever? Or does space have a boundary and if so what might be on the other side? You might go mad pondering such questions. According to empirical science, if you can’t measure something then it cannot be defined. And so infinity doesn’t exist as a fact.
But what do philosophers mean by the word ‘infinity’? Karl Popper, philosopher of science, once wrote that our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.
If finite means something limited with a boundary, then infinite is something having no limit and no boundary. Similarly, the word “eternal” means unbounded by time.
An inkling of infinity
In our ordinary living, like in the field of science, we cannot help but base our thinking on ideas that arise from our sense of space and time.
“I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity.” (Simone de Beauvoir, French novelist)
Perhaps, however, we can almost, but not quite, imagine something that is infinite and eternal.
John C Mather (American cosmologist) said that his earliest school memory, at the age of 6, was realising that one could fill an entire page with digits and never come to the largest possible number as you can always add another at the top. How many children have glimpsed infinity by thinking about numbers that go and on and on ad infinitum?
Variety in nature
Can we get an inkling of infinity by reflecting with amazement and awe on the huge number of stars in the universe? Or thinking about the immense variety of life on earth? It is said that no two snow-flakes are identical although how someone looked at them all beats me.
Huge diversity is shown in human faces which all seem to me at least to look slightly different. Common experience tells us that we can distinguish even between identical adult twins. There is the notion of the doppelgänger. But is there really any pair of people who are exact visual duplicates? Biologist Teghan Lucas and her team, from the University of Adelaide, examined 4,000 different faces of soldiers from a US army database in terms of eight distinct facial features. They concluded that the chances of someone else having the same face as you is only one in 1 trillion. This number is beyond my imagination and is indeed something approaching infinity. It reminds me of the infinite monkey problem. If you sit a monkey in a room with a typewriter for an infinite amount of time, will it ever at some point pen the works of Shakespeare?
Infinity and spirituality
According to German philosopher Eduard Spranger, we human beings are thrown into this material world at a particular place and time but without any apparent purpose. Limited by our external circumstances, nevertheless, we strive to pursue unfulfilled longings. Despite the numerous restrictions we encounter, many of us are startled to see opening up a newer and higher world infinitely filled with illumination, inspiration and hope.
“I’m sure that love exists, even infinite, eternal love.” (Kylie Minogue, Australian singer-songwriter)
Ideas in spiritual thought have no relationship to space; instead they relate to our state of consciousness. Experiences of love, wisdom, feeling and meaning are not bounded by the physical universe. Generally they are to do with awareness of what is good and deeply true .
Psychologist Abraham Maslow studied people he called self-actualizers. We can think of examples like Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein. Those individuals who had maximised their potential doing the best that they were capable of doing. He found a continuing disposition in them for seeing the miraculous in ordinary things. One example of this was witnessing eternity within the transitory nature of their own mortality.
Philosopher Walter Stace has noted one common aspect of the mystical vision. It is a transcendent perception of space and time.
“To see a world in a grain of sand and heaven in a wild flower Hold infinity in the palm of your hand and eternity in an hour.” (William Blake, poet and painter)
This sense of infinity and eternity is true for all the world’s mystics regardless of their era and tradition.
Infinity and timelessness
An idea of infinity is found in the experience of timelessness. This experience can perhaps be illustrated in Jewish psychoanalyst Eric Fromm’s idea of genuine humanistic religiousness, which he contrasts with an authoritarian unhelpful kind. He points to the experience of creativity, love, joy, or grasping truth. And says that this exists only in the eternity that is the timelessness of the here and now. The human body has limitations. But the human spirit is boundless. When we have the spiritual more closely present with us, we are less troubled by time. Then we find infinity within our soul.
If the Divine is infinite then creation is probably finite. As spiritual philosopher Emanuel Swedenborg has pointed out, the physical universe is finite because it exists in time and space. Travelling in a straight line on the earth’s surface we end up where we started. Perhaps, likewise, if we were to go up in a space craft far enough, we would travel through a curved universe and get back to point we started? Whatever the physics, the immensity of the distances involved gives us an inkling of the infinity of our spiritual Source. One that is the infinite power of love and wisdom to create and provide for what is created, and to overcome and save us from the corruption of this creation.
Copyright 2019 Stephen Russell-Lacy
Author of Heart, Head & Hands Swedenborg’s perspective on emotional problems