What, how, that the world is – on reason, imagination and faith

We need rationality to understand what the world is. We need imagination to understand how it works. And to be able to accept it, we need faith.

Allow me to start so bluntly, and please follow me in the course of the next paragraphs, as I'll try to explain this brash beginning.

A world, a cosmos, a mundus, is an ‘orderly’ thing: the result of the way in which our consciousness systematises the raw facts of pure experience. Or to be more precise, the way in which our consciousness systematises pure experience – that is, the acknowledgement of pure existence – as a set of ‘facts’. In this sense, Idealist schools of philosophy have a solid ground where they can rest their claim that the world depends fundamentally on our mind. If we consider it outside of our consciousness, that is, outside of the very notion of ‘facts’, nothing remains of the world except the tautological statement that it exists. As claimed by Kantian and post-Kantian philosophers, as well as by Kant himself, the world as such is a function of the way in which we perceive it through our consciousness. What appears to us as its set of essential qualities, is in fact an indication of how our mind works, not of the way the world truly ‘is’ in itself. And since such systematisation of pure existence into sets of facts is precisely what we define as ‘reason’, we can say that ‘reason’ suffices to understand ‘what’ the world is.

But a world is not just ‘what’ it is. The ‘thing’ that it is somehow moves, it somehow seems to be endowed with something beyond its simple ‘being there’. By its very becoming, the world seems to be somehow alive. Here, our reason begins to falter. Even though every individual stage of the world, each of its temporary compositions is susceptible to be analysed rationally, the passage from one composition to the other (the very process of ‘becoming’) escapes rational analysis. Indeed, Hume was right to point out that, with the eyes of reason, we cannot see anywhere that force that supposedly leads a ‘cause’ to produce an ‘effect’. Becoming is undeniable, yet it is unprovable. If we wish to accept the effective reality of such movement, we can do so only through ‘imagination’. Since we cannot describe the process of becoming as a fact, we have to condense it into an image. An image is something different form a fact or a concept. Like them, it is a feature of the mind, and as such it has to follow a strict set of rules. But unlike facts and concepts, an image doesn’t have to submit to philosophical laws like that of ‘non contradiction’ or of the ‘identity of indiscernibles’. An image defies the logical strictures that impose that some-thing should be only that-thing: an image can contain within itself the whole world, or nothing at all. It can be at the same time something and its opposite – like the black sun of alchemy. For this reason, the process of becoming can be engaged only by a process of imagination – by a process of making-images.

We can also consider this problem in political terms. In age, like ours, that is progressively sinking along the spiral of identity politics – a spiral that inevitably leads to war, as it has always done – the realm of imagination offers a radical alternative. To the eye of imagination, it is simply absurd to hold that a person, or indeed any creature or object, can in any way be defined by one of its attributes: any thing, inasmuch as it is an entity subject to becoming, is always more than any of its names, and even than the sum of all its names. The seemingly unstoppable descent into a war-like atmosphere, so palpable these days, signals not to a lack of understanding, but to a failure of our contemporary imagination. Xenophobes, racists, ‘patriots’ and the like are not lacking in rationality – on the contrary, they have put all their eggs in the basket of rationality, while entirely neglecting imagination, which alone is capable of dealing with the process of becoming. That becoming, which is as much a part of the essence of any ‘thing’ in the world, as it is its tidy presence as this or that specific ‘thing’.

But even imagination does not suffice to take on the challenges issued to all and each of us by our very existence and by the very existence of the ‘world’. The most difficult part, even though it is often the most neglected one, is to be able to accept the absurd, inexplicable, even shocking truth of our ‘being there’ at all, as well as of our endless changes – and eventually, of our disappearance from the world. When we reach the threshold of this riddle, the tools of rationality and imagination seem to grind to a halt. We need to learn a new trick of consciousness, one that debases its founding assumption while at the same time exerting its flexibility and its power to the uttermost limit. We need faith. Fede e’ sustanza di cose sperate / e argomento de le non parventi (Faith is the substance of the things we hope for / and is the evidence of things not seen’). This is how Dante describes faith in the XXIV canto of his Paradiso – after St. Paul’s Epistle to the Hebrews 11:1. A contortion of our consciousness that is at once substance of the world and proof of its truthfulness.

Faith, however, escapes my words – as perhaps it escapes any words. It is at once a process, a sudden illumination and a fragile achievement. Ultimately, faith is the only object of any authentic prayer. Whenever the faithful addresses their God, whatever they implicitly or explicitly ask, every time their request is to be able to keep up their faith – that is, their ability to ‘see’ God, to ‘feel’ it, to ‘sense’ it, or whatever word they might chose at that time. I cannot explain faith, even though a poet might be able to draw its contours. A poet like R.S Thomas, for example, who describes it as a “simple offering […] green as a leaf” (1). So be it: faith is as absurd as a sacred offering, a libation, a sacrifice. And it is just as cosmogonic in its consequences – it draws the line between Persephone’s captivity and her majesty in her kingdom. Faith turns the violence of existence into something beautiful – it does it just like that, without any discursive or imaginal engagement. It is green, and it is a leaf: verdant and fragile, the symbol of all potential and the evidence of utmost weakness. To accept that we are, that the world is, that we change, that the world changes, and that everything eventually vanishes, and then possibly returns; it takes a mental position capable at once to embrace maximum vulnerability and maximum hopefulness.

Faith is something as implausible as the new-born Heracles, strangling with his bare hands the two snakes that had crept into his cradle. How can I describe this prodigy? Indeed, I cannot. All I can do is to point to it, hoping that my readers, and myself, will be able to look at it long enough to accept it as the most implausible and the most truthful matter-of-fact. Why should I do it, though? Why should my readers even attempt to do it? Because without it, life in the world is a punishment, literally, it is hell. But why is heaven preferable to hell, even though hell seems to have all the fallacies of heaven on its side? Once again, I cannot say. It is a matter of aesthetic judgement. Some angels chose one location as their abode, some chose the other. Just like faith, such aesthetic choice comes before both rationality and imagination. Its justification is entirely arbitrary. The consequences of leaning on one side or on the other, however, are entirely objective. The choice is ours, as always. Free will, in the end, is nothing more than this. That is to say, it is everything. Faith, imagination, rationality – the cockpit, wings and engines of the ethereal vessel which we call our ‘life in the world’.

1) R.S. Thomas, The Kingdom.