The Stones Cry Out:
Cave Art & the Origin of the Human Spirit, Part 7

leonardo-view-of-a-skull-c1489 [1]3,987 words

Part 7 of 7 (other parts here [2])

7. The Aim of the Universe

I have argued that man’s nature is to be the mirror of nature, and that this begins in the European caves. As Aristotle and Pico have taught us, man is, in a way, nothing — and all. In his very body he recapitulates the natural forms that surround him, in their essential nature (as vegetable and animal). And in his mind the essences of any and all things come to be, detached from the individuals that embody them. This doesn’t just happen to man — he strives to make it happen; he desires it. As Aristotle famously said at the beginning of the Metaphysics, “All men by nature desire to know.” (Or as one recent translator gives it literally “All human beings by nature stretch themselves out toward knowing.”[1])

It is clear that man occupies a very peculiar place in nature. And it is quite reasonable for us to see nature in the same way that philosophers as different as Aristotle and Schopenhauer conceived it: as a scale or hierarchy of forms, with man at the top. However, this sort of conception is likely to provoke some skepticism. Alan Watts once entertained the amusing hypothesis that all animals think that they are human, meaning that every creature, at some level, thinks that it is the be all and end all of existence. (Certainly cats think this.) Perhaps theories like Aristotle’s are just an expression of human vanity.

But I don’t think so. It is quite reasonable to set man apart from the rest of nature, and, in fact, to see him as the “highest” natural being; the completion or perfection of nature. To understand this, however, one has to see man’s place in the whole. And that means that we must have some kind of theory of the whole — of the nature of nature, or existence itself. I earlier raised the question of whether science can explain the origin of ekstasis, and this is the issue we must now return to. We can explain ekstasis, we can explain why men began to paint and to practice religion and to do philosophy, and we can solve many other mysteries as well (such as the “Cambrian explosion”) if we adopt a new scientific paradigm with greater explanatory power than the materialism we have been saddled with for the better part of four centuries.

I can only briefly sketch out this new paradigm here. But the essential points are the following:

1. The universe is a whole, not a heap. It is an interconnected system, a One, in which everything is related to everything else. (This is the basic claim already made by scientists committed to “deep ecology.”)

2. The whole is tending toward completion, which is achieved when, in a sense, it folds back on itself and gives an accounting, a logos, of itself. The end or telos of the universe is its own self-understanding.

3. The universe’s self-understanding is achieved through the coming-into-being, within the universe, of a creature who recapitulates in his being all the “lower” forms of nature, and who is driven by the desire to know the whole. Through this creature, who is both a product of the whole and its embodiment, the whole confronts itself, and the telos of the universe is achieved.

4. This creature is man.

These ideas are generally attributed to Hegel, who was the first philosopher to clearly and explicitly formulate them (though, as we have seen, they have older roots, and Hegel’s theories are heavily indebted to those of his friend F. W. J. Schelling). Errol E. Harris, a recent exponent of Hegel’s philosophy, has argued that developments in modern science (especially physics) both confirm Hegel’s views, and are only fully intelligible in the light of them. I will very briefly summarize Harris’s views here, which he develops in several volumes.

Following Hegel, Harris argues for a certain type of teleology at work in the universe, though it is quite different from the type that is almost universally rejected by today’s scientists. The older teleology essentially held that creatures have ends or purposes that are established by a transcendent God, pulling the strings from outside nature. The sillier version of this held that God had designed things for human convenience: horses exist to be ridden on, wheat exists so that we can make flour out of it, etc.

The reaction against this view began in the early modern period, with thinkers setting themselves against “Aristotelianism.” In reality, what they were attacking was a corruption of Aristotle’s teleological views. The Philosopher had never held that a transcendent God “designs” purposes into things. However, he did claim that the behavior of things in nature can be explained by the fact that all are acting for one end: the realization, by each thing, of its nature or form. And what prompts them to do this, ultimately, is that all things are unconsciously imitating God, the universe’s only fully actualized being.

Hegel, by contrast, rejects the idea of a transcendent God. He argues that the “God” people have imperfectly approached through myth and theology is actually what he calls “the Absolute,” which he identifies with the universe taken as a totality. However, Hegel does not see the universe as a collection of loosely related (or unrelated) particulars, but, in effect, as an organism. An organism is a unity, a One, made up of parts, but the parts all serve to advance the ends or interests of the whole. Every part is, in some way, necessary, and every part is related to every other, as we find in the individual organs of the human body. Every part or organ derives its being or identity entirely from its place within the whole, and none may be excised or omitted without some possible damage or diminution of the whole.

To press the analogy between the universe and the human body a bit further, Harris (interpreting Hegel) argues that teleology operates on two levels. First, each of the organs in the body “pursues” certain ends. The heart acts so as to pump the blood, the liver so as to detoxify it, etc. But in fact each acts for a further, higher end. The pumping of the blood and the detoxifying of it happen so that the organism as a whole can live, and thrive, and pursue its larger ends.  Now, by analogy, each individual thing (or species of thing) in the universe pursues its own individual ends, but in doing so each thing is also serving the ultimate ends or purposes of the whole.[2] (No creature in the universe is aware that it is doing this — just as the liver is unaware of its larger purpose — save the philosopher, or the scientist whose horizons have been expanded by philosophy.) “Teleology” is thus no more and no less than, as Harris puts it, the “determination of the parts by the whole.”[3]

There is, however, a point where the analogy between body and universe breaks down, and understanding it will allow us to take a major step forward in the argument. In pursuing its ends, the body cannot make or create a new organ when one happens to be needed. The universe can and does do this. The reason is that unlike the human body, the universe is not a static, completed whole; it is actually in process of completing itself. With this observation, Harris actually goes beyond Hegel (while remaining true to his spirit) because Hegel — and Aristotle, and Spinoza, among others — all viewed the various forms of nature as eternal (i.e., they thought that they had always existed). The only “development” that Hegel himself allows is the development exhibited by human history; all change in nature is, for him, merely the reduplication of the same species over and over again.

Unlike Hegel, Harris does believe in evolution, and he explains the coming-into-being of new forms over time as part of the process of the universe (or nature) completing itself and moving toward its telos. Now, to say that someone believes in evolution is not the same thing as saying they believe in Darwinism. The idea that life has evolved, that forms have come into being progressively over time, goes back at least to Empedocles (fifth century B.C.E.). Recall that Darwinism, via the theory of natural selection, can explain why certain forms have proliferated and others have not — but it cannot ultimately explain the coming into being of novel forms. Harris’s neo-Hegelian theory does offer an explanation of this: new forms come into existence as part of the whole’s self-completion, in its progress towards its ultimate end.

If there are apparent “leaps” in evolution, sudden changes, or sudden appearances of new forms, as in the “Cambrian explosion,” we should not be surprised. There is a “pull” involved in evolution, which is the self-development of the whole. In accomplishing this end, the universe brings things into being in ways that may seem sudden and mysterious — so long as we fail to understand “the big picture.” In moving toward its goal of self-completion, the universe gives rise to myriad forms, in a process that Schelling likened, quite plausibly, to artistic creation. (To get a feeling for the truth of this idea, I advise the reader to simply flip through any of the several books that collect the remarkable illustrations from the works of the biologist Ernst Haeckel.)

But what exactly is the telos of the universe? How does it “complete” itself? I have already stated this, of course: the Hegelian position is that the universe is “seeking” awareness of itself. (This is an unconscious seeking, of course, since consciousness — self-consciousness — is its aim, not its beginning point.) This is certainly a grand conception. But why should we believe it? It has an undeniable power to explain the whole — but many pure myths have such a power as well.

Hegel’s argument for this theory is laid out in his Logic, which maintains that the world around us is intelligible as an expression of certain objective forms or ideas.[4] These ideas form an organic system, however, which is only truly complete if it “comprehends itself,” via an idea that is the idea of idea itself (which he calls the “Absolute Idea”). The “system” that is nature is, for Hegel, an expression or embodiment of this system of ideas. Hence, to be complete in reality (not just in idea) it must issue in a being that is self-comprehending, a living embodiment of Absolute Idea. Such a being is man, the only being who seeks knowledge of the whole and, through it, knowledge of himself. Man is capable of knowing nature, but man himself is a natural being. Hence, in man’s self-knowledge, nature confronts itself — and completes itself.

Now, Hegel’s proof for these ideas stands or falls on whether he really has demonstrated that his Logic is an organic system of categories that must issue in Absolute Idea. And, further, he is only right about nature and nature’s self-completion through man if the Logic really does provide us with the categories in terms of which nature is truly intelligible. Whether or not these conditions are satisfied is a matter I cannot settle here. Harris is convinced of the viability of the argument of the Logic, but he also argues for the truth of Hegel’s system by appealing to theories and discoveries in modern physics. I can only briefly deal with these, and I refer the reader to Harris’s Cosmos and Anthropos for more information.

Very briefly, then, Harris argues that modern physics demonstrates that there can only be one physical universe. Harris explains that our universe has four dimensions, three are “spacelike” and one “timelike” (as he puts it). And he informs us — again, drawing on contemporary physics — that it has been mathematically demonstrated that the laws of physics are possible only in four dimensional space-time.[5] Further, as many others have pointed out, he discusses the fact that the minutest change in any of the fundamental constants would alter the structure of the universe in such a way that the emergence of sentient life would have been impossible.[6] Thus, if there is only one possible physical universe, and if its fundamental structure is such as to make sentient life possible, an inescapable conclusion suggests itself: there must be some connection between the coming into being of life and the nature of the physical universe as such.[7] The universe, it seems, is “constructed” to give rise to sentient life.

Further, it is obvious that there is a scale of life that amounts to a scale of sentience. It ranges from the paramecium (which is “conscious” only in that it is “irritable” or reactive) — all the way to the scientist or philosopher, who theorizes the whole scale of life itself, and the universe that gave rise to it, and why. It thus seems that the universe is constituted in such a way as to give rise to beings that know the universe. The evolution of forms issues, ultimately, in man, who is capable of understanding the evolution of forms itself. Through him, as it were, the universe turns around and gazes at itself. This is its perfection; its completion.[8] As Harris puts it, “What the scientist discovers is the entire natural process that brings him and his thinking into existence.”[9] Two processes unfold in time and make this possible: the evolution of the biological human form out of earlier forms, and the evolution of human consciousness through history.

The process that leads to the development of philosophy and science — and thus, the universe’s self-understanding — begins in the cave. It begins with the sudden appearance of ekstasis in the Upper Paleolithic, some 40,000 or more years ago. This is, as we have seen, the “Creative Explosion” that scientists find so mysterious. I have likened it, in fact, to the sudden and equally mysterious “Cambrian Explosion.” Seen in the light of Harris’s neo-Hegelian understanding of evolution, neither is mysterious or inexplicable — though both are awe-inspiring.

Suddenly, in the Upper Paleolithic mankind came into possession of a form of consciousness through which nature was able to hold up a mirror to itself. And there followed the long history of mankind polishing this mirror, moving slowly toward more and more adequate forms in which existence could be comprehended (with some wrong turns along the way). From the stylized rhinos of Chauvet to the Phenomenology of Spirit and beyond, our history just is the unfolding of the universe’s self-knowledge.

The Hegelian theory offered here is not a rejection of science. It is, in fact, a scientific theory, a “theory of everything,” to use the term now in vogue among physicists. In fact, as Harris never tires of pointing out, the Hegelian theory is not only compatible with ideas in contemporary physics (e.g., the “anthropic principle”[10]), it provides a framework which can interpret and unify them. The scientific paradigm rejected here is that of Darwinian reductionist materialism — an approach whose root assumptions appear quite antiquated in the light of developments in physics since Darwin’s time. It is now order that appears to be primary in the universe, not disorder, “chance,” chaos, or Vortex. (Hegel knew this, and in fact it has been known since the time of Pythagoras.) And, as both Hegelian philosophy and the anthropic principle of physics suggest, when we reflect upon this order and ask what its purpose is, the answer seems to be the asking of this very question.

8. Why Europe?

As noted earlier, Hegel believed that our self-understanding has developed through history. And since our self-understanding just is that of universe, this means that the end or purpose of existence itself is realized progressively, in the historical development of human consciousness. But, notoriously, Hegel believed that the consciousness of certain human groups has not developed at the same rate. This means that, for Hegel, some groups play a more important role in the development of the universe’s self-understanding than others. And the group that, historically, has played the most significant role is, in Hegel’s words, “the Germanic peoples.” Writing of the historical development of human consciousness, he states:

The spirit now grasps the infinite positivity of its own inwardness, the principle of the unity of divine and human nature and the reconciliation of the objective truth and freedom which have appeared within self-consciousness and subjectivity. The task of accomplishing this reconciliation is assigned to the Nordic principle of the Germanic peoples.[11]

However, if one looks carefully at how Hegel uses the expression “the Germanic peoples” one finds that it is so broad as to basically cover all Europeans. However, in discussing the “European spirit” he places a good deal of emphasis on the “Teutonic type.” Thus, while “Germanic peoples” refers to all Europeans, for Hegel the exemplars of the European spirit are the Germanic tribes.

Here is Hegel’s description of the European spirit:

The principle of the European spirit is . . . self-conscious Reason, which is confident that for it there can be no insuperable barrier and which therefore takes an interest in everything in order to become present to itself therein. The European spirit opposes the world to itself, makes itself free of it, but in turn annuls this opposition, takes its other, the manifold, back into itself, into its unitary nature. In Europe, therefore, there prevails this infinite thirst for knowledge which is alien to other races. The European is interested in the world, he wants to know it, to make this other confronting him his own, to bring to view the genus, law, universal, thought, the inner rationality, in the particular forms of the world. As in the theoretical, so too in the practical sphere, the European spirit strives to make manifest the unity between itself and the outer world. It subdues the outer world to its ends with an energy which has ensured for it the mastery of the world.[12]

It is easy to see from this description why Hegel regarded Europeans, out of all other human groups, as playing the central role in the achievement of the ends of the universe. The European spirit takes an interest “in everything,” so as to “become present to itself therein.” In short, it seeks to know the whole — and through this, it finds itself. Note also that Hegel says that the European spirit “makes itself free” of the world. What he means is that it transcends or negates nature. This is just what is involved in the act of ekstasis discussed at length earlier in this essay. But then the European spirit “annuls this opposition” between itself and nature, precisely by finding itself in nature.

Hegel is not claiming that only European man is capable of these things. But he is claiming that Europeans are the exemplars of these preeminently human traits; historically, they have been the vanguard. The difference is mainly a matter of degree, not of kind. The European spirit exhibits, Hegel says, “an infinite thirst for knowledge.” Other peoples seek knowledge, but they do not exhibit the Faustian quality that has made Europeans (including European-Americans) the undisputed world leaders in science and technology — and, I would argue, in philosophy and art as well.[13] One recent, objective study found that over the course of history 97% of all accomplishments in science occurred in Europe and North America. Just four countries — Britain, France, Germany, and Italy — account for 72% of all the major figures in the history of science.[14]

This history of European accomplishment begins in the Upper Paleolithic. As I noted earlier, based on what archaeology has discovered, Europeans began creating paintings and carvings some 30,000 years before anyone else. (European technology – i.e., tools — in the Upper Paleolithic also exhibits a sophistication that we do not find for some time in other parts of the world.) Now, as I noted earlier, when we talk about the “Europeans” of the Upper Paleolithic we have to do so with some caution. We are not talking about Indo-Europeans and Indo-European culture. The caves of France and Spain were painted thousands of years before the Indo-Europeans split off from the original European population. (As mentioned before, genetics shows that 87% of today’s Europeans are descended from the Paleolithic hunter-gatherers who painted the caves.) I am therefore inclined to see continuity here, and to speak of “European culture” as stretching from Lascaux to Chartres, and beyond. Such an outlook is, moreover, almost irresistible. We grasp this continuity intuitively when, as I noted earlier, we perceive — correctly — that there is something ineffably European about the cave art, that distinguishes it markedly from the pre-historic art of other peoples.

But why Europe? Why does ekstasis seem to begin in Europe? Why was there a “creative explosion in Europe, specifically? Again, we must be wary of the tendency to read later, Indo-European cultural traits back into the peoples who painted the caves. Environmental explanations are also fishy. The prehistoric ancestors of today’s East Asians did not deal with environmental conditions markedly different from those of prehistoric Europeans. Yet, the Chinese lagged behind Europe for tens of thousands of years in every area of human endeavor.[15]

It’s difficult to resist casting the issue in theological terms: why was Europe “chosen”? Why was it in Europe that ekstasis suddenly appeared, apparently well before it did so anywhere else? And why was it in Europe that the products of ekstasis — art, religion, philosophy, and science — took flight, as nowhere else on earth? Ultimately, it may be impossible to answer this question. Not all questions are answerable, even in the light of a “theory of everything,” like Hegel’s.

Back to the black monolith again, it seems. Back to das Ereignis. Sometimes, the Absolute moves in mysterious ways.


[1] Aristotle, Metaphysics, trans. Joe Sachs (Santa Fe: Green Lion Press, 1999), 1 (980a21).

[2] This theory is, in fact, structurally similar to Aristotle’s two-tiered understanding of teleology — with the difference that Hegel immanentizes God by making him/it identical with the whole.

[3] Errol E. Harris, Cosmos and Anthropos (Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey: Humanities Press International, 1991), 71.

[4] These are not forms or ideas in the Platonic sense. Hegel believes that they exist, but not “apart” from the things that express them. (They may be thought apart, however.) In this, Hegel is quite close to Aristotle.

[5] Harris, 49.

[6] Harris, 50–51.

[7] Harris, 50–51.

[8] This does not imply that no new forms will come into existence after man, or that present forms will not change. After the climax of a story, things often continue to happen until the actual end. Man is the climax of the story of creation — unless there is in fact some higher form of consciousness, carrier of a still more adequate expression of the universe’s self-knowing, which has yet to appear.

[9] Harris, 143.

[10] This is, of course, a controversial idea in physics, and it has been expressed in a variety of forms (some “strong,” some “weak”). Harris discusses these ideas at length in Cosmos and Anthropos.

[11] G. W. F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, ed. Allen W. Wood, trans. H. B. Nisbet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 379 (§ 358). Italics in original.

[12] Ibid., 45. I have rendered Geist as “spirit,” however, rather than Nisbet’s choice of “mind.”

[13] I am perfectly willing to admit, as I have in other essays, that there are profundities in so-called “Eastern philosophy.” The problem, however, is that these texts or movements are called “philosophy” — i.e., understood on analogy with Western philosophy — only very loosely. Western philosophy is animated by a spirit of individualism: each man searches for truth, placing nothing above the judgment of reason. “Eastern philosophy” mostly eschews argument and critical thinking, and its adherents are expected to accept the claims of sages without question.

[14] These figures come from Charles Murray’s Human Accomplishment, cited in Ricardo Duchesne, The Uniqueness of Western Civilization (Leiden-Boston: Brill, 2011), 292–93.

[15] See my review [3] of Ricardo Duchesne’s The Uniqueness of Western Civilization.