Mesocosm

"A book must be the ax for the frozen sea within us." – Franz Kafka

How many are there, anyway?

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The other day I was trying to remember a pluralization rule in Tibetan when I started to wonder if there could be a language that had no concept of plurality. The concept of individual instances of general types is so deeply ingrained in my concepts and language, I can’t conceive outside of it.

In his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense,” Nietzsche reflected on the formation of abstract concepts on the basis of individual unique experiences:

Every concept arises from the equation of unequal things. Just as it is certain that one leaf is never totally the same as another, so it is certain that the concept “leaf” is formed by arbitrarily discarding these individual differences and by forgetting the distinguishing aspects. This awakens the idea that, in addition to the leaves, there exists in nature the “leaf”: the original model according to which all the leaves were perhaps woven, sketched, measured, colored, curled, and painted – but by incompetent hands, so that no specimen has turned out to be a correct, trustworthy, and faithful likeness of the original model. (1)

If this is so, where does this idea come from, this phantom “leaf” concept that seems so compelling? What is it in our experience that so persuades us that there exist, in the world, many instances of particular kinds of things?

Thinking about experience, and perhaps influenced by my long familiarity with Nietzsche’s fine leaf example, I think about the biological world first – we encounter many apples, but they are all so similar by reason of their biological similarity, that they vividly give the impression of all being the same thing.

But a moment’s reflection suggests that it’s more than that, because long before there were apples, there were galaxies and stars, which exist on a continuum, but there are a great many stars of similar size, composition, color, and life cycle. Trillions of stars, stars without end.

So what is it about our universe, that things are organized in this way? Things are composed of atoms, which are more or less the same. And I wonder, are they identical? That is, if you take two helium atoms and compare them, is there any way whatsoever that they can be differentiated from one another, other than, say, their temperature and location? What about electrons? Do electrons have hair? I have no idea.

In the Bṛhadāraṇyaka Upanishad, Vidagdha Shakalya asks the sage Yajnavalkya “How many gods are there?”

Yajnavalkya replied, “Three thousand, three hundred, and six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Thirty three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Six.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“Three.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One and a half.”

“Yes,” said Vidagdha, “but how many gods are there, Yajnavalkya?”

“One.”

References
1) Nietzsche F. trans. by Daniel Breazeale. Philosophy and Truth; Selections from Nietzsche’s Notebooks of the Early 1870’s. Humanities Press. 1979. p. 83.

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Written by Mesocosm

November 13, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Posted in Ephemera

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