The Universality of Things

Honestly, writing this post feels like confidently exploring a dark room with an ambitious vision of what that room looks like but here goes.

The following is quoted from Light from the Darkness: the paintings of Peter Birkhäuser (an artist I deeply admire) that I think rings true even today and to me personally.

"He personifies the tragic inner split of modern man, who through an over-reliance on rationality has lost his spiritual and inner meaning. We can no longer overcome this split, but we can become conscious of it. Then the creative spirit of the unconscious could be reintegrated with our consciousness."

To me, one form of over-reliance on rationality is being too quick to dismiss what doesn't fit our established framework as our towers of understanding through science, engineering, etc. get taller and taller. We've continued to construct more sophisticated technology and refine our ways to observe/model the world, and this can really nurture a sense of understanding of objective reality. Yet, the very fabric of our perception is woven with subjectivity. Consider the microscope—an extension of our eyes, translating the unseen into the visible. Still, its foundation remains in our subjective reality. I just think that empiricism is what drives progress and NOT rationalism.

Also, it seems like this understanding of objective reality is considered to be directly connected with the universality of our creations. As it seems straightforward enough to think that to launch rockets or build phones that are connected wirelessly, we would need an amazing understanding of objective reality. We then may feel that our latest inventions exibihit a deeper sophistication or do something new that may seem more "universal" (with the tools for creation improving every single day), but I think this feeling is partly misguided and it may just be the case that we are going deeper into the parts we have collectively considered important as a civilization.

In essence, our progress in manufacturing and engineering continually enhances our ability to construct more efficient solutions within the realm of the physics we operate in. For example, the majority of computer mice are ergonomically shaped to fit comfortably in the right hand. This bias towards right-handed users is evident in the physical design of the mouse itself. The curvature, button placement, and even the scroll wheel's positioning are optimized for right-handed individuals. An extra-terrestrial observer could possibly deduce this design bias by inspecting the physical form and be able to form conclusions about the domain of physics we operate in. Our description of the universe is probably affected by the size we are (a metre-ish) and our brain processing speeds being what they are and the speed of light relative to our experience among many other things in ways we may not yet even be aware of.

So then what would be so universal that we would share with extra-terrestrial life? Maybe mathematics is the most universal thing because it's often used for making objective statements and expressing fundamental principles? I suspect it won't be because there just might be very few universal facts, and the mathematics we develop is in a sense existent to understand our reality through our constrained perception.

Euclid's work in geometry, particularly in his most famous work "Elements," consisting of 13 books that cover topics such as plane geometry, number theory, and the geometry of solids, did not rely on the concept of zero or incorporate it into his mathematical framework. So we have that, zero as a mathematical concept and a numerical digit was invented and developed significantly after Euclid's time (around 900 to 1,200 years later!) The idea of zero was invented and consider that it may not be that universal, but now that we know it, we can't let go of the idea because of how useful it is.

What about art, would non-human life potentially appreciate our art and music? I truly love this description of it that I came across

"Art is how we decorate space, and music is how we decorate time" - Jean-Michel Basquiat

The lack of universality in art may be more apparent just because of how much it's tied into our experience of color, forms, emotions, etc. And we are still to assume space and time are fundamental and not just a simplification our brains create to have some sort of coherence that makes life possible. Though, I think this captures very well the universality of our creations, in that it captures many aspects of the human experience.


Reflecting on my own life, I realize that an overemphasis on being "right" has often overshadowed my pursuit of novelty and meaningful aspirations. It's like this over-reliance often leads to prioritizing short-term gains in my pursuits, because they seem to be more likely to resolve faster and feel like "you're doing the right thing" sooner.

In the past, the project for the construction of a church was a 100 year project—a project that the people planning it expected their children's children's children's children's children to finish. Paradoxically, despite our remarkable advancements in technology and science, you would think the 100 year projects that people would embark upon today to be even greater (larger monuments and more impressive artifacts), but it doesn't look like in today's world there's even many people embarking on 100 year projects? Seems like this over-reliance on rationalization can distance us from the profound meaning that even our simplest actions can hold, both personally and collectively.

It's essential to balance the pursuit of objective understanding with a recognition of the subjectivity inherent in our human existence. By doing so, we may rediscover the richness of our inner worlds and the universality of our creative expressions, all while embarking on meaningful, long-lasting pursuits that add to our shared human tapestry.