From the dawn of philosophy, thinkers have speculated that the world of space & time, matter & energy, objects & sense perceptions, the world in which we seem to live, may not be the only world…or all there is to this world. They have conjectured that there may be another world, perhaps very different our world but just as real (if not more so).
We may seek this world beneath the perception of our senses or beyond the reach of our most powerful telescopes. Or we may glimpse it, like we do Leprechauns, through cracks that occur every so often in our seemingly continuous everyday experience.
The other world may lie beyond our world, or it may encompass our world, or it may underlie our world. The other world may be entirely independent of and indifferent to our world. Or it may be forever entangled with our world (John Bell). It may thoroughly permeate our world, like an unseen mist or aether. It may be an integral part of what makes our world work (Lisa Randall).
The other world may be an alternate copy of our world (Hugh Everett) or it may be a kind of anti-world, the source of all that we experience as ‘novelty’ in our world (Sartre, Heisenberg, Whitehead). It may diverge from our world (Everett) or it may loop back and intersect with us again down the road, bringing its alternate history with it (Bell, Feynman).
The oldest surviving piece of systematic philosophy from the Western world is specifically dedicated to the question of alternate worlds. The philosophical poem of Parmenides of Elea, On Nature, written shortly after 500 BCE, speaks of a “World of Seeming” (doxa), with which we are all too familiar, and a “World of Truth” (aletheia), with which we are not.
The World of Seeming consists of space and time, objects and perceptions, motion and change…the stuff and categories of our everyday experience. The World of Truth on the other hand is eternal, coincident, featureless and absolutely changeless.
The intuition that there may be another reality, perhaps a more basic one, has informed Western philosophy ever since. Plato’s cave, Christians’ heaven, and Leibniz’ monads are all examples of this kind of thinking. But the last great philosophical system explicitly modeled on Parmenides’ two world theory belongs to Emmanuel Kant. In Kant’s system, the there is a phenomenal world of “seeming”, which we can know, and a noumenal world of “truth”, which we cannot.
In some systems (e.g. Kant’s), the other world (noumenon) is ineffable; in other systems (e.g. Plato’s), the other world (eidolon) may be all that language can meaningfully speak about. Tantric Yoga, for example, describes the world in terms of the ‘sthula aspect’ (things as we see them), the ‘suksma aspect’ (things as we understand them), and the ‘para aspect’ (things as they are). Ordinary language may only be suited to the suksma aspect.
After Kant, the two world model lost its appeal. The modernism and pragmatism of the industrial era gave rise to empiricism (David Hume), materialism (Karl Marx), existentialism (John Paul Sartre) and even positivism (A. J. Ayer). While radically different from one another, these philosophical schools shared a common fascination with the here and now, the realm of ordinary language and everyday experience. It was largely agreed that genuine philosophical speculation outside this realm was impossible and that systems based on such speculation were “meaningless”.
Ironically, however, the scientific and industrial focus on the World of Seeming led intellectual history in an unexpected direction. Just when it seemed possible that a fairly simple model of reality might be able to account for all important phenomena, everything suddenly changed. The intellectual history of the 20th Century can be seen as the gradual but total collapse of the naïve hope that all scientific, philosophical, ethical and political problems might have simple, straightforward solutions.
If the 19th Century ended with optimism that determinism, science, humanism, democracy and socialism might satisfy all of humanity’s physical, intellectual and spiritual needs, the 20th Century systematically debunked each of these fantasies. Einstein’s relativity, Bohr’s quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty, Godel’s undecidability, Bell’s non-locality, the horror of Hitler and the tyranny of Stalin shook our intellectual and moral presumptions at their very roots.
Much as we had hoped to dissolve the complexities of cosmology and ontology with simple, “ordinary language” solutions, rigorous inquiry has taken us in exactly the opposite direction. While our everyday life relies overwhelmingly on our sense of space and time, locality and continuity, matter and energy, enduring objects and personal identity, science is suggesting that each of these bedrock assumptions may be flawed, vacuous or at best epiphenomenal.
Instead, we are learning about worlds in which space and time can be bent, stretched, squeezed or even eliminated, where objects are made up of nearly featureless sub-atomic particles, quanta, or even one-dimensional strings. Nothing is as it seems to be and nothing seems to be as it is.
These 20th century trends in science and philosophy closely intertwine with comparable developments in the arts and nowhere more so than in the world of paint.
While Impressionism is normally seen as the gateway to “modern art” (and in some ways it is), I think it is more apt to view it as the culmination of the classical era. Just as Empiricism was the final flower of classical philosophy, so Impressionism was the final fruit of classical art. Both movements ultimately reduced the world entirely to sense perception and obliterated any trace of a non-sensuous “reality” that might underlie phenomena.
The first truly “modern artists” were Van Gogh and Cezanne. Van Gogh used the tools of the Impressionists but used them to reveal an underlying reality (pattern) well beyond the scope of sense perception. As surrealism is to realism, so the art of Van Gogh is to Impressionism.
Cezanne, however, went even further. He rediscovered structure beneath appearance and miraculously found a way to portray that structure using the purely sensual tool of paint. In many ways, it could be said that Cezanne painted Kant…or even Parmenides.
From Cezanne flowed Picasso and the Cubists, and in an entirely different way, Matisse. They collectively discovered that that structure did not have to be spatially continuous and that it did not have to coincide, at least not rigidly, with the sense data it supported.
At this time, a young Russian by the name of Kandinsky, was beginning to paint. In his earliest works, Kandinsky delivered a world very different from the world of ordinary experience. Part dream, part hallucination, part fantasy, Kandinsky’s early world preserves the identity of subject and the structure of ground, albeit often almost interchangeably, but with a dynamism, palette and perspective unlike anything we would recognize in everyday experience.
The name of a 1911 work, Romantic Landscape, sums up this early era in Kandinsky’s career. As his work matured, landscapes became more abstract and the relationship of colors and forms became the real subject of his works.
Then in 1913, in Painting with White Border, Kandinsky experimented with a new technique. He situated his imaginary world within another, wider world by means of a “white border”. While he is not yet exploring substructural worlds, he is moving conceptually toward the recognition that the world of subject-object, space-time and sense perception is not the only world worth exploring.
Later that same year, Kandinsky began to paint canvasses that no longer have any representational content at all. Light Picture and Black Lines begin a new era in his art. No longer is Kandinsky abstracting from the world of everyday experience and reformulating that world according to a new logic and a new aesthetic; now he is creating his own worlds ex nihilo via paint, color and form.
In 1919, he paints White Oval, a rounded rhombus containing an entire physics of fanciful forms, situated within a dark, vague border that suggests nearly empty space. This world is like a womb, self-contained within larger reality. Modern cosmologists might recognize this as a Bubble Universe, an apparently self-contained and finite universe that is in reality simply a “bubble” in a foam of similar (or not so similar) universes.
During this period, Kandinsky regularly organizes paintings around an irregular geometric shape. For example, Red Oval (1920) depicts what modern cosmologist might call a brane, a finite or infinite space situated within a space of higher dimensionality.
In Red Oval, all the inhabitants link to the brane (or to something else that links to the brane). Some objects link to the brane at one end point only, others at both end points. Objects may equally well link to either side of the brane or they may run through the brane like arrows. The alternative qualities of these entities suggest our own experience with the baffling behavior of various subatomic particles and quanta.
But all of the activity in this world takes place in or just above/below the brane. Compared to the higher dimensional universe in which it is situated, the brane is something like a pancake. The characters in this landscape behave remarkably like the “strings” in some versions of string theory.
Beginning in 1922, Kandinsky’s paintings show the influence of the Bauhaus. However, he incorporates that influence into his own style to make it even more powerful. In the Black Square (1923), he inserts the architectural forms of Bauhaus into his brane-world. During this period, Kandinsky’s painting become increasingly dynamic and he begins to explore motion as a “thing in itself”. In Yellow Accompaniment and One Center (1924) the subject of the piece is its dynamics. The colors, forms and constructed objects just serve to make that dynamic visible. They are the molecules of water spinning in the vortex.
Accent in Pink (1926) depicts a brane world, inhabited not by shapes but by bursts, eruptions of color. Kandinsky paints these bursts so that the viewer actually sees the eruptions in process.
Music had a profound influence on Kandinsky’s work and in this era, his works begin to take on the quality of musical composition rather than architectural arrangement. At the same time, Kandinsky begins to explore the semantic nature of artistic forms.
In Levels (1929) Kandinsky creates a hieroglyphic language, a kind of Rosetta Stone, and adds a grid to help the “reader” decipher the “text”. Striped (1934) and Delicate Accents (1935) continue this trend; but the apex of this period may be Succession (1935) which presents symbols on a grid reminiscent of musical notation. In the context of other worlds, Kandinsky is here exploring the notion known today under Wheeler’s rubric “It from Bit”. Reality is information, it is essentially a code; perceptions are merely clues to that code.
But it is with Movement 1 (1935) that Kandisky’s total embrace of other world ontology begins. This canvas presents a fantastic assemblage of branes, self-contained mini-verses, hieroglyphs and geometric forms of varying dimensionality linked by strange, string like objects running throughout. From 1935 on, Kandinsky’s works are predominantly characterized by these same elements.
Until recently, philosphers exploring the idea of another world were limited by the notion that all worlds must at least form a self-consistent and orderly whole. Beginning with Movement 1, Kandinsky challenges that assumption. “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Dominant Curve (1936), for example, presents a chaotic variety of topologies somehow co-existing harmoniously on the representational plane of the canvass. It suggests that a multiplicity of inconsistent realities may lie beneath the more or less routine world we accept as real. Grouping (1937) continues this theme and explicitly shows these incongruous regions co-existing and in some strange way perhaps even using that incongruity to reinforce one another.
Capricious Forms (1937) situates a foreground of perpetually moving and morphing organic entities in a static, rectilinear background. Kandinsky is using the elements of his multi-verse to construct a universe that reminds us at least in some ways of our familiar world. He may be suggesting that our rectilinear world is emergent from, or a special case of, the sub-structural multiverse.
This leads naturally to Thirty, another 1937 piece, that suggests thirty unique solutions, some rectilinear, some organic, some musical, some hieroglyphic to the basic equations of ontology. Like M Theory, Thirty suggests that there may be more than one right answer to the riddle of cosmology.
Finally, Around the Circle (1940) begins with a somewhat typical assemblage of unexpected ontological entities, all approximately co-planar. But then it adds a window which suggests a sort of “worm hole” into another far off multiverse which is itself a collection of infinitely varied, yet perhaps subtly different, entities. With this work, Kandinsky suggests that dimensionality may exist not only within worlds but between worlds; the process of deconstructing classical reality could turn out to be infinitely regressive.
Kandinsky does not offer a single, detailed ontological theory; that is not the job of the artist. The role of the artist is to challenge “common sense”, to point out the unrecognized assumptions that underpin naive realism and to suggest certain directions we might travel in pursuit of deeper truth. This Kandinsky did, brilliantly!
The task of the 21st century thinker is to try to understand the “many-worlds” nature of reality that theoretical and experimental science is revealing. What are the limits of variety? How can unity emerge from such diversity?
At one time, it was in vogue to classify worlds as “real” or “imaginary”. For many centuries, Parmenides “Way of Seeming” was understood as illusion compared to his eminently real “Way of Truth.” But that facile way of thinking won’t cut it any more! Today we know that we have to take all worlds into account in order to understand Universe. As we continue on this intellectual journey, we would be well advised to return often to Kandinsky for inspiration. His paintings offer countless different models for the role of the ‘other world’ in our universe.