Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Contemplating Infinity: 6 Sets of Illuminating Quotes

With our dizzying ideas of infinity, we both tantalize—and torture—ourselves.

The physical—and metaphysical—topic of infinity can be reflected upon in various ways. Yet, in examining a multitude of quotes on this most fascinating subject of boundlessness and inexplicability, I discovered a delimited number of themes. So to facilitate understanding, I decided to divide my selections into categories (though, frankly, a few of them were rather difficult to classify). But regardless of how divergent the tone and import of these quotes might appear, my main criterion for inclusion was that they all be intellectually and emotionally stimulating—definitely worth the time to ponder. I can only hope that my final choices will succeed in this way for you.

Before we look at the different groupings in which I’ve arranged my selections, I’d like to say a few words about what I didn’t include, and why.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

I chose to eliminate many quotes from consideration because they referred to something as infinite solely because it was beyond their grasp—without, that is, saying anything meaningful about this most elusive of concepts. Other quotes simply didn’t withstand scrutiny: To be blunt, upon examination they were simply hyperbolic or didn’t make much sense. My favorite here? Drew Barrymore’s somewhat pompous statement: “Everything I do, I do infinite percent.” Many other quotes initially seemed quite profound, but finally impressed me as more obscure than anything else. What they mostly suggested was hazy (vs. rigorous) thinking. In fact, I found one quote that pointedly “exposed” their dubious thought process: “While many people are trying to be in tune with [the] infinite, what they really are in tune with is the indefinite” (Eric Butterworth).

Some quotes probably would have made eminent sense to me—if , that is, I were a cosmologist or astrophysicist. But having only the most elementary knowledge in these areas, I had to omit them as too technical, too laden with jargon, for the average reader. An example? “General relativity predicts that time ends inside black holes because the gravitational collapse squeezes matter to infinite density” [whew!] ( Lee Smolin). And, besides, the actual subject of this quote isn’t infinity at all but Time. Such a “mistaken identity” was true of many quotes I examined—purportedly on the infinite (for that was the heading under which the particular quoting dictionary listed them), but really on an enormous variety of subjects viewed in terms of infinity—or something like infinity.

Enough. Here are the best quotes I could find on the subject—along with some interpretive commentary of my own. May you find these utterances, many of which I’ve arranged to “play off” one another, not just interesting, but also provocative and even inspiring (and without having your head spin to the point of vertigo!):

1. Infinity, the Unknown, and the Unknowable—Or, The Inexplicable Truth of Infinity. This group of quotes gets at the fundamental paradox of the subject. As essentially real as the phenomenon is, it yet defies ultimate comprehension and beggars our (limited) intellect. So contemplating infinity can be a really humbling experience.

“We don't know why we are here and . . . our role in the universe, and the thought of an infinite universe. It's something the human mind can't really grasp. [And] it's statistically impossible that there's not life on other planets.” — Joel Kinnaman

“The only kind of universe that I can even begin to conceive is an inconceivable one.” ― Ilyas Kassam

“No other question has ever moved so profoundly the spirit of man; no other idea has so fruitfully stimulated his intellect; yet no other concept stands in greater need of clarification than that of the infinite.” — David Hilbert

“The last proceeding of reason is to recognize that there is an infinity of things which are beyond it. There is nothing so conformable to reason as this disavowal of reason.” — Blaise Pascal

“If any philosopher had been asked for a definition of infinity, he might have produced some unintelligible rigmarole, but he would certainly not have been able to give a definition that had any meaning at all.” — Bertrand Russell

“Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.” — Karl Popper

“The known is finite, the unknown infinite; intellectually we stand on an islet in the midst of an illimitable ocean of inexplicability. Our business in every generation is to reclaim a little more land, to add something to the extent and the solidity of our possessions.” — Thomas Huxley

“What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible.” — Umberto Eco

 “ . . . Endlessness is a really strange idea in a universe that is defined by its endings.” ― John Green

"Who was it who said, ‘I hold the buying of more books than one can peradventure read, as nothing less than the soul's reaching towards infinity; which is the only thing that raises us above the beasts that perish.’? Whoever it was, I agree with him.” ― A. Edward Newton

2. The Religious, Spiritual, and Philosophical Ramifications of Infinity. Implicit in some of these quotes is the idea that one source of religiosity relates to the human need to find some justification for realities that, otherwise, are unfathomable. When one’s core belief structures are such that conventional or orthodox theistic explanations lack all felt truth or validity, the result is either atheism or a kind of existential angst. And that’s why the perception of infinity can sometimes lead to feelings of elemental terror. For if we live in a world that’s logically absurd, then we’re condemned to make up meaning all by ourselves, without any external compass to guide us.

“Faith is an act of a finite being who is grasped by, and turned to, the infinite.”— Paul Tillich

“Our spiritual attitude is determined by our conception of our relation to infinite spirit.” — Paul Twitchell

“I think that the leaf of a tree, the meanest insect on which we trample, are in themselves arguments more conclusive than any which can be adduced that some vast intellect animates Infinity.” — Percy Bysshe Shelley

“If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro' narrow chinks of his cavern.” ― William Blake

“Paranormal events are just edges of the infinite we ‘happen’ to encounter.” ― Doug Dillon

“Only by living absurdly is it possible to break out of this infinite absurdity.” — Julio Cortazar

“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me.”— Blaise Pascal

“The more you approach infinity, the deeper you penetrate terror.” ― Gustave Flaubert

3. Infinity and Creativity. The highly selective quotes below celebrate the human imagination—which, in its ability to at least “challenge” infinity, transcends ordinary limits of mind. In this radiant light, creativity can be seen as attempting to give voice to the ineffable—to get at the very essence of things—a finally futile, but nonetheless noble, pursuit. Language may offer us the opportunity to approximate ultimate reality but, given the world's infinitude, we cannot but oversimplify what we wish, creatively, to clarify. Still, how wondrous that, without being omniscient, our imagination can on rare occasions lift the universal veil and provide a glimpse of that which is forever beyond our capability to entirely comprehend.

“The ultimate creative capacity of the brain may be, for all practical purposes, infinite.” — George Leonard

“The principle of the Gothic architecture is infinity made imaginable.” — Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“The power of imagination makes us infinite.” — John Muir

“Only a great actor finds the difficulties of the actor's art infinite.” — Ellen Terry

“Finite to fail, but infinite to venture.” — Emily Dickinson

“...it's very much like your trying to reach infinity. You know that it's there, you just don't know where—but just because you can never reach it doesn't mean that it's not worth looking for.” ― Norton Juster

4. The Eternal Quandary: Humans as Embodying the Infinite Yet Condemned to be Finite. There are many unresolved—and unresolvable—ambiguities relating to the infinite. Perhaps the greatest of them all is that humans can contemplate what’s ultimately beyond their ability to integrate. For although our minds might intermittently enable us to “touch” infinity, we can never maintain any hold on it. And, too, our very mortality permanently alienates us from it. Yet in certain ways, we incarnate the infinite. The writers quoted below show various understandings of this irreconcilable dilemma: a mystifying situation in which there will always be more questions than answers.

“When you look in the mirror, what do you see? Do you see the real you, or what you have been conditioned to believe is you? The two are so, so different. One is an infinite consciousness capable of being and creating whatever it chooses, the other is an illusion imprisoned by its own perceived and programmed limitations.” — David Icke

“Think of something finite molded into the infinite, and you think of man.” — Karl Wilhelm Friedrich Schlegel

“The interior of our skulls contains a portal to infinity.” ― Grant Morrison

“We are finite, in that we are a product and source of the infinite.” ― Ilyas Kassam

“Time is infinite, but we are not infinite in it.” — Daphne Guinness

“No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.” — Jean-Paul Sartre

“Life is simply a vacation from the infinite” [!]. ― Dean Cavanagh

“Meditation is the dissolution of thoughts in Eternal awareness or Pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.” — Voltaire

“Our minds are finite, and yet even in these circumstances of finitude we are surrounded by possibilities that are infinite, and the purpose of life is to grasp as much as we can out of that infinitude.” — Alfred North Whitehead

“Then stirs the feeling infinite, so felt / In solitude, where we are least alone.” — Lord Byron

5. Infinity and Yearning. If humans are part of some infinite cosmic plan, then they must themselves partake of the infinite. But since this is a cloaked, or clouded, aspect of self everlastingly elusive (or realizable only momentarily), we humans are destined to long for something we can never quite “materialize.” Curiously, our fate is to be finite, yet with an endless taste for the infinite.

“Man's unhappiness, as I construe, comes of his greatness; it is because there is an Infinite in him, which with all his cunning he cannot quite bury under the Finite.” — Thomas Carlyle

“Limited in his nature, infinite in his desire, man is a fallen god who remembers heaven.” — Alphonse de Lamartine

“We are imprisoned in the realm of life, like a sailor on his tiny boat, on an infinite ocean.” — Anna Freud

“I am incapable of conceiving infinity, and yet I do not accept finity.” — Simone de Beauvoir

“Debauchery is perhaps an act of despair in the face of infinity.” — Edmond de Goncourt

“Only I discern— Infinite passion, and the pain. Of finite hearts that yearn.” — Robert Browning

“I cannot help it—in spite of myself, infinity torments me. — Alfred de Musset

6. Infinity, Romance, and Love. From the earliest recorded poetry (and there are almost as many poets represented here as philosophers!), the ardor of love and romance has been perceived as transcending normal boundaries. There’s hardly any question that there’s something about infinity and romance that go, well, “hand in hand.” When one is in love, obsessing endlessly about the beloved, it all feels timeless, eternal, absolute. And in this context the descriptive language of infinitude would seem almost axiomatic. Here’s just a small sampling of this not-uncommon pairing. But do note at the end the poet Rilke’s hard-headedly paradoxical qualification of such sentiment-charged identification.

“Infinite love is the only truth. Everything else is illusion.” — David Icke

“An infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space.” ― Gustave Flaubert

“Only in the eyes of love you can find infinity.” ― Sorin Cerin

“I Love You Till Infinity” (ILYTI). ― NightBits

“When I look to sky / I see infinity / When I look to sea / I see infinity / when I look to earth / I see infinity / when I look to you / I see infinity / when I look to me / I see infinity.” ― Amit Gupta

“Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” — Rainer Maria Rilke

 

As some token comic relief from a post inescapably ponderous, I’ll offer two final quotes. The first (over-the-top cynical?) is from one of our greatest scientists ever; the second from one of today’s wittiest comedians. Enjoy:

“Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.” — Albert Einstein

“I’m so tired. . . . I was up all night trying to round off infinity.” ― Steven Wright

NOTE: If you found this post intriguing, and think others you know might also, please consider sending them its link. And if you’d like to explore additional posts I’ve done for Psychology Today—on a broad range of topicsclick here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved

--- I invite readers to join me on Facebook, and to follow my sometimes unorthodox psychological and philosophical musings on Twitter (such as, “The apple never falls far from the tree . . . unless the tree is on a hill.”).

Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

more...

Subscribe to Evolution of the Self

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.