Sunday, November 3, 2019
Stare Into Mystery – Part I
Whatever area of study you pursue, you eventually reach a point where certainty ends and mystery begins.
In truth, mystery reigns.
I consider but one of the common academic disciplines to make this point.
During your late high school and early undergraduate years, you were shuttled into a relatively few number of courses organized along certain conventional themes like history, English, mathematics, and physics.
I take up only the topic of history to begin this first in a series of posts on the primacy of mystery.
A brief review of just this one field demonstrates the impossibility of obtaining comprehensive knowledge in any field.
History, by definition, is the study of past events.
Even while you’re reading right this second, for example, you’re encoding it into your short-term memory. We are constantly unfolding.
We are verbs who erroneously think of ourselves as nouns.
Let’s say your lover calls you while in the middle of reading this post. You look up, respond to him or her, and return to your reading. You’ve remembered, approximately, where you left off. You pick it up. As soon as you complete the next sentence, you’ve already ingested part of the last one.
The reading itself becomes a part of your immediate history as does the interruption by your beloved.
Now, consider one major historical figure, Winston Churchill.
Not including his own works, more than 100 biographies of Churchill have been written. If you were a Harvard professor of history specializing in Churchill, you could not possibly have carefully read these 100 biographies and Churchill’s own multi-volumes of writing.
Therefore, your knowledge of Churchill will be limited.
Furthermore, Michel Foucault, who was a French historian and philosopher, used the word, episteme, to describe the feeling of a particular era. Studying any period of history, he argued, is limited because we can only view it through the lenses of our current era.
Our capacity to understand the culture, the economics, the sociology, the customs, the psychology, the vibe of a past period, or historical figure like Churchill, will always elude us.
One contemporary example of the idea of episteme is the intense controversy surrounding previously unquestioned historical heroes like Thomas Jefferson—because he was a slave owner.
I’m not endorsing Jefferson’s ownership of slaves.
Instead, I’m only agreeing with Foucault our efforts to make sense of Jefferson’s ownership of slaves is nearly impossible.
We can make inferences.
We can study how he treated the slaves, what his stance was on emancipation, if he considered himself sinful, or any number of angles based on his own writings or those of his biographers.
Episteme, then, represents a significant limitation of any historical study.
Immanuel Kant is a central figure to this set of posts regarding the centrality of mystery.
Western philosophy divides philosophers into pre-Kantians and post-Kantians.
Because Kant was the first person in the history of philosophy to suggest that all of our knowledge arises from our five senses filtered through our central nervous system.
Knowledge, known in philosophical circles as epistemology, is species-centric.
Can you appreciate the humility wrought by that one insight?
All the knowledge filling all the world’s libraries are limited by our human senses and nervous system.
We have innumerable models, like how far a projectile will travel when a known force is applied to it.
What projectiles, traveling, force and even model mean are concepts developed by humans, abbreviations basically.
These types of ideas comprise what’s known as post-modernism.
Modernism refers to the post-Enlightenment period when science reigned supreme. Humans thought they’d found a method, namely the scientific one, which would ultimately lead to an understanding of everything.
As post-Kantian thinkers expanded upon their version of relativism, and modernist fields like physics hit barriers in finding the absolute, post-modernism gained in stature.
The evolution of physics in the last 100 years dramatically demonstrates what George Steiner meant by his book title, Nostalgia for the Absolute. First came relativity theory, then the uncertainty principle, and then quantum mechanics and beyond.
These days, the nature of matter seems less understood than ever before.
During the pre-Enlightenment period, and for at least a millennium, the answer was absolute:
Every thing, idea, or belief-system is created by God.
End of story.
Post-modernism reaches it’s own place of mysterious limitation by potentially considering everything as relative.
If no absolute truth exists, then how can anyone argue that Democracy is better than National Socialism (Naziism)?
Even relativism has its limits.
Even relativism hits the mysterious.
Isn’t it fair to say that treating your fellow humans well is better than mistreating them?
Don’t the ten commandments teach some basic wisdom even if context must be considered, i.e. killing someone in self-defense?
Again, my goal here is simply to emphasize the predominance of the mysterious.
Suggesting that the problem of consciousness will never be solved, Owen Flanagan coined the term, the new mysterians. The phrase has been utilized by many scholars to encompass the wider philosophical position that we humans lack the intellectual capacity to solve or comprehend much of ourselves or the world around us.
I heartily endorse the concept.
Consider, finally, the continuum between mystery and certitude.
Mystery seems inarguable. Go ahead and choose any topic which comes to your mind. Botany, say, or politics. Can either of these topics brag of absolute, irrefutable truths?
The so-called new athiests, like Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens, take as great a leap of faith as any of the most fanatic of religious believers in denying the existence of God.
Their certitude flies in the face of all the Kant wrote, ignores the vast majority of phenomena not understood (dark matter or dark energy, to name just two), and shows an unimaginable degree of arrogance.
Such fanaticism may be viewed, with compassion, as a means of coping with the anxiety of uncertainty.
Facing the true mystery of the world requires an immense capacity to tolerate anxiety, fear, even terror.
Knowledge brings calm.
Absolute knowledge, however delusional, brings tranquility.
Jacques Lacan once wrote that certitude is a sign of psychosis.
I find his concept validated in my daily clinical practice.
Individuals with anxiety, depression, troubled marriages, and the like, struggle with doubt.
Am I over-reacting?
Are these recent tragedies in my life making me understandably sad?
Is my marriage really not good-enough?
In contrast, the few psychotics I have treated often present with absolute certitude. The belief in Martians invading the planet and their minds, for example, is presented with a certainty completely different from what so-called normal individuals experience.
As I draw this post to a close, I invite you to reflect on any area of knowledge of interest to you.
Can you see how quickly the limits come up?
Efforts at understanding phenomena are wonderful.
Curiosity is a virtue.
However, if devoting your life to one or more disciplines or endeavors, I encourage embracing the view of the mysterious as the ultimate truth, the ultimate foundation of all knowledge.
It means that, even if you devote your entire life to understanding Churchill, you’ll never completely understand him.
(Ironically, you couldn’t fully understand him if you were his contemporary and his best friend).
Enjoy the pursuit of knowledge.
Study like crazy.
Experiment if you’re in the sciences.
But, if you think you have obtained final knowledge—of history, physics, theology, philosophy or you name it—well, then…
Flanagan, O. (1991). The science of mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Foucault, M. (1982). The archeology of knowledge. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon.
Lacan J (1978). The seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XI: The four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis, Ed. J Miller. Trans. A.M. Sheridan. New York: Norton.
Steiner, G. (2004). Nostalgia for the absolute. Toronto: Anansi Press.
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