Tuesday, May 8, 2018
Finding Liberation in Mystery
How can acknowledging the ultimate mystery of the world liberate you?
By untying self-constrictive knots, undoing oppressive rules, and dismantling repressive systems.
I abruptly experienced the freedom myself when I finished a paper on the impossibility of an all-encompassing theory of mind.
I realized the impossibility of any over-arching theory of anything.
It opens up new ways of thinking about the world.
Influenced by contemporary philosopher Gabriel Markus’ book, Why The World Does Not Exist, I now embrace a modified form of relativism.
Relativism is the philosophical doctrine that knowledge, truth, and morality exist in relation to culture, society, or historical context.
There are not absolutes.
Absolutes do not exist.
Please don’t take this too literally. Punching your fist into the drywall next to your desk is a bad idea. It will hurt you. Of course reality remains intact.
But speaking of reality, no overarching theory or model can describe it—whatever it is.
Not anywhere; not anyhow.
On the simplest level, think of the first commandment from the Judeo-Christian tradition:
Thou shalt not kill.
It’s a good, basic moral principle but many exceptions exist:
Self-defense, war, and legitimate police interventions—to name just a few.
No complete system of any type, not even mathematical, is possible. In the case of whole numbers, for example, any system defined in such terms can be destroyed by adding one more number, suggesting all models are infinite.
Mathematics is a system, a language, a map of the world.
It is not the same as the terrain.
Nearly a century ago, Kurt Godel, a friend of Albert Einstein, proposed what he termed the incompleteness theorem. It demonstrated that a complete mathematical model of the world was unattainable.
Because any complete model must encompass the act of the model-maker making the model.
Known as the self-referential problem, any process including the map-maker’s actions leads to an infinite regress. It’s like what happens when you put two mirrors at an angle and see yourself repeated endlessly.
Moreover, the accuracy of the map expires the nanosecond the map-maker completes the map. She or he would immediately lie outside of the map, instantly invalidating it.
In brief, all models, systems, or theories, are of necessity incomplete.
Shortly before Godel appeared on the scene, philosopher Friedrich Nietzche introduced his own version of relativism, writing:
We cannot establish any fact ‘in itself:’ perhaps it is folly to want to do such a thing. ‘Everything is subjective’ you say; but even this is interpretation. The ‘subject’ is not something given, it is something added and invented and projected behind what there is.
He ventured further than the mathematicians of his day, suggesting human perception necessarily involves interpretation. He, like the French philosopher Michel Foucault after him, questioned the legitimacy of any classifying or categorizing method.
Markus strays still farther, proclaiming that no rule, world formula, or even ideology can describe everything. He writes:
This is not contingent on the fact that we have not found it yet, but on the fact that it cannot exist at all.
Models theories, viewpoints, myths, or discourses cannot capture all phenomena—anywhere, not in the inside world or the outside one, and not even in the (allegedly) purely material world.
Even if physicists achieve their thus-far elusive grand unified theory (GUT), innumerable phenomena will be left out: governments, for example, or the arts, or your experience reading this sentence right this second.
Even if the astrophysicists discover more planets or better understand supernova, they will not achieve a universal model. What they do discover, identify, or find will be puny because:
One-hundred-billion galaxies exist in the ever-expanding universe.
Can we even conceive, imagine, or grasp that?
We also can’t develop an all-encompassing model of it.
Even if the neurosciences gain greater understanding of the neurophysiology of memory, they will never capture the specifics of your memory: the thoughts and feelings you had when you met your first romantic partner, when your child got married, or when you buried your mother.
What about spirituality?
The phenomena of relativism or incompleteness suggests the organized forms of religion, like Judaism, Christianity, Islam, or Jainism, are just that:
Beliefs, viewpoints, fictions, theories, models, discourses, mythologies.
That doesn’t make them any less awesome.
It only makes them non-universal.
It creates the possibility for an amazing openness and tolerance for differing religions, for differing just about anythings.
OK, but here’s the rub:
It takes tremendous maturity, anxiety-tolerance, and humility to encounter infinity, to embrace ignorance, and to consider the ultimate unknowability of the world.
On the one hand, you can take a leap of faith and immerse yourself in an all-encompassing theory, ideology, or mythology. According to the sociologist Eric Hoffer, people who tend to become become radicalized, true believers, can’t handle the pain of infinity.
They need a firm understanding; they need something concrete.
ISIS provides an awful, extreme example of a flight into certitude. It adhered to an orthodox interpretation of Islam featuring sexist, literal belief in Sharia law and the right to kill all nonbelievers.
It created an all-encompassing model of everything, but at the price of an inhumane, murderous, literally genocidal ideology.
On the other hand, you can surrender to your basic ignorance and be free!
Surrendering to the grand mystery of it all liberates.
Believe what you will (as long as it doesn’t hurt others, per Jon Stuart Mill’s On Liberty).
Embrace your viewpoints, theories, and mythologies.
Share, promote, even celebrate them.
But remember, in the final analysis, your beliefs in nature, religion, politics, love, physics, biology, or whatever are just that:
They are relative, nested in the context of an absolute mystery.
Can you handle it?
Foucault, M. (1970). The order of things: An archeology of the human sciences. Trans. by A. Sheridan. New York, NY: Vintage Books.
Hoffer, E. (1989). The true believer: thoughts on the nature of mass movements. New York: Harper and Row. (Original work published in 1951).
Markus, G. (2015). Why the world does not exist. Trans. G. Moss. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.
Nagel, E. and Newman, N.R. (2001). Godel’s Proof. New York: New York Universities Press.
Mill, J.S. (1978). On liberty. New York: Hackett Publishing. (Original work published in 1859).
Nietzsche, F. (1989). Beyond good and evil: on the geneology of morals. Trans. W. Kaufmann. New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1886).
Nietzsche, F. (1968). The will to power. New York: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1901).
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