The North Sea, West of Denmark, North: 5’19”
Monday, August 28, 2017
Personal Liberation Part I — Freedom of Information
Emerging from a set of rants about ways invisible forces sculpt our identities—restricting and constricting us—I pursue one specific avenue of liberation:
On the one hand, we know nothing about anything. Kant, who changed the course of Western philosophy by pointing out that all information is received through our five senses and processed through our nervous systems, humbled us.
Actually, it’s not so much we know nothing about anything.
It’s that our knowledge is radically limited.
For all the manipulations our brains do—playing with the information received from outside and in, intermixing it with our capacity for imagination—it remains partial, incomplete.
On the other hand, knowledge of our humility, our narrowness, frees us in endless ways.
Here are but a few:
First, we can release any aspirations for perfect knowledge.
How could we be so arrogant as to believe we could achieve it?
Owen Flanagan, in his 1991 book, Science of the Mind, called thinkers who, like me, believe many phenomena will never be completely explained, the new mysterians.
Mysterians, who include such contemporary thinkers as Noam Chomsky, emerged primarily from scholars investigating consciousness. They thought we’d never understand it. Even if we did, how could you know my consciousness, anyway?
However, many have extended the phrase into a wider philosophical position:
We humans lack the intellectual ability to solve, or even understand, many difficult problems like:
Why is there something rather than nothing?
We are do we talking monkeys have (apparently) the most advanced capacity for consciousness?
What happened before the Big Bang?
Mysterianism drives a railroad spike into the heart of scientism — the belief that all understanding can be achieved through the scientific method.
Don’t get me wrong.
The scientific method is awesome.
It saved my life at least twice (so far).
However, science explains only the tiniest sliver of the world.
Second, understanding the limitations of knowledge invites us into a freeing, if terrifying, relativism.
(Relativism creates real problems in ethics. Why not wantonly hurt others if no truth exists? I defer pursuit of this problem for another time.)
Why is relativism terrifying?
Because it renders the ground beneath your feet unstable. Contemporary physics demonstrates that you, in fact, stand on mostly empty space. It feels solid to you. It is not.
You lack a foundation for much of anything.
You’ll go mad if you think about this too intensely.
Unshackled from seeking absolute truth, we choose to believe what we believe. We can devote ourselves to science, looking for provable trends in which to find comfort; we can explore the mystical, finding meaning there.
Despite societal discomfort with the latter, nothing prevents us from venturing into the mysterious. Its lack of scientific proof does nothing to invalidate it.
For example, in Hinduism, the God Vishnu is considered the divine dreamer of the world. Hindus believe his dreaming creates the world. Given Kant’s revelation, and the power of our imagination, I cannot absolutely rule out the truth of that Hindu myth. Perhaps we are all living in Vishnu’s dream, considering it reality.
Third, last, and ironically, relativism imposes an immense burden of openness and curiosity on us.
Keep an open mind. Consider alternative sources of information, and as many as possible.
First popularized by psychologist Timothy Leary, the slogan is ultimately traceable to Socrates.
But it can be dangerous. Socrates was sentenced to death for atheism at a time when deism was required of Athenian citizens. Still, he chose freedom. He killed himself with hemlock before he could be executed.
Bringing the demands of relativism into the present day, we have a duty, I believe, to consider as many differing points of view as possible.
If you watch Fox, spend some time with MSNBC.
And, vice versa.
If you hate Trump, listen to those that adore him.
If you love the sciences, delve into the humanities—read a novel, watch a play, see a movie.
If you love the humanities, study science. Observe its linear, algorithmic beauty. Learn its fairly recent history; learn the paradox of its power:
Nuclear power electrifies cities while threatening them with megadeath destruction; medicine cures incurable diseases while facilitating the planet suffocating from overpopulation.
I end with a validating quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson:
A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do.
Chomsky, N. (2013). On anarchism. New York: The New Press.
Emerson, R.W. (1993). Self reliance. New York: Dover. (Original work published in 1841).
Flanagan, O. (1991). The science of the mind. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Potter, B.; Estren, M. (2012). Question authority: think for yourself. New York: Ronin Publishing.
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