Don’t be so sure

by Charlie Huenemann

Luxuriating in human ignorance was once a classy fad. Overeducated literary types would read Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard and Dostoevsky and Nietzsche, and soak themselves in the quite intelligent conclusion that ultimate reality cannot be known by Terran primates, no matter how many words they use. They would dwell on the suspicion that anything these primates conceive will be skewed by social, sexual, economic, and religious preconceptions and biases; that the very idea that there is an ultimate reality, with a definable character, may very well be a superstition forced upon us by so humble a force as grammar; that in an absurd life bounded on all sides by illusion, the very best a Terran primate might do is to at least be honest with itself, and compassionate toward its colleagues, so that we might all get through this thing together.

But classy fads fade. Indeed, one seemingly inviolable law of philosophical thinking is that any forthright declaration of human ignorance will be followed by a systematic explanation of that ignorance, decorated with special terms and diagrams. We just can’t let it go. Aristotle began his Metaphysics with the claim that all men by nature desire to know, and we would be right to quibble a bit: maybe some men do and some men don’t, and maybe some women also desire to know, and some don’t, and perhaps the most sensible thing to say is that many people like to pretend to know — which would have made for a much more promising beginning to his treatise, come to think of it. But we weren’t there, and Aristotle chugged on ahead as a man who desired to know everything except his own limits.

These days we are more Aristotle than Kierkegaard, and not without some reason: the work in telecommunications and particle accelerators and medical labs suggests that we are not merely banging rocks together. But there is a sizeable gap between (a) separate individuals who, one after another, know quite a lot about baud rates, gluons, and mRNA, and (b) individuals who greedily stake their claims to species-wide knowledge of all these thing together, summed up into a comprehensive idea of the nature of reality as a whole. That is to say, it is not at all difficult to find books on the broad scope of human knowledge written by authors who really know nothing other than that there are other people who know a lot about many separate things. We might simply call these authors journalists, but truly they include people from all walks of life; really, just about anyone with an internet connection. And those with academic degrees are the worst offenders. (Hello, my name is Charlie.)

Many humans are inclined to speculate, and surely there’s nothing wrong with that. (Speculate away, my friends! The next round is on me!) But what is surprising is the degree of certainty many of us feel as we proclaim that science has done more for humanity than religion, that supply-side economics has been proven to be a ruse, that evolution is clearly capable of explaining every feature of living things, that this or that celebrity is surely guilty of having betrayed that or this celebrity, that quantum mechanics proves that observation determines reality, that no neuroscientific explanation can solve the hard problem of consciousness, and so on. It is obvious that anyone who makes such claims should be greeted with wide-eyed astonishment: how the hell could you know that? But it is a sign of our times that such claims are more usually answered by equally confident agreement, or by equally confident denial. We luxuriate in a classy fad of overconfidence.

All fads by nature desire to pass, but let us hope this one fades sooner rather than later, if only because reading the old pessimists is so much more interesting than reading the new zealots. Skeptical pluralists think all around themselves in full arcs, confessing their own vulnerabilities, bemoaning their frailties, and sneakily catching out their readers in the act of making assumptions. They suggest; retract; reconsider; resign; and then resume the thankless task of doubting, in ways that should enliven us to the complex challenge of breaking a path through deceptive lands, which is a rich alternative to the canned adventure of following travelogues through “adventure” parks. 

Blaise Pascal, for example, in the early days of telescopes and microscopes, described the vertigo of being suspended between two infinities, the infinitely small and the infinitely large. We find ourselves floating in a space with no scale that can count meaningfully as home:

This is our true state; this is what makes us incapable of certain knowledge and of absolute ignorance. We sail within a vast sphere, ever drifting in uncertainty, driven from end to end. When we think to attach ourselves to any point and to fasten to it, it wavers and leaves us; and if we follow it, it eludes our grasp, slips past us, and vanishes for ever. Nothing stays for us.

Contrast his appraisal with that of his colleague Descartes, who flirted with being an existential refugee only as an opening act to establishing the rock-solid certainty of his own existence, a fixed point he then employed to leverage onto his pages not only an omniscient God but a full inventory of finite extended and thinking substances. Descartes put on his doubt like a hat. True, Pascal also found God within his vast sphere, though in his case God did not come by way of certain reasons but by way of nervous breakdown. (There is a difference.) The experiences of reading these thinkers could not be more different: one seeks to unhinge, and the other to compel. One cannot tear his eyes from the ungraspable, and the other neatly distinguishes modes from attributes and places the activity of the immortal soul just outside the pineal gland. Pascal aims to enshrine uncertainty, even (or especially) in the presence of the God of Abraham; the other busily beats uncertainty into retreat.

They are both right, of course, but their two views cannot be thought at once.  As Emerson intoned, our moods do not believe in one another, and each day we find we must shift between explaining and doubting. But in a time that celebrates a relentless enthusiasm for answers, a balance is restored when we devote deliberate effort to unhinging ourselves from them.