Life is more complex than we can “know.”

thinkerEvery day I get messages from people who are struggling to understand the world they inhabit. Why does this happen? Why is my life so difficult? They suggest that if they could only understand it, they would see a “way out.” If my years spent counselling people through their struggles has taught me one thing though, it is that the only route out of adversity is to stop thinking. I would write more on this subject if there were much interest in it: so my usual recourse is to implicate these conclusions within the scope of an astrological treatise; it is after all, one and the same philosophy. The mind crudely simplifies the astoundingly complex reality it perceives in order to render it manageable, to make it comparative. He is evil. She is a saint. My figure is worse than hers. My motives are good. His are bad. The mind cannot even adequately comprehend our own subjective reality, let alone anyone else’s.

The simplifying tendency of the human mind points to one very stark observation; and that is that without question we cannot know very much. Certainly we can know some things, but the majority of human knowledge is entirely superficial. If you were to take a single subject, like electricity, or fighter planes of World War Two, or the French Revolution, there may be some questions that we could answer on all of those subjects but our understanding would be superficial. Beyond this you might argue that your mind bestows you with the potential to become an expert, but even then there are only so many subjects in which you could ever hope to gain true expertise. Maybe you could study hard and learn everything there is to know about electricity. If you were exceptionally intelligent and studious you might be able to learn another subject to a high standard and become an expert in two domains; perhaps even three, but ultimately, the scope of expertise that the vast majority of us could ever aspire to is almost trivial when compared with the sum total of human knowledge, never mind the sum total of all things in creation that might bear scrutiny. This underlines the plain truth that – if you want to be comparative – we know almost nothing and we can’t hope to improve on that very much no matter how much effort we make. Put simply, the human mind’s capacity to understand the universe is mostly inconsequential.

This is not to say that it is not fit for purpose; rather that it is not fit to the purpose of understanding the universe. If you believe that you can somehow understand the entirety of creation by intellectually deconstructing it then you are deluded. Beyond this, even expertise has its limits. We understand much as a species, but our understandings when measured against our lack of understandings pale into insignificance. Take any subject in some hard, quantifiable subject like science and you soon begin to realise that in many ways we are just scratching the surface of understanding and our seeming insights are often supported upon the probability that we simply do not know enough to know what questions to ask. Can we predict the weather? A little perhaps, but not much. Can we cure the common cold? Why does the sun exist? What is the universe made of? Why do humans have fewer genes than some flowers? And these are all questions for science in the sense that they are easily quantified and are thus sympathetic to the investigative medium. What is love? Why are some people insane? What is insanity? What is sanity? Why are we here? What happens after we die? The scientific mind cannot even begin to frame other questions, let alone answer them.

So what is the point here? It is that our exaltation of the mind is based upon the entirely false assumption that the mind is capable of producing anything truly meaningful in our lives, because we cannot ever truly know anything meaningful by using the mind. Certainly we can know something useful or something interesting, but that is really the best we can hope for. We might look with intrigue at the results of the Mars explorer expedition and wonder that there appear to once have been rivers and seas on the red planet’s surface, but does it really matter? Is it going to change us in any profound and powerful way to know these answers?

And this is true of anything else as well. Do the enlightening wonders of science and intellectual understanding make the world a better place? Does our thorough and precise understanding of the mechanics of bodily nutrition benefit the millions that die annually from hunger and disease in Africa? Does our statistical grasp of the afflictions of poverty in inner cities eradicate poverty in inner cities? Does our social and medical insight into the ravages of violent crime curb violent crime? Quite simply we are promoting the wrong agenda; listening to the sunset. Intellectualising our place in the universe is like shooting the moon; our aim may be true but we can never hope to reach our target, our best effort will always fall short: massively and hopelessly short simply because the human mind is not a powerful enough instrument. It is much better employed in deciding whether to take the high or low road home on a foggy December night, or whether to stick or twist in the card game. That’s the kind of task it was specifically designed for, after all.

In all of the ways that matter to the human condition, in the eradication of suffering and the promotion of happiness the mind is not much use at all. It can tell us that people suffer because they do not get enough food to eat, or because they cannot afford fuel, but it cannot ‘do’ anything about it; rather it treats life as an interesting puzzle that must be worked out, then it intellectualises everything else based on its inescapably feeble grasp of the contingencies. The end result of this process is a rather vague opinion of matters and not a great deal of insight.

Insight requires another awareness entirely. The person who has worked many years at a particular skill or profession might be able to convey the mundane facts of their process of work without knowing how to even begin to convey the insight that results from their many years of experience. It is the kind of understanding that is not contained in the mind; which is exactly why it cannot be verbalised. If this fact were anything but true then experience would not count for much. The refined reasoning that is developed over an entire career is the most valuable of commodities in the carrying on of trades and yet it is precisely so valuable because it cannot be taught and cannot be learned by the mind. It is another faculty entirely.

Without even looking into this other faculty at all, it should be pre-eminently obvious that the mind has its limits; and they are in many ways less impressive than our most pessimistic imaginings.

This simplifying tendency of the mind points to one very stark observation; and that is that without question we cannot know very much. Certainly we can know some things, but the majority of human knowledge is entirely superficial. If you were to take a single subject, like electricity, or fighter planes of World War Two, or the French revolution, there may be some questions that we could answer on all of those subjects but our understanding would be superficial. Beyond this you might argue that your mind bestows you with the potential to become an expert, but even then there are only so many subjects in which you could ever hope to gain true expertise. Maybe you could study hard and learn everything there is to know about electricity. If you were exceptionally intelligent and studious you might be able to learn another subject to a high standard and become an expert in two domains; perhaps even three, but ultimately, the scope of expertise that the vast majority of us could ever aspire to is almost trivial when compared with the sum total of human knowledge, never mind the sum total of all things in creation that might bear scrutiny. This underlines the plain truth that – if you want to be comparative – we know almost nothing and we can’t hope to improve on that very much no matter how much effort we make. Put simply, the human mind’s capacity to understand the universe is mostly inconsequential.

This is not to say that it is not fit for purpose; rather that it is not fit to the purpose of understanding the universe. If you believe that you can somehow understand the entirety of creation by intellectually deconstructing it then you are deluded. Beyond this, even expertise has its limits. We understand much as a species, but our understandings when measured against our lack of understandings pale into insignificance. Take any subject in some hard, quantifiable subject like science and you soon begin to realise that in many ways we are just scratching the surface of understanding and our seeming insights are often supported upon the probability that we simply do not know enough to know what questions to ask. Can we predict the weather? A little perhaps, but not much. Can we cure the common cold? Why does the sun exist? What is the universe made of? Why do humans have fewer genes than some flowers? And these are all questions for science in the sense that they are easily quantified and are thus sympathetic to the investigative medium. What is love? Why are some people insane? What is insanity? What is sanity? Why are we here? What happens after we die? The scientific mind cannot even begin to frame other questions, let alone answer them.

So what is the point here? It is that our exaltation of the mind is based upon the entirely false assumption that the mind is capable of producing anything truly meaningful in our lives, because we cannot ever truly know anything meaningful by using the mind. Certainly we can know something useful or something interesting, but that is really the best we can hope for. We might look with intrigue at the results of the Mars explorer expedition and wonder that there appear to once have been rivers and seas on the red planet’s surface, but does it really matter? Is it going to change us in any profound and powerful way to know these answers?

And this is true of anything else as well. Do the enlightening wonders of science and intellectual understanding make the world a better place? Does our thorough and precise understanding of the mechanics of bodily nutrition benefit the millions that die annually from hunger and disease in Africa? Does our statistical grasp of the afflictions of poverty in inner cities eradicate poverty in inner cities? Does our social and medical insight into the ravages of violent crime curb violent crime? Quite simply we are promoting the wrong agenda; listening to the sunset. Intellectualising our place in the universe is like shooting the moon; our aim may be true but we can never hope to reach our target, our best effort will always fall short: massively and hopelessly short simply because the human mind is not a powerful enough instrument. It is much better employed in deciding whether to take the high or low road home on a foggy December night, or whether to stick or twist in the card game. That’s the kind of task it was specifically designed for, after all.

In all of the ways that matter to the human condition, in the eradication of suffering and the promotion of happiness the mind is not much use at all. It can tell us that people suffer because they do not get enough food to eat, or because they cannot afford fuel, but it cannot ‘do’ anything about it; rather it treats life as an interesting puzzle that must be worked out, then it intellectualises everything else based on its inescapably feeble grasp of the contingencies. The end result of this process is a rather vague opinion of matters and not a great deal of insight.

[Exercise?] Insight requires another awareness entirely. The person who has worked many years at a particular skill or profession might be able to convey the mundane facts of their process of work without knowing how to even begin to convey the insight that results from their many years of experience. It is the kind of understanding that is not contained in the mind; which is exactly why it cannot be verbalised. If this fact were anything but true then experience would not count for much. The refined reasoning that is developed over an entire career is the most valuable of commodities in the carrying on of trades and yet it is precisely so valuable because it cannot be taught and cannot be learned by the mind. It is another faculty entirely.

Without even looking into this other faculty at all, it should be pre-eminently obvious that the mind has its limits; and they are in many ways less impressive than our most pessimistic imaginings.

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One comment on “Life is more complex than we can “know.”

  1. Moominboy says:

    We are but hairless apes on a pale blue dot on somebody else’s sky. But it doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy life.

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