Monday 15 October 2007

Abiding Mystery

When a man acquires much or all of the knowledge that has been revealed in his field of study concerning some aspect of physical reality, or when he sees all avenues of research exhausted and a coherent body of knowledge attained such that the study is said to be complete, he is wont to assume that he knows much or all about that particular aspect of reality. But it is a false assumption; for, although he knows the extent of his knowledge, he does not know the extent of his ignorance. [1]
.....Our knowledge of the world is a circle of light, as it were, but we do not know how much of the whole we have illuminated since, firstly, we do not know the extent of the whole, and secondly, we cannot see beyond that part of it which we have illuminated; nor should we assume that the circle will grow ever wider until we know it to encompass the whole; for not only must there be a limit to human understanding, but also we do not know where the limit of our understanding lies in relation to the whole, such that we could never know whether we had reached the limit of our understanding or the limit of the whole.
.....This acknowledgement of abiding mystery flies in the face of promissory materialism — as Karl Popper and John Eccles called it [2] — that peculiarly modern optimism which, in lieu of knowledge, promises nonetheless that materialism will reveal all. Yet from the fact that today’s knowledge is yesterday’s mystery, and from the sight of countless days upon which such has been the case — days that stand together as a monument to man’s understanding — it does not follow that today’s mystery must be tomorrow’s knowledge. At the edge of knowledge, there is mystery, and since there must always be an edge of knowledge, there must always be mystery.
[1] Physics, for instance, provides us with knowledge only of the structural or relational properties of matter, and leaves open the question of its intrinsic character. In this fundamental sense, “[t]he only legitimate attitude about the physical world seems to be one of complete agnosticism as regards all but its mathematical properties.” Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Matter (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), pp.270-1
[2] K.R. Popper and J.C. Eccles, The Self and Its Brain (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977.)


RC2 said...

The Russell quotation is similar to that attributed to Einstein: "as the circle of light increases, so does the circumference of darkness."

Anonymous said...

"promises nonetheless that materialism will reveal all": schoolboy error.

Deogolwulf said...

Thanks, Rc2, I shall look it up.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Deogulwulf, you may be right that mystery -- at least of the sort that transcends "where have I left my keys?" -- is inexhaustible.

But perhaps it's just too early to tell.

Larry Teabag said...

I wholeheartedly agree with this entire post.

But somehow I can't overcome the nagging suspicion that there's something being left unsaid which I would not agree with.

Could it be that you're suppressing a "There are more things in heaven and earth... Than are dreamt of in your philosophy"?

Just asking, not accusing!

Deogolwulf said...

Mr Pollack: "But perhaps it’s just too early to tell."

It’s never too early for promissory materialism!

Mr Teabag, I suppose the whole post boils down to stating that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy or mine. Wise words from Shakespeare, I think, though they easily fall foul of the accusation of wishy-washiness, especially in a milieu that cannot bear to admit mystery, an admission to which is imputed the motive of trying to preserve ignorance or the viability of some favoured view. (It can indeed be used to do so.) But as far as I can see, when all is said and done, and to cut a very long story short, existence is a damned mysterious thing.

“But somehow I can’t overcome the nagging suspicion that there’s something being left unsaid which I would not agree with.”

Most probably! I had mostly in mind the so-called hard problem of consciousness, which standard materialism (or physicalism, as it tends to be called nowadays, reflecting also some shift in thinking) has great difficulty in solving or even getting close to solving, though much the same goes for non-materialist explanations too. (There are also many other aspects of the world that may remain mysterious, not least the intrinsic nature of matter.) But I’m guessing that you have in mind that I have in mind the existence of God, and in particular, that the abiding mystery of which I speak might leave room for a belief therein.

That wasn’t specifically the point of the post, but it agrees with what, broadly speaking, simply put, when all is said and done, to cut a long story short, and without further ado, is essentially my agnostic position on the matter. Now, the outward trouble with being an agnostic is that one is sometimes accused by both theists and atheists of being cowardly or lacking any metaphysical depth or earnestness. (There may be truth to these charges, though the same can also be said of theists and atheists.) Anyway, I do not find theism silly. On the contrary, I take it very seriously. But then I take atheism seriously too. Of course, just as there are all sorts of theism, there are all sorts of atheism, not just the commonly conceived materialistic kind. (There have even been atheists who have been agnostic about or believed in the immortality of the soul. Robert Ingersoll, I think, took the former view, and John McTaggart the latter.) All of which rambling leads me on to say that, when it comes to the mystery of existence, I simply have no idea. Naturally I tend to be more sympathetic to theism, but, as a psychological fact, that’s not surprising, since I fully appreciate the implications of atheistic materialism. I have, I’m afraid, a tendency to sway a little one way and then the other, and have no idea in which camp I will settle, or whether I will settle at all, and I fear, what’s more, that in this regard I am perhaps the legitimate target of the accusation that I lack the stuff of character to make the choice, a choice which might, after all, and in view of the mystery of existence, stand not as a test of knowledge and intelligence but of character itself. Or it might not.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Dear D,

Well, my own materialism falls somewhat short of making any promises, but I don't think that some measure of optimism is unwarranted.

After all, if the world's surface were in darkness, an expanding circle of light would one day get to the point at which the circumference of that darkness began to decrease.

As the topology of the unknown is itself unknown, things might go either way; we'll just have to see. Meanwhile, the illuminated area continues to increase, with encouraging celerity.

Deogolwulf said...

I hope you didn't take that as a swipe at you, Mr Pollack.

Malcolm Pollack said...

Oh my, most certainly not. And even if it were, I've been swiped at so often (in particular by dualistic philosophers, for whom the ongoing and increasingly fruitful program of scientific inquiry is just a barely audible clatter in the background, and rarely distracts them from their orotund exposition of the Truth) that I shouldn't have felt a thing.

Anonymous said...

It is ironic that materialism can't say what matter is. For Aristotle, matter was potential and form was actuality, but for us there's no form and matter is the real.

Deogolwulf said...

"It is ironic that materialism can't say what matter is."