Accepting that some things are unknowable

Stogie writes:

In your 2006 article, “Summarizing my views about evolution,” you wrote:

The last point [that the origin of species must proceed from intelligent purpose, a divine intelligence of some kind] is an inescapable logical inference. It is not a scientific theory, it does not offer a how of evolution. It simply recognizes that given the impossibility that life and new species originated from random material events, the origin of life and the origin of species must come from a “higher” source, which remains beyond our ken. This insight means the acceptance of mystery, something that human intelligence is not able to penetrate.

Larry, that last sentence is spot on and my conclusions exactly. Human intelligence is inadequate to explain the origin of life and of new species. Darwinists find this situation unacceptable, they must have an answer, even if they have to make one up.

Like you, I have accepted the fact that there are great mysteries that may be insolvable to man, “they are beyond our ken,” though we should continue to seek as much of the truth as our intellects can discover. I can live with the mystery.

Your essays are some of the best I have ever seen on this subject.

LA replies:

How could there not be great mysteries that are unsolvable by man? Everything that exists, everything in the material universe, comes out of something that is not itself. It follows that the material universe itself must come out of something that is not itself, something that is beyond itself. But man can only directly experience with his senses and his material scientific instruments the material universe. Therefore it is inherently impossible for man to know the origin of the material universe.

Also, in addition to the origin of the universe, there are two other great mysteries the solutions to which are unknown and would appear to be unknowable by man: the origin of life, and the origin of consciousness, though here my argument is more tentative and exploratory. Just as the material universe (including man with his material scientific instruments who is a part of it) cannot see beyond itself to its origin, biological life cannot see beyond itself to its origin, and sentient consciousness cannot see beyond itself to its origin. Yes, biological life can see the non-living quality of non-biologically-alive things, it sees it all the time; but it cannot see that which is beyond both biological life and non-life, which is its own origin. Similarly, sentient consciousness can see the non-conscious quality of non-conscious things, it sees it all the time; but it cannot see that which is beyond both sentient consciousness and non-consciousness, which is its own origin.

- end of initial entry -

LA to Kristor:

Do you see any problem with my argument?

Kristor replies:

Not a problem, but a clarification. When we speak of knowing something, we may mean either that we apprehend, or that we comprehend. To apprehend is, literally, to “grasp at or toward.” To comprehend is to “grasp together.” Apprehension happens when we know of something, but do not understand it; we can touch it, but it escapes our grasp. Comprehension happens when we know of something and have some understanding of it; when we are able to wrap our minds around it.

So, then: we can apprehend that there is—that there must logically be—something outside our world, and greater, for only thus could there be a context, a way, a receptacle in which the world could come to be. We may come to understand certain things about that transcendent reality. But only a few things, and them but dimly. We cannot ever understand it in its fullness, or even come close. There is no way to grasp him, who has our whole world in his grasp.

The only sorts of things it is possible for us to comprehend are those that are lesser than we. These we may encompass. Part of the reason we have theories about the world is that the theories are small and intellectually manageable, as compared with the complex concrete realities to which they refer. The theories are smaller than we are. The realities to which they refer never, ever are.

To apprehend something without understanding it, is to be confronted with mystery. Sometimes we can dispel the mystery a bit by our own efforts. Our understanding may even be good enough to give us great power. But no matter how deeply we plumb a phenomenon, howsoever humble, we can never find its bottom. Take a pebble. What is it? What is its complete, exhaustive description? The answer cannot be completed, even in an infinite span of time. Nicholas Rescher points out that the number of true statements that can be made about anything is infinite; and Gödel proved that no self-consistent answer to any question can ever be completed. Thus the more one learns about something—about anything—the more one learns that there is more to learn about it. Think of something homely and familiar—say, knitting, or model railroading. One could never get to the bottom of them, never finish them, never express all their beauties. Every concrete actuality is infinitely deep.

And the reason this must be so is not far to seek; for every instance of definite being must necessarily arise in the context of, and as a derivate of, the limitless indefinite. Being as such is the necessary prerequisite and source of every particular being. Reality is infinitely deep, because its depths are in the fathomless abyss of God. So, a pebble is as rooted in God, and as full of his presence and expressive of his glory, as the highest seraph. One of the reasons scientists—even the atheists among them—do science is that, in delving into the depths of the real, they apprehend that glory, wonder and power at the root of all things. Depth calls to depth.

No matter what it grasps at, knowledge never suffices to its object. Only being suffices; for a being can suffice to itself, indeed must do so if it is actually to be. The only way to comprehend a thing fully, then, is to open oneself to it and make oneself a part of it, to partake in it. Comprehension is trans-rational, trans-cognitive. It happens when we allow ourselves to be comprehended by something larger than we are.

Such is worship. It is effected by sacrifice.

Curiously, as mystics all tell us, in the utter turn of the soul to God is delivered a full comprehension of all lesser things.

LA replies:

This is very good. Your introduction of the concepts of apprehension and comprehension is helpful, bringing a precision to the discussion that was lacking in my use of “to see” and “to know.”

Your larger argument is also good. However, it would apply to a pebble as much as to the universe, life, and consciousness, so I’m not sure it is directly relevant to my argument here.

Ferg writes:

Larry, I do find the argument that liberals arose from the slime quite compelling.

Kristor writes:

I very much like your revision to your last paragraph [the paragraph beginning “Also, in addition to the origin of the universe”]. It links up nicely with the story about Flatland that Gintas posted to the thread on whether Darwinists can understand anti-Darwinian arguments. That story nicely illustrates the same point as your last paragraph, and my comment below: a being of x dimensions can be scribed only in a volume of greater dimensionality than x; so a being in a volume with x dimensions cannot describe, or therefore descry—i.e., understand—a being of more than x dimensions. Philo of Alexandria made the same point in a proof of God’s existence.

You are right that my argument applies to pebbles and to knitting as much as to consciousness, etc. I meant only to indicate, by clarifying, that your argument is even more powerful than it seems to be. Most arguments are. Especially when they are true.

My clarification is relevant, I think, because it steps back from the particular objects of knowledge that you adduced, whereof the mystery is overwhelming—existence, life, and consciousness—and focuses on the severe limits to the faculty of rational understanding that those particular objects defeat utterly and obviously, so as to show that knowledge as such, of howsoever humble an object, itself always points ultimately to immense and ineffable mystery.

Alan Roebuck writes:

First a minor point. When you say

Yes, biological life can see the non-living quality of non-biologically alive things, …

I think it should say non-biologically-alive (unless that violates a law of grammar.) Your original wording made me think of something that is alive in a non-biological way; angels, for example? [LA replies: I will change it.]

Using Kristor’s terminology, liberals and atheists think that apprehension doesn’t count for much unless they can comprehend. Being aware of (apprehending) the unique nature of their own consciousnesses, for example, is not enough for them to grant that consciousness is more than neurons in action. They must comprehend it with a successful “scientific” theory before they will grant what their intuition (we must presume) makes clear. Until then, consciousness remains something that does not officially exist.

Also, we can know something about the mysteries to which you referred if we believe what God has told us. We can know that He created the cosmos and man, even if the comprehension of same desired by the materialist will forever be beyond our ken.

LA replies:

The apprehension/comprehension distinction is similar to something I wrote in a comment a few years ago in which I argued that if I were walking along a beach and encountered a marble statue of Zeus, I would know for a fact that the sculpture was made by a sculptor (which is equivalent to apprehension), even if I didn’t know anything specific about the sculptor, such as his name, who his parents were, why he made the statue, how he made the statue, and so on (which is equivalent to comprehension).

December 6

Joseph A. writes:

Saint Bonaventure must be smiling on this feast of Saint Nicholas in response to Kristor’s commentary on apprehension and comprehension.

Thank you for your great work; enjoy the feast.

Buck O. writes:

From absolute zero: time, the universe, photosynthesis, man and his mind? Why is it that modern liberals can’t explain nothin?

Posted by Lawrence Auster at December 05, 2011 10:28 PM | Send

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