Monday, April 23, 2012

I am a Believer

There are many things that I don't know. About the past: how my great-great-grandfather supported his family, how Charlemagne consolidated his imperial power, or how Rabbi Akiva became a scholar. About the future: whether I'll get that contract, how much the climate will change in the next 100 years, or when the next war will erupt. About why things are as they are: why stones fall and water freezes, or why people love or hate or don't give a damn, or why we are, period.

We reflect about questions like these, trying to answer them and to learn from them. For instance, we are interested in the relations between Charlemagne and his co-ruling brother Carloman. This can tell us about brothers, about emperors, and about power. We are interested in Akiva because he purportedly started studying at the age of 40, which tells us something about the indomitable human spirit.

We sometimes get to the bottom of things and understand the whys and ways of our world. We see patterns and discover laws of nature, or at least we tell stories of how things happen. Stones fall because it's their nature to seek the center of the world (Aristotle), or due to gravitational attraction (Newton), or because of mass-induced space warp (Einstein). Human history has its patterns, driven by the will to power of heroic leaders, or by the unfolding of truth and justice, or by God's hand in history.

We also think about thinking itself, as suggested by Rodin's Thinker. What is thinking (or what do we think it is)? Is thinking a physical process, like electrons whirling in our brain? Or does thinking involve something transcendental; maybe the soul whirling in the spheres? Each age has its answers.

We sometimes get stuck, and can't figure things out or get to the bottom of things. Sometimes we even realize that there is no "bottom", that each answer brings its own questions. As John Wheeler said, "We live on an island of knowledge surrounded by a sea of ignorance. As our island of knowledge grows, so does the shore of our ignorance."

Sometimes we get stuck in an even subtler way that is very puzzling, and even disturbing. Any rational chain of thought must have a starting point. Any rational justification of that starting point must have its own starting point. In other words, any attempt to rationally justify rational thought can never be completed. Rational thought cannot justify itself, which is almost the same as saying that rational thought is not justified. Any specific rational argument - Einstein's cosmology or Piaget's psychology - is justified based on its premises (and evidence, and many other things). But Rational Thought, as a method, as a way of life and a core of civilization, cannot ultimately and unequivocally justify itself.

I believe that experience reflects reality, and that thought organizes experience to reveal the patterns of reality. The truth of this belief is, I believe, self evident and unavoidable. Just look around you. Flowers bloom anew each year. Planets swoop around with great regularity. We have learned enough about the world to change it, to control it, to benefit from it, even to greatly endanger our small planetary corner of it. I believe that rational thought is justified, but that's a belief, not a rational argument.

Rational thought, in its many different forms, is not only justified; it is unavoidable. We can't resist it. Moses saw the flaming bush and was both frightened and curious because it was not consumed (Exodus 3:1-3). He was drawn towards it despite his fear. The Unknown draws us irresistibly on an endless search for order and understanding. The Unknown drives us to search for knowledge, and the search is not fruitless. This I believe. 


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  2. Jakov, What you write has strong echoes of Gödel’s incompleteness theorem and in my view forms a very plausible 'understanding' of our experience of rational thought, for now at least. The wonderful thing about this is that it provides an infinite source of activity for those who pursue the method of rational thought and experience by which to understand the universe. The possibility that the universe is infinite in its complexity and that our increased understanding is only the uncovering of deeper and deeper layers of knowledge is wonderful, it might mean that humanity has the opportunity to explore this increasingly long shoreline at the boundary between knowledge and ignorance forever. Based on the premise that you have outlined, all of us who are believers could well be living in an eternal paradise with an inexhaustible bounty of new and wonderful discoveries!

  3. A question which puzzled me when I was in high school was whether the universe had finite mass and took up finite space, or not. With my limited knowledge and education at the time, I was arriving at a logical impossibility if I tried to imagine the universe taking up only a finite amount of space. Euclidean Geometry just could not cut it. Later, reading about theories of warped space, they provided some resolution to my earlier questions.