Monday, January 28, 2013

no one greater by whom to swear

"To study is to put at risk everything we think we already know. [...] When we allow our minds to be shaped and expanded by new or deeper questions and perspectives, we may temporarily lose what we though was the foundation on which our lives were built. We can come to see how weak the foundation actually was. [...] But just as conversion is a lifelong process, so is the cycle of death and resurrection that goes with study. We keep losing it all, only to gain it back even more."
--John P. Reardon

Our PLS seminar [yes, I'm back with PLS. But just for the semester. It's my London fling. Some people run into British models on the tube for their London fling, but I lock myself in a study room with 17th century philosophers. What can I say? The spirit is willing but the siren song of Great Books is too tempting for my weak, weak flesh.] has spent a the past two weeks reading Sir Francis Bacon and René Descartes.

This is a statue of Sir Francis Bacon. Upon seeing him, we shrieked gleefully, somewhat like tweenage girls at a One Direction concert, except much louder.
Bacon and Descartes are both Enlightenment intellectuals. If there's one thing I'm not, it's an Enlightenment intellectual. They are obsessed, but obsessed with the idea of human knowledge, true and certain knowledge. Descartes, poor fellow, has doubted himself into a corner. The poor man actually wrote the words: "I will suppose not a supremely good God, the source of truth, but rather an evil genius, supremely powerful and clever, who has directed his entire effort at deceiving me."
(Oh my. Oh hon. Oh hon. Descartes, darling: check yourself before you wreck yourself.
Too late.
He goes on:)
"I will regard the heavens, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things as nothing but the bedeviling hoaxes of my dreams, with which he lays snares for my credulity."
Acute paranoia, anyone?

But, in all seriousness, I do sympathize with Descartes.
(There are very few of us René(e)s in the world, and we have to stick together, you know.)
The human mind is a powerful thing: once it sets its mind to something it has an astounding and miraculous aptitude to excel at that thing.
When a human's mind shifts into the gear of invention, the results are the cotton gin, the steam engine, glass skyscrapers, and space shuttles. When it wanders down the path of imagination you are left with the miracles of the Divine Comedy, MacbethThe Lord of the Rings, Pride & PrejudiceThe Lion King, and Casablanca.
When the mind sets itself to doubt, you find that, like Descartes it can doubt so well. Nothing is beyond the reach of doubt. Everything is called into question.
Descartes has found doubt to be a much more wild and unwieldy object than he imagined it to be.
He tries to pull himself out of the hole that he dug, and it fails.
So, following him down into that pit, how do we then get out?


One time I was talking to my father, who has never written meditations on a first philosophy or a new method for the scientific method.
His mind is not so much preoccupied with itself, but with the world around him. If there's one word I would describe my father with, it is certain. Whatever an equivocator looks like, he is the opposite of that.
But one day, he told me, as we sat on a piano bench together:
"Renée, the older you get, the more you understand how little you actually can ever know"
In this immensely improbable and seemingly infinite universe, we experience such a small slice of it.
Our small perspectives on the world lacks so much breadth and depth and wideness.
There is an endless amount of knowledge outside our grasp. And however much we grasp, it will always slip through our hands.


What leads us out of the cave of constant doubt is beauty.
I don't know if I exist, or if you exist, or if any ideas are clear, distinct and certain.
How can I know? Knowledge and doubt work on equal playing fields. You can know something, I can doubt it; we find ourselves at an impasse.
To survive, you simply have to make like Puddleglum and set your foot down somewhere.
You have to make a leap of faith.

I regard the heavens, the air, the earth, colors, shapes, sounds, and all external things not as "bedeviling hoaxes of my dreams," but as wonders.
Miracles that take my breath away with their awe and wonder.
I can doubt that a sunset exists, of course.
But I can't doubt it's beauty.
Even if the sunset is just a vision of a dream being fed to me by an evil genius, it's still an undeniably beautiful vision.
I may think that all human bodies I see each day are just figments of my imagination, and all my senses deceive me, but I will never pass a human on the street who does not strike me with their beauty, nor a Nutella cannoli (real or imaginary) that does not paralyze my taste buds in an ecstasy of culinary delight.
I will never look at love and scoff. I may doubt it's existence, I may question the purity of the motives, but love itself can only be beautiful.

Knowledge is so overrated and so fleeting; but a thing of beauty is a joy forever. It's loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness.
(that's my boy Keats, y'all. He didn't worry about whether or not the nightingale existed. He just wrote a poem about it.)

"Ideas create idols; only wonder leads to knowing."
--Gregory of Nyssa

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