CHAPTER 20: The Stance of Unknowing


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Thus, mere philosophy… was rejected in favor of unconditional faith…

We moderns do not consider religious dogma “logically certain,” as the medieval church fathers did. In their eyes, revealed truth of scripture stood on a footing above logical truth. Faith in God reflected an understandable lack of faith in the fallible human mind. Yet, faith and logic both contrasted with mere probability based on empirical evidence. On the other hand, viewed from outside, any belief system is no more secure than its basic tenets taken on faith.


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Christianity eventually went a step further by making speculation dangerously heretical.

Cf. Charles Freeman The Closing of the Western Mind: the rise of faith and the fall of reason Vintage 2005, p308-9: “A desperation to establish doctrinal certainty, a desperation made more intense by the fear of eternal punishment in an area where certainty was, in rational terms, so hard to achieve, helps explain why the level of bitterness in Christian debate was so high, much higher than it was in the more open world of pagan philosophy.”


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…Auguste Comte advanced the concept of positive knowledge…

In contrast to belief, positive knowledge is “the clear perception of existing facts.” [The Free Dictionary ( Positive can mean variously: confident, unconditional, incontestable, real (as opposed to fictitious), favorable, optimistic, “characterized by affirmation, addition, inclusion, or presence rather than negation, withholding, or absence,” or “formally laid down or imposed” (as in ‘positive law’—“law established or recognized by governmental authority” in contrast to ‘natural law’, which is necessarily empirical). []


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It does more than assert what exists, It tells us how to relate to it.

Similarly, while media may seem to communicate facts, they often tell us how to interpret them and convey how we should feel about them. These biases often reflect the political views of the media’s owners. In the case of scientific research, they may reflect the interests of its corporate funders. Even when that is not the case, science prescribes a general attitude toward the natural world and defines the prospects of knowledge.

In the case of political or media “facts,” a façade of objectivity may signal that the author does not take full responsibility for claims made or for his or her own ideological position. Far from promoting detachment on the part of the reader, it is calculated to inspire an emotional response—based on allegedly indisputable facts. In the case of scientific objectivity, the ethos of disinterest permits assumptions built into the research to go unrecognized. Whether applied to the political landscape or to the natural landscape, there is always need for skepticism.


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Indeed, as acknowledged by Hume…the greater the drive to find order and coherence in those events.

Scott Atran & Joseph Henrich describe an experiment “in which people were asked what patterns they could see in arrangements of dots or stock market figures… Before asking, the experimenters made half the participants feel a lack of control. Those who experienced a lack of control were more likely to see patterns and processes underlying the randomness, suggesting that under uncertainty we are more likely to find preternatural explanations for the randomness.” [“The Evolution of Religion: How Cognitive By-Products, Adaptive Learning Heuristics, Ritual Displays, and Group Competition Generate Deep Commitments to Prosocial Religions” Biological Theory 5(1) 2010, p19]


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The main obstacle, of course, is that they are not currently prized.

While “feminine” values play a diminutive role in the theology of a masculine god, or in the positive knowledge sought by science, they have found a place in pop psychology, new age spirituality, and self-help literature. For, these arose partly in response to ill effects of the overbearing values of patriarchal society. Freud had acknowledged the source of neurosis to be the conflict between the individual’s psychic needs and the demands of society. (Patriarch himself, he failed to acknowledge those demands as arising specifically from patriarchy. Jung broadened the scope through his studies of the Great Mother.) In any case, pop psychology now typically exhorts one to “let go,” to “feel one’s feelings,” to attend to the body and not just the mind, to be inclusive and receptive, to listen. In other words: to practice certain alternative values for the sake of personal development and healing.


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If that truly happens, the answer cannot be predicted.

As a personal example, I am skeptical about some people’s claims to communicate with plants. Shall I dismiss their claims as nonsense, or do I have more to gain by listening to their experience and trying to enter into it in some way acceptable to my mind? What to do regarding plant lore not scientifically explained? Shall I ignore medicinal properties of plants simply because (as some people claim) the plants themselves told them about these properties? Whatever we are to make of such communication, it seems to differ fundamentally from the “interrogation” of nature in experiment.

Similarly, I do not believe in astrology. I do not believe that the configuration of the solar system at the time of one’s birth influences one’s life in the ways claimed by astrologers. Yet I do find the astrological classification of personality types and traits to make some sense, as do other systems such as numerology. I do not know how to reconcile these facts. But do I need to?

Science has an empirical and a theoretical aspect. People may gather observations of nature over long periods of time and make practical use of these observations without the benefit of a unifying theory. At the same time, of course, they may seek a rational scheme of some sort to systematize that knowledge—a theory to explain what is observed. Yet, these are two distinct activities. The fact that one does not (yet) have a theory that works does not discount the data.


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…to stand as an idol of the mind between us and the unknown…

Francis Bacon wrote of the four “idols of the mind,” to which human thought slavishly bows down. “Idols of the tribe” are general fallacies, perhaps built into the species by what we now call genetic conditioning. “Idols of the cave” are individual aberrations of thought, arising from makeup, experience and education. “Idols of the marketplace” are effects of language upon thought and perception. “Idols of the theater” are ways in which people may be misled through sophistry and disinformation—propaganda.