“. . . there are things that we can conceive of that are not possible, but there is nothing that is the other way around.” (On the marvelous POEM site, which, alas, requires registration.)
It was not even a main point. You often find people's most deep-seated beliefs this way: not by looking at what they argue about – which are usually the things they are unsure of – but in their throwaway “of course, we all know” remarks.
This is the fundamental divide between me and the community that likes to think of itself as skeptical. I think that statement is false. Not the first part of it, which is clearly true. Of course we can conceive of things that are not possible. Raven's example of Dumbo, an elephant that flies by flapping its ears, is an excellent. Quite conceivable: utterly impossible. No, it's the second part that strikes me as preposterous. “There is nothing that is the other way around,” she says: that is, there is nothing which is possible which we cannot conceive.
Now I suppose, if I were to put her on the spot, she would rapidly backtrack to a more philosophically defensible position: that there is nothing possible which would be inconceivable by a large enough intelligence, or something like that. And discussion would patter away into increasingly abstract and unprofitable realms of theological speculation. I'm not interested in that.
What I'm interested in is what this reveals about the self-identified skeptical mind, which is a staggering confidence in the ability to conceive, or imagine: that there is nothing which we – we, you and I! – Cannot comprehend. It is a faith compared to which belief in ghosts or astrology or a supreme being looks modest and rational. I can only call it grandiose, and in flat defiance of all evidence. I find it charming, deeply attractive, and quite loony.
I know, I know. I've had these conversations, and I'm familiar with the second line of defense, too. If it's not conceivable, we simply have to leave it alone. Wittgenstein said something along those lines: what cannot be put into language must be left in silence. And there's a pat obviousness to this argument which is appealing. But two things. One, I do not believe it, not for a second. Its not what Raven and her community really think. They really think that everything possible is conceivable. For another thing, it is not actually the habit of the scientific mind at all. Banging away at the limits of the conceivable is practically the scientific national sport. If you want to find me an incipient scientist, find me a child of ten who, with all the force of her imagination, tries to conceive of the Earth, to really conceive of it, to feel it in her bones, as a ball flying through space. She fails, of course, but she tries again, and there's a prickle of euphoria and panic as she gets near it. And then she tries more, conceiving of it as both tiny – as we know it to be, an insignificant planet of an insignificant star – and as vast, as we know it to be, huger than anything our mammalian imaginations were ever designed to hold. Nothing, I would say, is more attractive to the mind that takes up science than this moth-like flutter at the burning light bulb of the inconceivable. Most scientists, would think of this a necessary stage of development. Some of them would even think it was the heart of science.
I do think it's the heart of science: I also think it's the heart of religion, and it's why I identify myself, (although I am by most definitions an atheist) as primarily a religious person. I think that fluttering against that light bulb is important; I believe that anyone who stops doing it begins to harden in mind, and to die in spirit. It's why I think that wilderness is sacred, and that its destruction would be a spiritual disaster even if it weren't an ecological one. We need to stand regularly in the presence of what is beyond our control and our imagination. It's why we religious people, even those of us who don't particularly believe in God, think that prayer or contemplation is a necessary part of a good life. Not because it works. Not because we're sure anyone is listening. But because it's taking on the adventure of speaking to something inconceivable, of being willing to take the enormous part of our mind dedicated to social, interpersonal processing and open it to something bigger, in precisely the same way our ten-year-old budding scientist takes the portion of her mind dedicated to conceiving of soccer balls and opens it to the hugeness of the earth.