Thursday, September 22, 2011

Inconceivable

Raven wrote:

“. . . 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.

14 comments:

Pascale (aka NT) said...

This is a wonderfully lucid exposition to which I feel moved to respond: Amen!

thalarctos said...

Hi, Dale--

Raven here, in my blogger identity as thalarctos.

A lovely, well-written, and seriously-considered post, as I observed over on Facebook.

"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."

Agreed--words have power, and they illuminate.

"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."

Actually, no, I'm not going to backtrack at all.

Meaning comes from how we put together things in our minds. In order to derive meaning from something, we have to be able to organize it, and understand it to some degree--to conceive of it.

Without being able to conceive of something, we cannot access it, because we can't make sense of it.

And what is the useful distinction between something that exists and that we have absolutely no access to, and something that doesn't exist at all?

I submit that there is no useful difference at all. If we cannot conceive of it, even through imagination, much less through repeated and reliable demonstration of it, then it's not on the same plane of existence as we are.

Rather than "grandiose", I see it as a clear-eyed recognition of our limits.

It can't matter to us in any meaningful way if we can't access it at all, and we can't access it in any way at all if we can't even conceive of it.

And getting caught up in distinctions between "exists but inconceivable" and "doesn't exist"--when there's absolutely no way to tell the difference, since we can't access either category--is the kind of philosophical discussion neither you nor I cares to get caught up in. For me, they're both in the "not exists in any meaningful way for my time on earth" category.

thalarctos said...

"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."

This writing is exquisite, and rings so true--it's like you were in my 6-year-old head.

Dale said...

Thanks Pascale!

& thanks so much, Raven. I won't be able to reply properly till tonight or tomorrow, probably!

thalarctos said...

Your writing is always worth waiting for, Dale. Whenever you get the chance, then I will look forward to reading it.

When I see your name on a comment or post, I always know I'm in for a treat of language.

Zhoen said...

Amen, brother. There will be silence, but we must push back the unknowable. To me, religion is about the regimentation of the spirit, the enforcement of belief, which is why I prefer the word agnostic. Whatever is at or beyond the edges likely is past human understanding - to put a name on it and call it daddy seems to diminish it, in my philosophy.

marlyat2 said...

Zhoen,

With all due respect, I should like to lodge an opinion here. No doubt we shall have to agree to disagree, and that is fine, but I find your definition of religions to be rather strange. The regimentation of the spirit?

Maybe for some people.

For others, there are powerful unleashings and encounters that come through things like liturgical discipline (which I suppose might be called regimentation of words) and repeated (and I suppose repetition of a form may strike you as regimentation) beautiful acts of union like, say, the eucharist.

These things (and others, of course) are an attempt to reach into the mystery of what "passeth human understanding." This means that, oddly enough, it is often exactly what you dislike that attempts to get at and reach toward what is beyond human understanding.

It's like chasing any worthy goal--one moves forward through discipline and contemplation and striving.

But each to his own free choosing...

Dale said...

Raven, I think I'll concede most of your points, if "conceive" means "have any access to at all," then what is inconceivable is pretty useless to us: although I still think that there's an important difference in -- what shall I call it? mental *posture* when one makes a practice of bearing in mind that there are probably aspects of reality that are imperceptible to us. For one thing, it makes us less dismissive of people who perceive things that we don't. -- Or, for that matter, who don't perceive things that we do.

But there's a large class of perceptions, thoughts, and adumbrations that one does not have even so much of a handle on as one has on the globe of the Earth (which is, even in the cleverest and most imaginative of us, largely a picture of a great big soccer ball with footnotes attached). If you admit that "like a soccer ball only really, really big" is a useful thing to throw your mind at, "like a person only really, really compassionate" may be a useful thing as well -- for stretch it gives to the mind, regardless of whether its object (Jesus, say, or Chenrezig) is "really there." The great big soccer ball is not "really there" either, as we conceive it. And if we turned out to be mistaken about the shape of the Earth -- or even of its existence -- I would say the stretch of the mind would still have been a valuable thing. Since the main way we throw our mind at persons is by way of conversation, trying to listen and speak to something that is like a person, only bigger, is one of the reasonable ways to make the effort.

I find that the number and intensity of perceptions of "persons who aren't there" varies wildly, partly depending on whether people go looking for them or avoid them; and the ontological status people assign to them varies wildly as well. I think they're productions, or possibly refractions, of our own minds: but minds are so porous that that doesn't really tell us very much about them.

Dale said...

Zhoen and Marly -- I think that for most people who have been emotionally or intellectually abused by way of religion, that door is simply shut, and will always be so. I see people who have had similar experiences with science, for that matter -- people who have been belittled and discounted, and told that their perceptions and judgment are worthless, compared to those of scientists. Not surprisingly, once clear of science they never come back; and people who have been bludgeoned by a religious upbringing of a certain sort will never come back either.

Which seems a great shame to me: but fortunately, there are a great many doors and a great many ways to be in the world!

Dale said...

I had to quote this, Kay Ryan, stolen from Via Negativa. This is what religious practice is for me, as well as poetry. Exactly, precisely this. --

“So what I do, what I try to do with this thing that I can just barely perceive, is to jack up the intensity like crazy. Make a cartoon out of it? You know. Make a diorama, have puppets do it. You know — overdo it. I’ve gotta magnify it because it’s — and I have to sound more sure than I am. Because — because I don’t know. I only a teeny tiny bit know! Maybe. I’m trying to know. So I build up — I build something that I hope has a lot of, uh — well, as my step-daughter would say, flavor-punch. I like flavor-punch. I love Southwestern food! But I like to give a lot of color. And reality. Of course it’s all specious, but, uh, you know — ”

Dave said...

"We need to stand regularly in the presence of what is beyond our control and our imagination."

Well, you know I'm gonna sign on to that!

In regards to the moth analogy in your post, science has uncovered the real reason moths fly into flames: because they are lost. The only bright light in the night for which evolution has prepared them is the moon, and they orient off it. They are not trying -- as foolish humans might do -- to actually reach it (or to mistake their fingers for it). For similar reasons, sea turtle hatchlings may become disoriented by bright lights near the beach, and end up crawling away from the ocean and into the path of cars. In both cases, these are creatures trying to access a form of knowing that is in their blood, in their DNA. And it turns out that human bogusness is incompatible with this, shall we say, more absolute form of knowledge.

Jarrett said...

Dale.

Yes, the daily visit to the frontier of the inconceivable is what matters for a healthy life and mind.

But of course, so much disagreement is about the meanings of words. I hear you pitching for a specific definition of "religion," which is quite different from the one we see in the media. I hear you and Raven disagreeing only about the definition of "conceivable." And while you have the same definition of "definition," you're using opposite connotations. Raven's "definition" connotes "limit," while yours seems to connote "frontier."

Sigh. Life was so much easier when we thought words referred to things. But your writing, rational and poetic at the same time, is glorious.

Dale said...

Jarrett, yes, I'm deliberately setting out to rewrite the definition of "religious," which seems to have dwindled to "fundamentalist wingnut" and to have no relation whatever to my religious life, nor to the religious life of any of my friends.

I wrote this rapidly and I'm not at all sure it makes sense, but the sense-making part of it was not really my point anyway. I have never heard of anyone being argued into taking up a religious life and I wouldn't want to do it if I did think it was possible. But I do want people to have a less flagrantly false idea of what I and people like me are *doing*, when we practice our religions.

Natalie said...

Yes yes yes yes.