Saturday, September 01, 2007

Eureka: Everything!

New, multifaceted and interconnected realizations dawn upon me at just before sunrise: why we are where we are with respect to truth. I feel like Archimedes.

The Euclidean mathematician, physicist, engineer and astronomer of the ancient world, was said to have run naked through the streets of Syracuse, Sicily, when he discovered, while taking a bath, how to measure the volume of irregular objects.

"Eureka!" he yelled. (I have found it!)

Yet I have not stumbled upon my insight alone. I owe some gratitude to the commenters in what Geneviève called a "pseudo dialogue" at the end of the last post. You will recall the questions about "everything."

Everything in this context is not 42, but rather precisely everything. What is everything? How does it hold together (if it does)? What limits does it have (if any)? How and when did it start (if it did) and how and when will it end (if it will)? Let's add two more, for fun: What is everything for (assuming a purpose)? Are any of the assumptions in these questions even valid?

The answer need not be God, the One -- or 42. The answer is probably huge and, once we discover it, astoundingly obvious and simple at the same time. Moreover, the answer has to be logically and intuitively satisfying.

What really struck me about this in my sleep -- literally! -- is that we are so close and yet so far. This is why we are, as a species, divided and suffering.

We are where we are today due to the way in which our globalized world is developing knowledge. (Note here, and enjoy, how perfectly this ties into Marx's notion of the superstructure of ideas, put simply, how the structure of production needed for our survival molds our philosophy, laws and, of course, our art and so forth.)

Since the dawning of the American Age in the 20th century, the pursuit of knowledge has been pragmatic. We Americans have long agreed to disagree when it comes to first and ultimate things, leaving our minds free, as Somerset Maugham memorably noted, "for important matters such as business and fornication."

In the British Age of the 19th century pragmatism was the handmaiden to reason. This turned out not to be the French goddess some thought, but the surest path to a grand compromise -- what all the muddling through is about -- harmonizing God, queen, country and, yes, progress.

Truth lay somewhere at the bottom of it, misplaced like theater tickets in a very messy roll-top desk. The British believed everything would work out in the end if the world accepted civilization (and its synonymous artifact, the British railroad).

In the Gallic age of the 18th century (or the world after the Treaty of Westphalia), critical Cartesian reason -- redundancy intended -- was, if not born, at least rediscovered. Yet the French were too busy playing naughty games in Versailles to think, thus their way of life ceased to exist.

The Spanish age of the 15th and 16th (that pesky Westphalia keeps things messy) was unquestionably an era of faith, the Catholicism of the sword and the bonfire that never doubted its rightness in attempting to defeat the humanist epistemology of Protestantism, the syncretist dogmatism of Islam and the misperceived tribalism of Judaism. The Torquemadans died of their own heroic madness.

And our era? Whose broad stripes and bright stars are those gallantly streaming? The Einsteinian molecules of uncertainty.

At the core of all the strife between Western and Middle Eastern fundamentalisms, against one another as well as against the global technology of grasping, lies the kernel of uncertainty and its ancillary, fear.

We have split the atom and found inside a new world that runs by rules unknown. We have reached the stars and stumbled upon apparently endless millions of worlds.

In the wonder and marvel of it all, we are undergoing the profound discomfort of realizing that we really know nothing for certain. Thank you, Socrates, we should have listened to you.

Paradoxically and recursively our profound ignorance makes us wise.
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