Thursday, November 19, 2009

The limits of what we can know

“Life is understood backwards, but must be lived forwards.”
-Soren Kierkegaard

We like the Dane, but we have a sense that perhaps we don’t (and can’t) really understand much of life backwards either.

It reminds us of the idea of the melting ice cube. If you see an ice cube on a table, you can predict what it might look like in a couple of hours. It would be reduced to a puddle of water. But if you came upon a puddle of water first, you could never be sure what created the puddle in the first place.

We would argue we know far less about everything than we think we do. Think about history. Even today, there is no consensus on the causes of WWI… or why the USSR fell when it did… or what caused the 1987 Crash… or the financial crisis of 2007-08…

Yes, there are many theories… but that’s the point. No one really knows why these things happened the moment they did.

Why did the 1987 crash happen on October 19th? Why that day and not any other? Why did the USSR unravel when only a few years before there were palpable fears in the US that we were falling behind the military might of the Soviets? Why did the stock market top in October 2007 and bottom in March 2009? Why those dates?

Again, no one really knows… but we think we do, and we give names to these ideas and theories…

But how good are those names?

Richard Feynman once told a story about a bird. He said there was a bird that in English we call a brown-throated thrush. In German, it’s called a halzenfugel. In Chinese, it’s called a chung ling.

But Feynman said that if you knew all the names, you still knew nothing about the bird. You knew only something about the people; what they called the bird.

In the same way, people’s ideas and theories for why things are as they are often are just that - words. They are names, not knowledge. True knowledge is very elusive.

What this has to do with the absurd is simply this: there are many names people give to things that they say create meaning, or that give life meaning. There are many religions of all kinds across the globe… political theories that aim to give meaning and purpose to life…social causes, traditions… and much more.

But these are just names. They tell us more about the people who believe them than they tell us about life itself. For it seems to us, as we can’t even answer basic questions of final causes in recorded history, even recent history, then we have no hope of penetrating the much greater mystery of the meaning of life, the universe and everything.

This, we think, is a kind of evidence of the absurd. As Camus wrote: “I don’t know whether this world has a meaning that transcends it. But I know that I do not know the meaning and that it is impossible for me just now to know it.”

Importantly, this absurd existence, this meaningless state, is what the absurd man accepts. More than accepts, the absurd man embraces his place and discovers, as Camus wrote, life “will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” This, too, is part of the message of this blog…

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