Saturday, April 5, 2014

Journal of a Soul 49

The Validity of Experience 4


Our winning Debating Science Issues team: The Desire to Know More!!
There is much in our experience that cannot simply be reduced to information garnered from our senses.  The preceding posts have all attempted to come at what human experience is from as many directions as possible.  Reducing our experiences to merely those perceptions that are registered on our human brains by empirical data accessed through the senses is very delimiting of what human experience is or may be in its totality. (And it is  the "totality" of experience at which I am aiming to describe in these posts).

In mystical theology there was a way of approaching the divine through what was termed "the via negativa" ("the negative way") which contended that the divine was so far beyond our human knowing that the only way of approach for us human beings to make any sense of that great mystery was to advance towards it by saying what it was not - hence its appellation as being a "negative way."  Another term for this type of mystical theology was Apophatic theology. *  The WIKI sums up this approach thus:
In negative theology, it is accepted that experience of the Divine is ineffable, an experience of the holy that can only be recognized or remembered abstractly. That is, human beings cannot describe in words the essence of the perfect good that is unique to the individual, nor can they define the Divine, in its immense complexity, related to the entire field of reality. As a result, all descriptions if attempted will be ultimately false and conceptualization should be avoided. In effect, divine experience eludes definition by definition. (see HERE)
I shall discuss mystical theology later in these posts, but the point I want to emphasize here is that even on a human level we can learn from this humble approach.  Indeed, even if we are somewhat agnostic, or even atheistic, we can still learn something from the "via negativa" or "via negationis."  In other words, I am arguing here that if we are to proceed in the task of finding out what we humans really are in and through our experiences, it is surely better for us to proceed by being open-minded.  That is, it is better for us to allow  human experience to be all that it can be by keeping as many doors open to the mystery of truth, rather than by shutting certain doors of our perception because they cannot be contained within a narrow understanding of epistemology that reduces knowledge to those facts seen only through the doors of the five senses. 

And so, at this stage in this Journal of a Soul, I want to attempt a sort of summary position, or a sort of personal statement of what I believe, or what the great Victorian theologian John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) called an "Apologia Pro Vita Sua."

(1) I am a creature of Desire

Autumn Scene, Fairview Park, 2013
As what I am attempting to do here is very personal, I must use the first personal pronoun a lot, though in academic writing one tries to avoid such a use in order to be as objective as possible.  However, it is also acceptable, especially in the social sciences to use qualitative as well as quantitative research.  These types of research methods involve describing in detail specific situations using research tools like interviews, surveys, and observations.  Self-research would fall under this heading, and it is a legitimate form of research if done methodically and with as much objectivity one can marshal. 

And so my experience of "myself" or of my "self" is that I am a sentient creature with desires and as I experience them these desires are (a) my animal desires, (b) my desire to know and (c) my desire to love and (d) my desire to be loved.  Let me briefly look at each of these subheadings: 

(a) My Animal Desires

This undoubtedly is, perhaps, the easiest to describe.  One needs to be no biologist to list our animal desires.  The obvious one is the desire for food and drink that is obvious from our very first moments of existence.  As a little child we have all cried to be fed and to have our thirst slaked.  After that the sexual nature of our bodies eventually kicks in, especially at adolescence where basically we experience our desire to mate with another of our species and so procreate or reproduce our species.

(b) My Desire to Know

Frank with the Debating Team before their victory!
This is, perhaps, the one desire, that distinguishes us most from our fellow sentient creatures.  I find as I age that this is the one of the  greatest desires that inspires me from day to day.  I am constantly desiring to know more and more. In The Metaphysics, Aristotle states: “All men by nature desire understanding.” ** This statement has also been translated as "All men by nature desire to know." Now, that statement appeals to me, but one could obviously argue that all men do not so desire and point to this or that person whose life showed that they did not desire to know because their actions showed otherwise or that they were cognitively deficient in some way.  However, Aristotle's phrase "by nature" is a qualification that retrieves his generalization somewhat as it refers to the potentiality of each individual person, irrespective of whether they achieve knowledge or not. 

Therefore, even if Aristotle's formulation is a broad generalization, we have here an insightful statement about the nature of human beings. Everyone of us desires to know or to understand something on a daily basis, no matter how small or insignificant.  "Where is room 202A?" for instance or "Could you tell me where the Post Office is, please?" and so on and so forth would be good examples of our daily desire to know small things.  We might also wonder what it would be like to travel to Athens or Corfu or Cagliari or New York and decide to go there to find out.  At a deeper level we might wonder what a "Black Hole" or "Dark Matter" is or whether the universe is really expanding. In other words we can surely say that in all the senses listed above and in many more instances, all humankind is involved in the world of ideas and reflection: Everyone is searching for some rational explanation of something, no matter how trivial on the one hand, or how important on the other. Everyone, then, contemplates the issues that are foremost in their minds.  In a deeper existential sense, each person, in his/her own right, asks the ultimate questions concerning his/her own existence. As I sit here, I experience the desire to know who I am?  Who is this creature that types these words, forms these sentences upon this virtual page out there in cyberspace. You may be wondering what it means to be you in your particular circumstances, what it means when you have to suffer X or Y or Z, or perhaps you are asking a question like, "Why did God allow my wife/husband/partner to die so painfully?" And so on.  These questions are truly unlimited, perhaps even infinite.

As I walked from the Dart Station at Sydney Parade with a group of some twenty sixteen and seventeen year old pupils over to UCD some days ago we talked about, among other trivia, different theories of the formation of the universe.  At some stage I asked a group around me how many times bigger would they think the universe was in size proportionally to the size of one little thinking human being like ourselves.  The answer of one very intelligent boy took me by surprise and got me thinking.  He replied that it would be a figure something like the reciprocal of Planck's constant that might fit the bill.  In other words, the number one over what is perhaps the smallest number known in atomic physics.  Lovely answer.  Wish I could have come up with it.  My question was not looking for a mathematical answer at all, though I appreciated the wonderful response.  It was merely asked to provoke wonderment at mystery, quite like the Biblical question of God asking Abraham how many grains of sand were on the seashore.  In other words, even as we walk here or there many questions cross our little minds by way of desiring to know.  Then, there is that wonderful philosophical question that hits me almost existentially as well as cognitively from time to time, "Why is there something rather than nothing?" ***

(c) My Desire to Love

This is also a complex desire.  There is much written on the topic of love from poems to songs to novels to learned prose essays, not to mention all the philosophical and psychological works this subject has inspired.  Our desire to procreate or our animal desires can to a little extent participate in what love is.  A materialist would perhaps have to say that his desire to love is just that, his desire to physically copulate with another.  Yet, we humans are more than a little outraged by such a reduction in what we consider ourselves to be.  Culturally, we have conceived ourselves to be so much more than our animalness or animality.  We are outraged, and rightly so, when the actions of some humans against others of our species reduce us to the actions of unthinking animals, e.g., rape, incest and legions of other horrific actions.  Indeed, oftentimes the crimes committed by humans are worse even than animalistic as even animals never drop so low.  The nature of such evil is beyond our purposes here, but it can be horrifying and troubling to a great and deep extent.

I desire to love my mother, father, brothers, sisters, cousins etc.  Indeed, we culturally desire to love even our enemies.  Those of us who might be sincere and peaceful Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, agnostics and indeed atheists and so on desire to love even our enemies as we sincerely believe in loving all of humankind.  On a human level, I desire to love my friends and even my work colleagues insofar as is humanly possible. However, we certainly cannot like everyone we meet, but we can certainly desire to love them in the sense of treating them justly.  Further, on a daily level I try to show my love for my pupils by the way I teach, how I treat them as individuals deserving of respect as other unique human beings and especially by  how I teach them to love and care for themselves as show real compassion for themselves as well as for others. In this context I should like to refer to an entry in my other blog on Book Reviews.  See Passion for Justice

(d) My desire To Be loved

With some friends, enjoying myself:  Quest for identity there, too!
I suppose, to use a fitting metaphor, to love and be loved are two sides of the one coin.  I remember my English lecturer at college, the great late John Devitt of Mater Dei Institute arguing that as a senior examiner in Leaving Certificate English he had insisted on one of his subordinate examiners increasing the essay marks of one candidate who had written with great insight on the dual nature of loving, i.e., to love and be loved.  Without a doubt, I am nothing if I am not loved.  My personhood and selfhood is reduced to a mere suffering entity which feels lost, rejected and scorned.  If Lady Macbeth could speak of being "unsexed" by her crimes, we could surely speak of being "unselfed" by not being loved.  To be loved is to be invited in from the cold, to be accepted as part of the group.  In short, to be loved means to belong somewhere.  When we don't belong, we are in fact outsiders, out in the cold, left one side, marginalized, forgotten, overlooked, discriminated against and so on.  You, dear reader, can add your own description of being unloved to my attempts here.

My desires, in my opinion, which I have outlined and explicated to the best of my ability above, push me to an identity which is, as it were, a being or a self who is so much more.  I have attempted to come to grips with what this more may be.  I see myself or my "self" as being a project, which while firmly rooted in the now, is like some strange plant that has been mysteriously sown in this body but which is striving daily to grow more and more.  Our personhood or our selfhood is a project that is always on-going.  We are reaching out to embrace that more all the time both individually and culturally.  Perhaps it is somehow in this quest for selfhood that the Divine enters in.  While I experience myself as very much finite in this all-too-human and animal body, I also simultaneously experience my desires to be of an infinite quality, that is desire belongs to the infinite, to the divine spark in me. Perhaps, I would not be so desiring, unless there is a more... unless there is a more somewhere ever ahead of me.  Or am I merely delusional?  I think not, I know not. I desire not.  All, I can proclaim, like Socrates is my ignorance seeking knowledge.  But why such seeking?  I'll leave the answer, or perhaps more accurately, the quest to you, dear read. Buon viaggio!

*Apophatic Theology: In the apophatic strand of Christian mysticism God is understood as “the One” who is way beyond words and images, the one who transcends every category in a radical simplicity beyond all human thought and idea.  God’s uniqueness and grandeur so ovewhelm our senses and minds that God is described as solitary, radically simple; even as hidden, invisible, or “dark”.  Thus, Henry Vaughan’s famous poem The Night: There is in God (some say)//A deep, but dazzling darkness; As men here//Say it is late and dusky, because they//See not all clear//O for that night! where I in him//Might live invisible and dim.//

Hence, all apophatic theology can do, in one sense, is declare what God is not in terms of human words.  However, it can declare God's utter transcendence in terms that are actually ironically quite clear like that of dark mystery, of hiddenness and otherness, uniqueness and grandeur.  One might wonder here at the marvelling of our astrophysicists at the Black Holes and the Dark Matter of the Universe.  Maybe, just maybe, there could be some parallels here with The Dark Night of the Soul of St John of the Cross.  After all, there are some great parallels between mysticism and astrophysics, not to mention quantum physics. See the Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra.

** Aristotle's most famous book is perhaps his Metaphysics.  The parts of it still in existence span fourteen books. The early books give background information and survey the field before Aristotle's time. Therein, he describes the nature of wisdom as well as criticizing the theories of Plato which he deemed as too ideal and far too poetic: it begins with sense perceptions, which must be translated into scientific expertise. Such knowledge requires the understanding of both facts and causes, and wisdom comes only with an understanding of the universal principles and primary causes built on this science. Aristotle's work in metaphysics is therefore motivated by this desire for wisdom, which requires the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. What is known to us as metaphysics is what Aristotle called "first philosophy." Metaphysics involves a study of the universal principles of being, the abstract qualities of existence itself. The starting point of Aristotle's metaphysics is his rejection of Plato's Theory of Forms. In Plato's theory, material objects are changeable and not real in themselves; rather, they correspond to an ideal, eternal, and immutable Form by a common name, and this Form can be perceived only by the intellect. Thus a thing perceived to be beautiful in this world is in fact an imperfect manifestation of the Form of Beauty. Aristotle's arguments against this theory were numerous. Ultimately he rejected Plato's ideas as poetic but empty language; as a scientist and empiricist he preferred to focus on the reality of the material world.

***This question appears in Martin Heidegger's An Introduction to Metaphysics, Yale University Press, New Haven and London (1959), pp. 7-8  See here for the philosopher Arthur Witherall's short essay on this topic. 

No comments:

Post a Comment