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Re-cognition, epistemology and metaphysics


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #13)


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Incomprehension as inspiration: Incomprehension and ignorance have long been a source of preoccupation, even an inspiration, for philosophy in its various manifestations. This is also the case with the arts. In reviewing The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus, (Ben Marcus and the Disease of Incomprehension, 9 March 2012) reframes incomprehension as follows:

Many people unschooled in literary theory use the word "postmodern" as a synonym for "incomprehensible.". That's not unfair, since postmodernism regards comprehension as an accident of form. But in publishing a book, presumably author and publisher think an audience exists. Presumably. If comprehension is optional, maybe the book is its own justification.

For Abraham Burickson (The Ecstasy of Incomprehension of Numerous Readings of George Oppen, New Orleans Review, 1 December 2009):

My friend Adam says the most honest conversations he's had were in a language he didn't speak. He says they were the only conversations he can recall where every word felt essential, inflamed with meaning.

Bewilderment: Incomprehension can be experienced as a challenge to curiosity, research, exploration and invention. It can also be valued in its own right as in the following comments on "bewilderment":

  • Clever people seem not to feel the natural pleasure of bewilderment, and are always answering questions when the chief relish of a life is to go on asking them. (Frank Moore Colby)
  • It is characteristic of all deep human problems that they are not to be approached without some humor and some bewilderment. (Freeman Dyson)
  • Love is the strange bewilderment that overtakes one person on account of another person. (James Thurber)
  • Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid. (Fyodor Dostoevsky)
  • Time has been transformed, and we have changed; it has advanced and set us in motion; it has unveiled its face, inspiring us with bewilderment and exhilaration. (Khalil Gibran)

Spiritual implications: For the religious, ignorance may be deplored, as in the Islamic understanding of Jahiliyyah ("ignorance of divine guidance"), or in Christian understanding of ignorance of the Scriptures as constituting ignorance of Jesus Christ. It may however be more ambiguously appreciated as a particular manifestation of a more fundamental illusion, as in Hindu and Buddhist understandings of Maya.

Any assumptions that inability to articulate certain forms of "comprehension" is to be recognized as "incomprehension" is challenged by arguments made for apophasisnegative theology, and "unsaying", as separately discussed (Being What You Want: problematic kataphatic identity vs. potential of apophatic identity, 2008).

Wisdom: When distinguished from "knowledge", notions of "ignorance/incomprehension" may then be seen as intimately related to "wisdom", as implied by various quatrains in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám (cited above). There is a sense in which a form of "incomprehension/ignorance" can be fruitfully cultivated, as a capacity for surprise, as argued by Ashok Gollerkeri (The Wisdom of Incomprehension):

Can we be uncomprehending, looking at the world like a young child, curious, with a freshness, free of accumulated notions? Can we look at everything anew every moment, free from conditioning by notions, by received instruction and the past? Can we allow the impressions in our mind to evaporate so that we see every situation and person afresh, without the barrier of the past? Can we be completely free of the screen of conditioning? Can we be childlike again? Can we be enriched by the wisdom of incomprehension?

Actually, we know too much. What we know are our own accumulated notions, memories, fears and experiences. This makes us unable to see reality, as it is, from moment to moment, an ever changing, dynamic flux, creation forever in the making. We have labels of good and bad, we have labels of right and wrong, we have labels of great and small. We have labels for everything. We see through the lens of our own experience, of our own likes and dislikes, our pride and prejudice, our egoism and vanity, our fears and hopes. Through this distorting medium, we see and observe. This distortion is called our world and ourselves.. It is fragmented, polarized and in conflict. Is the conflict in the world merely an unfortunate state of affairs or is it directly the reflection of the conflict within ourselves, within our own minds?

This is consistent to some degree with an argument previously made (Requisite Childlike Cognition for Integration of "Heaven"? 2012).

Mirroring of outer and inner space: The possibility of clarifying comprehension/incomprehension through use of an astrophysical metaphor, as explored above (Incomprehension systematically reframed), can be fruitfully related to the challenging use of that metaphor by Joseph Campbell (The Inner Reaches of Outer Space: metaphor as myth and as religion, 1986). The metaphor was also used by the Renaissance philosopher Marsilio Ficino as described by Thomas Moore (The Planets Within: the astrological psychology of Marsilio Ficino, 1990), as separately discussed (Composing the Present Moment: celebrating the insights of Marsilio Ficino interpreted by Thomas Moore, 2001).

The implications of such paradoxical mirroring of "outer" and "inner", highlighted by Douglas Hosfstadter (I Am a Strange Loop, 2007), is discussed separately (Sustaining a Community of Strange Loops: comprehension and engagement through aesthetic ring transformation, 2010; Stepping into, or through, the Mirror: embodying alternative scenario patterns, 2008).

Yet to be fully explored is the manner in which the  projection of identity into the furthest reaches of "cyberspace" is effectively borrowing from, and reframing, both the "outer" and "inner" cognitive implications of that astrophysical metaphor -- as a context for (in)comprehension.  Relevant references to "dimensions" of this have been variously explored (Nicholas G. Carr, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, 2010; William Powers, Hamlet's Blackberry: a practical philosophy for building a good life in the Digital Age, 2010; Erik Davis, Technognosis: myth, magic and mysticism in the age of information, 1998; Robert D. Romanyshyn, Technology as Symptom and Dream, 1989; R. Kanai, et al. Online social network size is reflected in human brain structure, Proceedings of the Royal Society, October 2011). Especially noteworthy is the work of Sherry Turkle (Life on the Screen: identity in the Age of the Internet, 1997; Evocative Objects: things we think with, 2007; Falling for Science: objects in mind, 2008).

Cognitive migration into cyberspace: In many respects a significant proportion of the global population has already "abandoned" the planet Earth -- or is aspiring to do so -- for the creatively imagined worlds of cyberspace and the ever-increasingly enhanced capacity to travel between them. In ways yet to be understood they are individually and collectively weaving new multidimensional realities. These are establishing a form of "global" or "universal" connectivity where there was none before, a curious cognitive echo of the "string" metaphor of string theory (Transforming Static Websites into Mobile "Wizdomes": enabling change through intertwining dynamic and configurative metaphors, 2007; Interweaving Thematic Threads and Learning Pathways, 2010).

Science vs. Religion? A helpful clarification, regarding the classic case of the Galileo Affair, is offered by George Sim Johnston (The Galileo Affair, Catholic Educator's Resource Center):

While Galileo's eventual condemnation was certainly unjust a close look at the facts puts to rout almost every aspect of the reigning Galileo legend. Until Galileo forced the issue into the realm of theology, the Church had been a willing ombudsman for the new astronomy. It had, for example, encouraged the work of both Copernicus and sheltered Kepler against the persecutions of Calvinists. Despite the fact that there was no clear proof for heliocentrism at the time, Galileo was intent on ramming Copernicus down the throat of Christendom. Eventually Cardinal Robert Bellarmine challenged Galileo to prove his theory or stop pestering the Church. In spite of the warning, Galileo persisted in promoting the theory as fact. Nevertheless, his crusade would not have ended in the offices of the Inquisition had he possessed a modicum of discretion, not to say charity. Galileo used exaggerated caricature, insult, and ridicule to make those still holding to the Ptolemaic system look ridiculous. His run-in with the Church involved a "tragic mutual incomprehension" in which both sides were at fault. It was a conflict that ought never to have occurred, because faith and science, properly understood, can never be at odds. In fact, as Stanley Jaki and others have argued, it was the metaphysical framework of medieval Catholicism which made modern science possible in the first place. [emphasis added]


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