Knowing Everything: The Mystery Paradox
We moderns don’t like to admit there is anything we don’t know. We experience a kind of dreadful insecurity in admitting ignorance. And the suggestion that somebody else might know more than we do is a terrible affront to our pride. More tribal men and women of former ages might have found relief by relying on the collective knowledge and understanding of tradition. But when each person sees himself as the proud architect of his own individual destiny, we desperately cling to the notion that we must know everything ourselves. And to preserve our status, we must appear to know everything whether we really do or not.
Now in a certain light, this insistence on knowing is a necessary human quality. In and of itself it confirms the remarkable truth that we are possessed of something called intellect, that for us, therefore, knowledge is in itself a good, and that, at least some of the time, we can also use knowledge in the service of other goods, to solve human problems. But the odd thing about our insistence on both knowing and appearing to know is that it can also produce the opposite of what we intend. Particularly in what we call the information age, the insistence on knowing everything has arguably led to a systemic ignorance of all that matters most. As we will see shortly, when it comes to really knowing, disposition is nine points of the law.
I’ll provide examples of what I mean in a moment, but first let me frame the point as a broad principle: Insofar as we demand to know in a sort of self-centered way, our pride and self-love encourage us to settle for information, the perennial lazy man’s shortcut to intellectual self-satisfaction, so that we can appear to know everything. Information creates the illusion of knowledge. Moreover, when we cannot reasonably claim to know what we do not know, this same self-love encourages us to deny the significance or even the existence of anything that is beyond our ken. And so we convince ourselves of one of three positions: What we don’t know isn’t worth knowing. Or what we don’t know cannot be known. Or what we don’t know is unknown because it simply does not exist.
Now this is really quite striking, because what we have here are the working philosophies of the three types of persons who most frequently claim to be among the wise. I mean, in reverse order, the atheist, the agnostic and the ass.
I am, of course, using these dreaded “A” words as indications of their respective types. But we all know this first type by what we might call its archetype—the recognizably foolish person who thinks he knows everything, and stands ready to favor his unadmiring circle with ill-considered opinions on any topic whatsoever. This is harmless enough as far as it goes, but it seems to me that the people of the contemporary West, in their mad rush both to cast off traditional wisdom and make themselves islands of superior knowledge, are in grave danger of becoming a pack of braying jackasses.
Whole industries in the modern world cater to the contemporary thirst for knowledge. We hasten to absorb the information of the various media outlets in order to make sure we remain “in the know”. In consequence, we are constantly gaining a little knowledge about a great many things, much of which will later be proved wrong without ever altering our attitudes and perceptions in any discernible way.
Thus armed with the very satisfying illusion of knowing something, we hastily offer our opinions on everything from stampeding elephants in India to immigrants in the United States and Europe to the end of all things on the fiscal cliff—in short, on nearly every matter under the sun. Nor are we content to pronounce only on what has already happened (the account of which will itself be revised again and again over time), but we must decisively project future events based on our unsurpassed “knowledge” of every conceivable trend.
Speaking honestly, all of us revel in this pseudo-knowledge from time to time, and all of us are to some extent deceived by it. But how many of us recognize the provisional nature of human knowledge in the first place? Typically we apply the proverbial grain of salt only when a source habitually conflicts with our own beliefs or prejudices. With respect to popular notions, we enjoy a delightful and rather boorish certainty. The modern person passionately desires both to know and to appear to know; he has developed far-flung mechanisms for communicating what passes for knowledge; he receives that knowledge primarily as a sort of daily entertainment, often even a titillation, certainly as a kind of buttress to his own ego; and he is convinced that he is far wiser than all of his ancestors.
But the modern person seldom significantly considers the question of truth. Again, he actually places his confidence in the acquisition of information. Unfortunately, to qualify as information, a little of this and a little of that must pass a very low bar indeed. Yet the modern confidence in information always trumps the more cohesive sense of truth and value which, whatever its deficiencies, used to be the gift and the security of community and tradition.
This prompts an important question: Is today’s information aficionado merely another version of the boorish know-it-all? In claiming to know more and more, do many of us really know less and less?
You might think that the foregoing reflections are designed to build a case for agnosticism, but in stressing the sketchy character of information and the provisional character of knowledge, I am really only attempting to foster a greater respect for truth. The agnostic may often appear to be less annoying than the opinionated boor, but only because he so frequently refrains from provoking a definite argument. For the designation of agnostic is not typically applied to those who are distrustful of sources and information, but to those who think, almost as a matter of principle, that the greatest truths simply cannot be known.
Is it not strange that what is essentially an anti-wisdom can be perceived as wise? The agnostic prescinds from finding the truth in precisely that realm in which the truth is most important. No sane person would argue (for example) that knowing the likely results of global warming is more important than knowing the results of death. The agnostic, if he is an honest agnostic, has simply been unable to sort out for himself the information he has encountered about the soul, human destiny, the purpose and meaning of life and death, the existence of God, and God’s self-revelation. But if this is an honest failure, then we would expect him to be seeking desperately to finish his sorting, to arrive at some understanding of what is true.
Instead, I very much fear that the typical agnostic simply prefers information to truth. His own self-love, situated in the moral atmosphere of the modern world, is very likely to lead him to the most immediately comfortable position. This is the position that the great conclusion to be drawn about ultimate things is that ultimate things cannot be brought to a conclusion. It is a position which permits one to go with the cultural flow without purporting to take any side in an obviously uncomfortable debate. Let us concede that suspicion is inescapable.
The agnostic, after all, is rarely agnostic about the swirl of information in which we live. The agnostic is not likely to express doubt about the reason for high fuel prices, the inevitable consequences of electing a Republican, or the future of the biosphere. He will typically share his culture’s passion for information in the same measure as he shares his culture’s disinterest in truth. Perhaps, then, he chooses to preserve his sense of knowing by the simple expedient of explaining that what he does not know, or does not wish to know, or hopes never to have to deal with, must really remain unknown—and that all those who claim to know, one way or the other, are both less honest and less magnanimous than he.
Truth (may we all recall) is the mind’s conformity to reality. Because of our passions and our pride, our imperfections and our weakness, truth is a hard-won thing. Our minds are always cloudy and our wills frequently perverse. With respect to the most important things, the agnostic dismisses the struggle by declaring it beyond human capacity. But because he appears in consequence to be a disinterested party, one who freely admits his uncertainty, his reputation for wisdom increases in direct proportion to his folly.
It may be objected that I have not adequately sympathized with the sincere seeker who fails to find. But I have said already that I am using these “A” words as references to a series of predominant types. I will cheerfully admit that there are as many true and venerable agnostics as there are true and venerable asses. But speaking for myself, I believe firmly in the Redemption, by which both the common human ass and the rarefied human agnostic, provided they impose no ultimate obstacle, can be brought to transcend mere information in the vision of God.
It is only fair to admit that all of us participate in the imposition of such obstacles. Nonetheless, they are imposed in a particular and public way by the atheist. Perhaps this is why Scripture links the atheist with the fool, who “says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Ps 14:1). This denial of God is at least typically rooted in a combination of pride and moral rebellion which causes us to mistake our own foolishness for enlightenment. Let us consider why this is so.
The incidence of atheism has been dramatically increased by the tendency of affluent Westerners to lapse into a convenient philosophical materialism, mostly because it cannot threaten their morally bankrupt practical materialism. And this in turn has been abetted by the unfortunate philosophical reductionism of many successful scientists. Yet what could be sillier than to conclude that, because the modern practice of the physical sciences has proved very good at increasing our understanding of and control over matter, therefore material realities must be the only realities. This reductionism points again to the congenital modern Western preference for information over truth.
Now the atheist takes this to a new level. He professes to be undistracted from fundamental reality. He professes even to refuse to take the easy path of the agnostic about the things he does not know. And then he proceeds to deny the first principle that is necessary to make any sense out of anything at all, including making scientific sense out of material reality. For without the existence of God, there is no way in which material reality, which all of our experience reveals to be contingent, can come to exist; and there is also no possible reason for material reality to behave in the consistent and predictable manner which alone makes both scientific study and scientific progress possible.
This, in fact, is why science arose in the West when the West alone had a supremely ordered conception of the universe. It is only the later desire to escape this Divine influence which has led to all the materialist and quasi-scientific chatter about chance or randomness, as if randomness provides some sort of proof for the absence of God. The point is currently an important one, and worth explaining.
Randomness in the ordinary or philosophical sense is simply a lack of causal correlation among different behaviors. But for scientific study to proceed, scientists must at least discover a different and specialized sort of “randomness,” a “randomness” with a statistical probability. This is what permits the scientist to project and then test for consistent results. Thus the scientist never makes, and never can make, anything out of what we might call true randomness. In fact, the precise scientific notion of randomness both derives from and contributes to verifiable causality.
Moreover, to insist that even pure randomness, as we experience it when we speak of chance or luck or coincidence, is a disproof of Divine Providence misses an even larger and more important point. It is analogous to insisting that what appear to be random events in the immanent or “horizontal” action of a novel are necessarily uncaused by the transcendent or “vertical” action of the novelist. I don’t mean to make anyone feel small, but Thomas Aquinas had this all figured out in the thirteenth century. (For a more thorough treatment of both parts of this subject, see two articles by the physicist Stephen M. Barr in First Things: “The Design of Evolution” in October 2005, and “Chance, by Design” in December 2012.)
Unfortunately, the atheist, in his very modern desire to appear knowledgeable, begins by taking the supremely arrogant position that if he does not know something, or if he refuses to study something, it must not exist at all. In consequence, he ends by denying the existence of everything, including the freedom of his own will. He falls into a sort of constant regression, looking in vain for a causality in material things which, without God, simply cannot exist.
It is one thing to use information as a kind of hat or helmet, as does the Ass. There can be no question that information is often attractive and sometimes even useful. The information age thrives on our vanity in exactly this way, for it distracts us mightily.
It is another thing to use information as a shield, as does the Agnostic. One cannot deny the social and psychological convenience of warding off ultimate questions when they are disruptive or require too much energy.
And it is yet another thing to use information as a sword, as does the Atheist. It is exhilarating to slay another’s confidence when one has no grounds for confidence of one’s own. Pathetically, the atheist most often simply slays the deformed apparitions of philosophy and theology that he encounters in his own dreams.
But wisdom, as you may rightly imagine, abhors this unholy trinity of distraction, dormancy and denial. As it turns out, the right disposition is critical. Wisdom is drawn from the intense exploration of mysteries without attempting to make them less than mysterious, or from an intellectual penetration of the wondrous which does not end by making it less wonderful. And though it may be a paradox, it really is the mysterious and the wondrous that we most yearn to know. Life and death. Love and suffering. God and man. The sacrament of creation. The beauty of the good.
In the exploration of mystery and wonder, information is not the end but the beginning—not the fun or ultimately even the utilitarian thing, but the tiny calling card of a far deeper, richer and more rewarding reality. Information is the little thing, like a flash or a glimpse, which leads us on to the big thing, by drawing us both out and in: With open eyes and open minds, out of ourselves; with open hearts and open arms, into the embrace of God.
An appeal from our founder, Dr. Jeffrey Mirus:
Dear reader: If you found the information on this page helpful in your pursuit of a better Catholic life, please support our work with a donation. Your donation will help us reach seven million Truth-seeking readers worldwide this year. Thank you!
Progress toward our August expenses ($34,145 to go):
All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!
Posted by: the.dymeks9646 -
Dec. 10, 2012 1:24 PM ET USA
Indeed, confusion and deception do seem to be the prime weapons of evil while our own pride is it's womb.
Posted by: the.dymeks9646 -
Dec. 10, 2012 9:18 AM ET USA
Ah, the agnostic... or shall we say the moderate, or the undecided, whose patron saint, Lucretius provides a false peace that will not lead to the joy of enchantment, but rather the grayness of disenchantment. It's the evolutionary next step of the ass, who being burned, and doesn't turn to God for help, will lose their saltiness.
Posted by: koinonia -
Dec. 09, 2012 9:22 PM ET USA
In his intro to "Hostage to the Devil" Malachi Martin states: "In each case, one basic note of possession is confusion. Sex is confused with gender. Spirit is confused with psyche. Moral value is confused with absense of any value. Mystery is confused with untruth. And in every case, rational argument is used, not to clarify, but as a trap, to foster confusion...Confusion, it would seem, is a prime weapon of evil." May we beg the "embrace of God" as we resist today's pervasive confusion.