Saturday 19 March 2016
Saturday Evenings: Stay In, Sit Up and Switch On
One thing about life (mine and everybody else’s) I know for sure is that I do not know and I will continue not to know. What I mean is that my knowledge will always be finite and limited. There will always be more things I will not know about than things I will.
This is what Bryan Magee, historian of philosophy and subject of a recent article in The New Statesman by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, calls “permanent exclusion from the understanding of total reality”. For Magee, accepting this status is the first step towards wisdom. I agree. To me, wisdom is not the mere pursuit, acquisition and retention of knowledge but also the landing that permits access from one set of stairs to the next.
I have been thinking about knowledge and its close cousin, belief, recently. The former has always felt like a process, an incomplete, messy, chaotic process. The more you know, the more you realise you do not know. Knowledge can be equally frustrating. You have understood the content, you have analysed the form and still… there is a missing piece in the puzzle.
Enter belief, not only of a religious nature, but of any type. Belief points at confidence in a certain type of truth that is not immediately susceptible to rigorous proof.
Whereas knowledge, both the acquisition and application of it, is chiefly empirical, belief needn’t be. If someone in the Middle Ages had written about a flat surface on which people swiped their fingers and hands to turn virtual pages in order to access information, I doubt people at the time would have come up with words such as: e-reader, smartphone or tablet. Yet, centuries later it is for us to make that connection. If we do that, are we not, however, marrying a contemporary concept to a loose and up-for-interpretation ancient one? From this point of view, this “marriage” is speculative as we do not know what people in the Middle Ages would have called these devices if they had had the chance.
I see knowledge like a river: running, shrinking, expanding, going up or coming down, never ecstatic. Belief, on the other hand, carries with it a level of persuasion, especially on the part of the believer. Knowledge is risk because it never leaves us on terra firma. On the contrary, the acceptance of a proposition (let’s call it concept or theory) propels us further forward in search of the next challenge. Of course, certain arguments have been closed through the acquisitions of knowledge: the Earth is round and not flat, the moon rotates around the Earth and our planet circles the sun. But there still is a great deal of theories that challenges us.
This is where belief comes in. It offers succour amidst so much head-scratching. If climbing up the stairs of knowledge is satisfying, resting on the landings between floors is heavenly. Careful, though, a short break is advisable, but prolonging one’s respite might make us too “comfortable”, dull our senses and kill our thirst for knowledge. Which, lest we forget, is finite and limited.
As usual, I will take a month off during Easter and shall be back mid-to-late April. Wish you all the best.