Knowledge and the Unknowable

The sanitized, Sunday school version of the story of Job — a sappy morality tale of endurance in the face of adversity — is a pale shadow of the actual text.

The book of Job is an extended philosophical discussion on causality. Job rejects simplistic versions of causality and accepts that some things are unknowable. The philosophical position that Job puts forth is roughly: there’s a general order to the world but sometimes the wicked prosper and righteous suffer (or other seeming violations to the order of the world). Beyond the surface understanding of the order of the world there is a force beyond and ultimately unknowable to humans, seemingly random events are governed by that force.

In broad terms, many of the ancient world’s philosophical systems follow something like this:

  1. Day to day events are bound to linear cause and effect in a system mostly knowable to humans
  2. There’s a Kicker that can override this system
  3. The Kicker isn’t random or anarchic, rather it’s beyond limited human understanding

Systems differ primarily in their understanding of the Kicker and range from the personal God of Abraham, karma from the remote past to the impersonal Fate of the Stoics.

Rationality’s assault on the Kicker

A Newtonian universe doesn’t allow for a Kicker. I don’t think well-meaning Christians of that era understood that the watchmaker analogy was a complete assault on the historical philosophy of knowledge instead of a defense of theism.

The proclamation of Papal Infallibility was a subordination of the Catholic Church to rationality. New Age gurus trying to sell their wares in the language of quantum mechanics is the same principle. Even religious people have conceded that everything is knowable, there is no need for a Kicker. God is dead.

The culture wars of the 20th Century were always about the first point in my system, the logic of day-to-day living and identity politics. Two firmly convinced rationalists can have differing, even reactionary, political opinions, while a non-rationalist can support liberal political views.

Modern fundamentalist movements, both Islamic and Evangelical Christian, are deeply anti-Kicker. They have a quick and ready answer for everything. There’s never a hint of doubt. The roots of fundamentalism are in scientific materialism.1

Contrast this to Job, who humbly admitted that his current plight was beyond his understanding and chose to accept his Fate as it was.

Utility versus metaphysics

Rational approaches are tremendously useful. I’d rather fly in airplanes designed and tested according to rationalist principles. Watch out for the philosophical slight of the hand: a useful heuristic for solving engineering problems shouldn’t necessarily become a metaphysical principle stating that all knowledge can be obtained and managed via rationalism.

That very slight of the hand has slowly happening in Western thought over the past few hundred years. Now it’s routinely accepted that on some level anything can be known if only we’d throw enough science at it.

The distinction is important. Knowing the limits of reason, knowledge and science allows you to use reason as a tool. Likewise you can abandon it when it’s not applicable. Not every problem that a person or society faces can reasoned through.

This also avoids the absurdity of people talking the Science as if it were a religion. Because in the Science everything is certain, everything is True. There’s no room for doubt, growth, being wrong or, most heretical of all, accepting that the Science can’t answer some questions.

Living as a non-rationalist

Many of the tough questions of life have no answer from the Science, nor will they. Finding existential meaning, non-obvious ethical choices and living with uncertainty require a non-rationalist approach.

In practical terms, I know that I can’t be absolutely correct on anything because there is no absolute truth that we humans can experience. This isn’t relativism, it’s epistemological humility. Instead, I think in probabilities and practicalities

I’m more willing to accept that there are things I can’t know. This is especially true of current events. One only has to look at how the initial reporting of any major event is often flat out wrong. The perspective of sobriety and time gives accounts written years later a much stronger claim to truth. Many respectable people were convinced of the moral right of the United States to invade Iraq. These same people now never supported the war and are making new proclamations on the talking shows. I’m comfortable with people admitting they don’t know something.

Spiritual practices, which aren’t related to theism even if that’s the package they come in, can bring you to a phenomenological taste of the edges of rationality.

I doubt the Science will answer the hard problem of consciousness, general AI might not even be possible.

I mostly take my cues from the Buddhist tradition and set aside questions with no answer and value usefulness over some perceived truth.

My goal in all of this is to see a revival of non-Western and pre-modern systems of knowledge, risk assessment, dealing with uncertainty and embracing human limits. We need actual diversity of thought in the world.

Further reading

The Outer Limits of Reason by Noson Yanofsky is brilliant. I read it years ago and of not turning rationalism into a metaphysical system.

For a more philosophical take, go with New Dark Age by James Bridle. This makes a strong case that by turning everything into a computation problem, we’re losing knowledge.

I’ve grown increasingly interested in the work of Paul Feyerabend, here’s a decent intro. Likewise, Foucault shouldn’t be forgotten.

Once you see that older religious and philosophical texts aren’t just superstitious mumbo-jumbo but are trying to deal with knowledge, uncertainty and limitations, almost any pre-modern text becomes far more interesting.

  1. One of the best explications of this I’ve read was in the Religious History of Central Asia by James Thrower. I highly recommend all of work and sorely miss access to my university library.