I FORMED AN INCURABLE addiction at a tender age, which speaks to my residence here at the asylum. The illness lacks a formal name, but it is a compulsion to explore matters beyond our grasp. Whatever the virtue of being consumed with fundamental issues, it is not a healthy pursuit in a force-fed culture. Socrates suffered from the same affliction, and the Athenians disposed of him for fear of the disease spreading. Little has changed over the years, as a thinking populace remains an anathema to the ruling class. Judging from history and the contemporary landscape, the elites can rest easy.
Epistemology has been my principal obsession, as the methodology with which we define, acquire, and validate knowledge is at the center of our being. Exploring whether we know anything with certitude is unforgiving territory, a perilous minefield not to be traversed lightly. In the existential realm, existence precedes essence—granting an open license to chart one’s course. When speaking of universal truths, however, we blindly feel our way. Navigating in darkness is the sine qua non of our species, but an epistemological compass requires more than necessity for calibration.
“Little has changed over the years, as a thinking populace remains an anathema to the ruling class. Judging from history and the contemporary landscape, the elites can rest easy…”
No thoughtful person would describe the human animal as healthy. To manage our deficits, we develop compensatory mechanisms to maintain equilibrium and meet exigencies of the moment. This adaptive behavior would be impaired were we drowning in doubt, and thus we fabricate plausible insights—artificial constructs, if you will—to get us through the night. Nothingness evokes dread, an ontological paralysis that demands purpose as its cure. In medicating ourselves with answers that do not exist, our epistemological filter ceases to distinguish between need and knowledge.
The advent of quantum mechanics unlocked an unknown universe, a macrocosm of fundamental randomness strikingly demonstrated in Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. The world as we knew it no longer existed, with old assumptions supplanted by unsettling questions. When heading an environmental ethics institute, before my madness became manifest, I was asked how we formulate moral precepts in a sea of ignorance. I responded, attempting to mask my characteristic confusion, “With great humility.” Our disordered cosmos gives pause to all but the arrogant.
Lamentably, the President does not pause before voicing his Kafkaesque gospel; corporados do not pause before donning their predatory suits; media elites do not pause before pandering to pirates; the Supreme Court does not pause before defiling justice; the populace does not pause before ingesting trickle-down crumbs; and progressives do not pause before taking themselves more seriously than their principles. There is little room for critical analysis or nuance in a frantic, linear culture that manufactures truth on the assembly line.
The great thinkers brilliantly grappled with epistemological theory, but one cannot know the unknowable. Perhaps the most intense clash was between the Empiricists and Rationalists, with the former relying on sensory experience and the latter advancing reason. Kant countered that knowledge is derived from both sources, with Hegel’s dialectic challenging the transcendental arguments of Kant. This epistemological battle has raged since the ancient Greeks, and will never subside. Abstractions, however, compelling though they may be, are not to be confused with truth.
Notwithstanding the uncertainty that binds us all, I am driven by an equalitarian ethos that has been my faithful companion through the dead ends and detours. It has nourished me in the best of times, and sustained me in the worst. I would give my life to touch justice, but I lack the moral certitude and hubris to presume my truth is the truth. For some, impatient with such distinctions, that is sufficient in itself to rescind my credentials as a radical. I respond only with the words of Schopenhauer: “To read the thoughts of others is like taking the remains of someone else’s meal, like putting on the discarded clothes of a stranger.” Our ignorance of the universe extends to each other.
I am not suggesting, in the absence of absolutes, we should succumb to paralysis. On the contrary, life is for loving, learning, creating, and playing. We do not need Aristotelian logic to interpret our perceptions or certain knowledge to comprehend the language of being. Beauty awakens the senses; passion feeds the heart; and beneficence defines the spirit. Our sensations speak to us with an unmistakable rhythm, and we need not look to the cosmos for broader meaning. The moments still belong to us.
Ed Duvin is Cyrano’s Journal’s Online Editor at Large and chief consigliere.