The Defiant Optimism of Understanding

‘Human life is beyond comprehension.’
There are literally hundreds of these seemingly benign, brain-teasing quotes I could have picked. Hundreds of pithy-sounding wisdoms taking stabs at poorly unpacked concepts that are given transcendent reverence because they claim to reveal ethereal nature. Quotes on how the sublime, consciousness, justice, mystery of life are actually beyond our comprehension.

These topics aren’t directly related but they are all reflections of how we perceive the world. I would like to introduce the idea to you that many of the ideas carried expressed in these quotes, phrases or unspoken assumptions carry a spirit-assassinating pessimism specifically in the form of implied limitations of what we can grasp mentally. The quote I picked is a more explicit example of this of this idea of cognitive limitation.

‘If the brain were so simple we could understand it, we would be so simple we couldn’t.’

The symmetrical wordplay of this statement, credited to a self-professed ‘supernaturalist’, feigns for being a self-evident fact; perhaps the reason why it has established its meme-like viral presence on the bottom of email signatures and as openings into articles about the brain. Proclamations about the inaccessibility of certain concepts delivered with mock humility are intellectually offensive.

The suggestion that we cannot understand a biological machine capable of comprehension, implies that we should end all our efforts and send everyone on their way. Besides being offensive to my, and perhaps your, sense of optimistic defiance that all around us can eventually be conquered by the human spirit, even the rather dull mystery that enshrouds ourselves, it is a self-contained logical seppuku. Although I’m not discounting the potential underlying genius of removing yourself from a discussion purported to be beyond you. Perhaps I didn’t give him enough credit.

Consider, for a moment, an analogous statement about the eyeball and how it could see everything except itself. After all, you consider in the first second after reading that, you cannot turn an eye on itself.

Well, not until you consider a mirror. Or anything reflective.

Reflection. How metaphorically appropriate. A form of intellectual outrage over this isn’t without reason. Reflexive outrage serves as a mild inoculant against insidious forms of defeatism. Other forms of this sentiment turn it into a patronizing piety:

“Sin of arrogance is that we think we know everything. Sin of ignorance is that we don’t know we don’t know anything.”

Statements like these have a wisdom-sounding way about it coupled with pious humility. Who could have an objection to that?

I do. Poison pill statements such as these offend me to my core. This is surreptitious resignation slipped into our wisdom to sedate our sense of defiance. Smiling pessimism handed to us in the form of zingy sayings posing as wisdom.

If statements such as these were intended with a high level of irony, I’ll take it all back. But only after I’ve exhaustively clarified the layers of this idea into the ground so it’s absolutely clear how awful these statements are. Once you understand that, then go ahead and chuckle at how something so terrible could be said.

Irony is disingenuous if your listener is unaware of the layers. If people laugh at a concept but thoughtfully nod at it without discarding it, then it’s just nervous ignorance accepting horrible ideas at face value.

The above statement about sin has theological roots but similar defiance-killing ideas can be found in new age spiritualism as well. Attempts by new ageists at defining god as some obscuring acronym (G.O.D.) meaning only ‘general organizing design’ insidiously sneak the idea of infinity hidden in it. Infinite creativity, infinite intelligence, that doesn’t belong to us. Call it “potential” with a capital “p”. It doesn’t matter. The same self-defeating implication of infinity is the same.

We can never hope to match infinity and might as well quit. We would be chasing the horizon forever, the infinity carrot never in reach. I don’t even mean you or I personally. I mean the whole species. The entire human project. Supposedly, from this intellectually-defeatist point of view, apparent evidence is all around us in the form of nature and our minds for why we should cognitively and collectively capitulate. Sentiments about why we ought to just gawk at the infinity carrot in awe are captured in ethereal concepts in old language (‘souls’, ‘sentience’), mysteries of the human condition (‘charity’, ‘compassion’) or tiny interlocking philosophic logics (‘absolutism’) and presented to us as another example of our comprehensive finiteness dwarfed by the infinite and permanently unknowable. We are supposed to carry cognitive dissonance about the futility of our reach. Implied is a pessimism. We cannot comprehend the physical or metaphysical infinite.

This attitude silences the core of what we are. Sentiments about the hopeless limitations of our understanding, in my opinion, stands as the worst kind of human self-defeatism.

When we talk about the physical universe, the invented metaphysical conjuring of our imagination, or the molecular machinery that give rise to our minds, we ought to carry a knowing confidence in our collective ability to eventually understand it. It’s an inevitability. This ought to be our spirit. None of these things are unfathomable phenomena.

Our indomitable comprehension works subconsciously within us and pervasively manifests in the external civilization we shape. This is an ultimate defiant resilience taking on the form of an adaptability and optimism so fundamental it’s nearly invisible. The obvious fragility of old concepts and explanations that attempted to explain the world and ourselves in the past have little do with our actual spirit other than a simplistic developmental phase we went through long ago.

The premise is that anything that can understand can never be understood, has no logical basis. The shoddiness of the assertions of statements such as these may seem self-evident to you. Others may rely on an intuition that causes you to groan, rub your eyes and shake it off. To others, the circular wordplay may cause a slight sense of bewonderment as you contemplate the unstoppable force that is comprehension (or consciousness), conquering all before it with the only singular exception being, in the vein of a great literary tragedy, itself. Wow, indeed.

At the core of all these definition overreaches is the concept that understanding must be absolutely complete and all encompassing. It is not. A bad analogy that conveys some incremental value over the previous, even worse analogy is understanding. Figuring out which narratives and metaphors contain more explanatory and clarifying value is worth significant effort. I argue that many old ideas still lurk in our language that are no longer needed.

Understanding is a couple things. It’s the progression from being unaware of something to growing levels of familiarity. Its generalizations, clever patterns, ones that you’ve figured out from your own experiences, or that were given to you to be confirmed for yourself. It’s the categorization and representation of stuff and behavior, which allows us to refer to things impossibly large and complicated as the universe.

Older, less useful explanations and generalizations are tossed aside for more elegant and more useful ideas. This is an ongoing process.

Civilization thrives on an optimistic assumption about future ingenuity and future discovery. Labeling things incomprehensible is a profoundly arrogant assessment of the potential intelligence of the collective future best efforts of our species. A sore lack of creativity. Pointing to the horizon labeling phenomena unfathomable.

Yeah. Maybe not yet. And by others that aren’t them.

There is a great deal of reason to be optimistic about the possibilities of our understanding. Rightly assume that we can turn a metaphorical mirror on ourselves, and with the leveraging power of scientific knowledge and reflective insight we can understand our brains. Let’s ignore the pessimism from the smiling new-age mystics, over-reaching academic philosophers, the authority-loving theologians. These forms of pessimism come at us in many forms — remove these to make room the project of human progress. We should endeavor to be conscious of specific limitations in order to maneuver around them and continue forward.

The problem with these statements and rhetorical questions about certain concepts being untouchable by clear understanding is that it extends to other areas in the form of pessimism of our future. The metaphysics of what they try to insert onto how the mind works (consciousness as a universal entity, willpower as a non-deterministic force, sentience as an absolute categorical difference, etc), and more specifically, that there exists unreachable phenomena that can’t, in fact, be made into a clear almost boring comprehension, implies all sorts of very real things in world unrelated to spirituality. Besides retarding any quest for building intelligent systems, understanding others becomes a deeply limited quest.

They try to make themselves unassailable by asserting what they have to say has no implications on technology or civilizing progress and only serves as an aid for human happiness. That simply isn’t true.