"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Exchanging The Substance For The Shadow–What Is The Purpose Of Knowledge?

In Women in Love Hermione reflects on the nature of being; and how considering a thing renders it only a shadow of its substance.  There is little point to knowledge, he goes on.  In fact the more we attempt to know, the less we can know:
'But do you think it is knowledge that makes us unliving and selfconscious?' Birkin asked irritably.
Hermione opened her eyes and looked at him slowly.
'Yes,' she said. She paused, watching him all the while, her eyes vague. Then she wiped her fingers across her brow, with a vague weariness. It irritated him bitterly. 'It is the mind,' she said, 'and that is death.' She raised her eyes slowly to him: 'Isn't the mind—' she said, with the convulsed movement of her body, 'isn't it our death? Doesn't it destroy all our spontaneity, all our instincts? Are not the young people growing up today, really dead before they have a chance to live?'
'Not because they have too much mind, but too little,' he said brutally.
'When we have knowledge, don't we lose everything but knowledge?'  asked pathetically. 'If I know about the flower, don't I lose the flower and have only the knowledge? Aren't we exchanging the substance for the shadow, aren't we forfeiting life for this dead quality of knowledge? And what does it mean to me, after all? What does all this knowing mean to me? It means nothing.' 


Hindu ascetics have long sought to limit cognition – to see without thinking, to be part of the world without dissecting, categorizing, and analyzing it.  If the world is only an illusion, Hindu mystics say, then all the more reason from withdraw from it and cease the vanity of trying to understand it.
This of course goes contrary to classical Western thinking.  Knowledge is the be all and end all of human existence.  Why was man given intelligence, logic, reason, and the capacity for insight and profound understanding if the entire exercise is futile?

Descartes put reason, logic, and understanding at the very heart of human nature.  ‘I think therefore I am’ is a conclusive statement about the central importance of cognition in defining man.  Not to think is to deny one’s own nature.



The old Yiddish expression, ‘Too soon old, too late schmart’ reflects another philosophical issue. Not only does thinking define us as human beings as Descartes suggested, but knowledge has utility – to figure out what’s what before we die.  Such inquiry is an expression of faith, moral principle, and perhaps the only human purpose there is.

What’s the point of anything in a meaningless world, ask nihilists, let alone knowledge?  What could be more fatuous and idle than thinking there are answers, and that these can in some way enrich one’s experience while alive and prepare one for death before it is too late?

The irony is exactly this: man is created with the ability to think and reason; and yet other than temporal and self-serving interest, there is no valuable outcome to the enterprise.

Konstantin Levin in Anna Karenina phrases the irony in a slightly different way.  God created Man to live on this earth for a short few decades, then consigns him to the cold, hard ground of the steppes for eternity.



Tolstoy spent most of his adult life searching for answers to unanswerable questions, and ultimately chose faith.  If billions of people have believed in God, he reasoned, then there must be something to it.  In the end knowledge is of no use whatsoever.

If that is indeed the case, then why bother with knowledge at all?

In Book V of Paradise Lost Eve tells of her dream and how she questions the forbidden fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  Why should God have withheld knowledge from those he created? We are part of him and share in his divinity, and therefore must establish our rightful place in the world of Creation.
To find thee I directed then my walk;
And on, methought, alone I passed through ways
That brought me on a sudden to the tree
Of interdicted knowledge: fair it seemed,
Much fairer to my fancy than by day:
And, as I wondering looked, beside it stood
One shaped and winged like one of those from Heaven
By us oft seen; his dewy locks distilled
Ambrosia; on that tree he also gazed;
And 'O fair plant,' said he, 'with fruit surcharged,
'Deigns none to ease thy load, and taste thy sweet,
'Nor God, nor Man?  Is knowledge so despised…?
But he thus, overjoyed; 'O fruit divine,
'Sweet of thyself, but much more sweet thus cropt,
'Forbidden here, it seems, as only fit
'For Gods, yet able to make Gods of Men:
'And why not Gods of Men; since good, the more
'Communicated, more abundant grows,
'The author not impaired, but honoured more?


Knowledge, according to the Book of Genesis is ‘knowing good and evil’; and Eve is tempted by the thought. She knows good, for everything in Eden is good; but what must one make of evil.  What is it, and why should God withhold knowledge of it from her and Adam?  Evil must be part of God’s power which he refuses to share.  By eating of the fruit, she and Adam are cast out of the Garden, and soon after their expulsion witness evil first hand – the slaying of Abel by Cain.



Philosophers like Nietzsche have rejected the notion of a moral universe.  His Supermen are ‘beyond good and evil’, ride above the herd in an amoral world where actions are expressions of will with no meaning except as validations of existence.

Hermione again challenges Birkin with his conceit:
'But your passion is a lie,' he went on violently. 'It isn't passion at all, it is your WILL. It's your bullying will. You want to clutch things and have them in your power. You want to have things in your power. And why? Because you haven't got any real body, any dark sensual body of life. You have no sensuality. You have only your will and your conceit of consciousness, and your lust for power, to KNOW…’
'There's the whole difference in the world,' he said, 'between the actual sensual being, and the vicious mental-deliberate profligacy our lot goes in for. In our night-time, there's always the electricity switched on, we watch ourselves, we get it all in the head, really. You've got to lapse out before you can know what sensual reality is, lapse into unknowingness, and give up your volition. You've got to do it. You've got to learn not-to-be, before you can come into being.
'But we have got such a conceit of ourselves—that's where it is. We are so conceited, and so unproud. We've got no pride, we're all conceit, so conceited in our own papier-mache realised selves. We'd rather die than give up our little self-righteous self-opinionated self-will.'
Commenting on an African sculpture, Birkin says:
Pure culture in sensation, culture in the physical consciousness, really ultimate PHYSICAL consciousness, mindless, utterly sensual. It is so sensual as to be final, supreme.


There is a third irony in this pursuit of knowledge.  Not only were we created with rational abilities to no useful end; and not only were we given powers of insight and intuition which let no light in whatsoever; but we cannot help but think.  We are trapped by thinking, analyzing, calculating, estimating, categorizing, and concluding.  It is impossible to smell the flowers without thinking about the nature of the flower, and the scent, and the breeze which brought it to us.  We are doomed – regardless what Birkin would like to think or what Hindu ascetics may have achieved – to think until we are tired of thinking. 

Most of us – like Tolstoy – simply wear out thinking.  After a while it is time to give up on the answers and think about nothing in particular.

There are those who believe that knowledge is the key to creating a better world.  Without it we cannot resolve war, alleviate poverty, engineer social harmony, construct a more just and equal world. 

Yet history is against the very idea of human progress.  It is hard to conclude anything but that wars, disease, civil unrest, inequality, and penury will continue ad infinitum.  Human nature is innate, hardwired, and ineluctable in its aggressiveness, self-interested territorialism.  Equality may ebb and flow, but never find stasis.  Cynics say that the more knowledge we have, the more we use it for evil ends.

Birkin, despite his ‘Salvador Mundi’ side, is deeply cynical:
What people want is hate—hate and nothing but hate. And in the name of righteousness and love, they get it. They distil themselves with nitroglycerine, all the lot of them, out of very love. It's the lie that kills. If we want hate, let us have it—death, murder, torture, violent destruction—let us have it: but not in the name of love. But I abhor humanity, I wish it was swept away. It could go, and there would be no ABSOLUTE loss, if every human being perished tomorrow. The reality would be untouched. Nay, it would be better. The real tree of life would then be rid of the most ghastly, heavy crop of Dead Sea Fruit, the intolerable burden of myriad simulacra of people, an infinite weight of mortal lies.
Where does this leave us? We are stuck with our rationality and our vain but apparently inbred insistence to know.  We get nowhere in our quest for knowledge and nowhere nearer to meaning than before we began.  History has shown that knowledge is not a good in and of itself; and that in fact much knowledge has let to mayhem.  Even the best intended application of knowledge has often led to unintended, horrible consequences.


Epictetus was right.  A dispassionate stoicism and an appreciation of life as it comes may be the best if not only way to resolve the ironies and conundrums of intelligence and being.

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