Section Five: What We Know

What We Know

The Moon Isn’t Made of Green Cheese

For the humanist, there is one and only one world.  Let’s be very careful here.  There was a time, not so long ago, when the world meant the earth and the planets – not all the ones we identify today – and the nearby twinkling points of light, the stars, that we could see with the naked eye or a simple telescope.  Of course, since our sun didn’t twinkle at night, we didn’t understand that it too was a star or, to reverse ourselves, that stars were suns.  Here on earth, early maps showed rough outlines of what we today call Europe, The Near East, and North Africa.  Beyond these, the maps warned, “Here there be dragons.”  The world grew and changed with exploration – familiar to us, no doubt, from our early school days.  We learned about Marco Polo and perhaps the “silk road,” about faraway places like China and India.  If we went to Sunday school and read the Hebrew Scriptures, we heard about places in the Middle East and about countries that once existed but were no more.  With exploration, the great voyagers like Magellan and Columbus, searching for a passage to the East, accidentally discovered a “new world,” the Americas.  New technologies like the telescope, the compass and the clock allowed us to travel unmapped and unnamed oceans and to probe more deeply into the heavens above.  Other technologies like microscopes allowed us to find life and movement in the very small.  Soon enough, the new sciences that emerged pictured a busy, complicated and lawful world.  With Copernicus, Galileo and Newton, we learned of a world that, once created, could sustain itself without interference from elsewhere if there even was an elsewhere.  By the way, we’ll look at what happened to this view of creation later on when we spend some time on religion and science.  In short, the world we know today is a different place from the world our ancestors knew and not so far back in time at that.  It’s a good bet, too, that the world our children and our children’s children will know will be a different place from the one in which most of us grew up.

What we know is always limited.  There’s always more to know.  Nature then doesn’t mean a fixed and finished place and naturalism can’t stop with the latest discovery, any latest discovery, as the final discovery.  For the humanist, nature is an evolving and changing place and naturalism an evolving and changing idea.  Of course, humanists like others are puzzled by beginnings – Aristotle asked himself, what was there before the beginning?  Hundreds of year later, in the 4th Century, St. Augustine a Christian, concluded that the question called for something that was always there although they gave it different names, Aristotle’s “unmoved mover” or Augustine’s personal God.

In the 13th Century, Thomas Aquinas – still the key figure in Roman Catholic theology — going Augustine one better, simply took over Aristotle’s reasoning and added, “And this everyone calls God.”  Others – like Hindus and Buddhists, using a different logic, concluded that there was something mistaken about the idea of “beginning” itself and that what is always was and always will be.  So they concluded that what we think is ­– what we see, touch, hear, taste, and smell – is an illusion, not really real at all.  Real knowledge for the Hindu and Buddhist is Nirvana, freedom from the illusions of being.  And that, by the way, isn’t anything at all like the Christian or Islamic heaven and hell.

Still others – many modern humanists for example – conclude, unhappily, that there are some questions that simply don’t have answers.  Nature doesn’t necessarily follow a pattern of beginnings and endings although a lot of natural objects do.  Logic doesn’t dictate reality.  So it really doesn’t make sense to ask when nature began or when it will end.  It is we human beings who are born, live, and die, just as things around us come into being and vanish.  Understandably, then, we project our experience onto the world as a whole.  But maybe, as the English philosopher and humanist A.J. Ayer put it, when we ask about beginnings and endings in general we aren’t really asking genuine “questions” at all even thought we think we are.  He went further and called metaphysics “nonsense” or maybe he meant “non – sense.”  Genuine questions about how things fit together have answers that can be verified by reasoning like the questions we ask when we do mathematical problems or create scientific theories.  To put this simply, we’re agreeing with Ayer without realizing it when we say things like “the devil is in the details.”

Reflection:  These last few sentences can be frustrating and might even make us dizzy.  But stop a moment, re-read them, and think about what they’re saying.  If someone asks us what we mean by “reality” or “being” how do we answer?  Is Ayer right?  Can we think of general answers to general questions?  Or do we answer with specifics and examples, not general ideas at all but only general “names?”  Metaphysics can be hard work but we can do it.

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