On the verge of knowledge?

13 12 2013


This week I’ve been talking to teenagers about philosophy. Yesterday a boy asked:  what do I get out of it?  Little did he know, but his question was not something I could easily answer. What was he hoping to get out of it? Did he want philosophy to point him in the direction of living a more fulfilling and engaged life, or did he want to know what a qualification in philosophy was worth?

It turned out that he wanted to know whether philosophy was taken seriously as a discipline. Was it equal to studying history or maths or science?  Was it recognised as a proper subject? This is a question that crops up fairly often in philosophy, especially among older students. They want to know that a subject is legitimate before they raise their energy to meet it. They want to know that it will be worth the investment because they are already very busy people. Only this afternoon during a creative thinking session, a sixth former asked with genuine puzzlement and exasperation: “I wonder whether you could tell me why I feel so tired all the time?”

After a quick lifestyle check in which he said he got enough sleep, regularly exercised and drank enough water, he admitted that he is the kind of person who gives life one hundred percent. Whatever he does, he has to give it his all, and that after a while gets exhausting. When I suggested taking half an hour a day to do absolutely nothing except let his mind take a rest from incoming information, he looked doubtful and then thoughtful. He said he might give it a try. I joked that the ultimate challenge now is to do absolutely nothing except give the mind some clear thinking space. In this age of non-stop doing, simple thinking has become the last thing many young people do when they feel overwhelmed and stressed. 

The group wanted to know: if humans are so clever and so successful why haven’t we got to the stage yet when we take time out to think creatively every day? Why have we invented a world of information and forgotten that we need time to get our heads around some of the new stuff that keeps coming at us daily. Why, they wondered, have we created a world in which young people in particular feel under pressure?

‘It’s because we’re greedy and competitive,’ one boy suggested. ‘Is it because we don’t know when to stop?’ another queried. ‘It’s because we have to feel that we’re making progress, and this is the way we’re used to making progress, by new inventions.’ These already overwhelmed boys of sixteen wanted to know whether there might be a limit to our human capacity for novelty and invention. When might it all stop?

The human capacity for invention intrigued the philosopher David Hume (1711-76). He believes that the imagination has a primary role in the way in which we access knowledge. One of Hume’s themes centres on the limits of knowledge. He shares with John Locke (1632-1704) the theory that the mind starts out as tabula rasa, or blank slate, and gains ideas through experience or impressions. For Hume, every idea we have is copied from impressions stored in the mind. We might want to design a fantastic building made from glass or ice, something never before seen, and we do this by combining impressions of materials and techniques previously experienced. Hume’s own example is a golden mountain. We might never have seen one, but we could invent one based on what we already know.

Hume’s theories intrigue because it is still not clear how we can know anything. It is one thing to say that we can create new knowledge from existing impressions based on experience, but does that mean that we can’t ask questions about what we don’t know? Do we have to remain within the boundaries of empirical knowledge? My adult seminar group this week wondered about the limits of knowledge and our chosen question delved into the problem of infinity: is infinity indefinable?

Gordon said that questions about what lies beyond what we know are impossible. We simply can’t make the leap. Our minds need to feel secure. Hume would have agreed. He liked his impressions and ideas neat and tidy and would have had no time for speculative nonsense. Bertrand Russell took a similar line, once claiming that the universe is a ‘brute fact.’ It exists. End of question. Get over it.

There were a few contemplatives among the group for whom this was not enough. If facts and evidence and data are the primary form of knowledge, why do we continue to ask metaphysical questions? If we’ve come to a dead end in terms of our method of gaining knowledge, and Russell thought Hume had pretty much said it all, then why do we feel that there is more to be discovered? Why do we dream and speculate and feel a sense of there being something other than the hard facts? And what do children know?

Steve shared a comment made by his three-year-old grandson. One day when they were out walking his grandson took in the scene around him and then turned to Steve and said: ‘When does it all end?’ What he meant was not that particular day out with his grand-dad, but life itself, in all its swirling glory.

To a three-year-old life is infinitely mysterious. I can remember a similar metaphysical moment with a three-year-old nephew one snowy Christmas on a walk through a village sparkling in the sun after a pub lunch by a log fire. As we crunched up the hill, my nephew looked into an immaculate sky and asked: ‘Belinda, is God real?’ I tried not to patronise him or fob him off with …well some people say…I told him about the philosophical arguments for the existence of God and said that he would one day have to make up his own mind about whether they were true or not. I like to think that I gave him something more to think about.

The age of three is a good starting point for philosophy, perhaps three is the ideal age for wonder. In thinking of how the world appears to a three-year-old, we remember that it is not all obvious and precisely thought-through. There are many things that need to be puzzled over and discussed and understood, many things that seem mystifying. Many impressions that have not yet become ideas.

When a close friend’s three-year-old came to Devon for the first time he was puzzled by the grass verges which were particularly intriguing to a boy who had in his short life known only London streets. He was curious and wanted to know. ‘Belinda, are the pavements under the grass?’  I told him about verges – a strange word now I think of it –  and he recombined his impressions. Hume would have said that he updated his imagination. Later on my friend’s son was able to add another new idea. After a particularly exciting time at the beach, he asked: ‘When are we going to that big canal again?’

Three year olds don’t need reminding to ask questions about life; they do so naturally and spontaneously. In recalling these moments of fresh openness to life’s experience, I think of the older boys today, so initially weary and jaded as they talked about the possibility that we might one day know it all, perhaps we would reach a Humean dead-end, until one of them said that there would always be as many creative ideas as there were people. ‘I guess that’s true,’ another said and their faces shone with wonder for a moment.

It isn’t going to end. There are always more questions, just as long as we remember to keep asking them.



2 responses

15 12 2013

I was interested in the comment in the post about “questions about what lies beyond what we know are impossible”. Surely we can ask questions that are based on our framework of knowledge within our existing boundary of knowledge at any point in time? The questions allow us to extrapolate beyond that boundary. For example we once had a knowledge framework that said the world was flat but within that framework we also had the concept of roundness. That allowed someone to postulate “what if the world is round” and encouraged an expedition to test that postulate by moving towards and beyond our known boundaries. These days we can and do speculate on what is beyond the observed edge of the universe and indeed we speculate on the dimensionality of the universe without having any empirical evidence of anything beyond 4 dimensions. Or does the original comment suggest that the concept of “dimension” for example is valid only within the boundary of our known universe and that beyond that boundary the concept of dimensionality does not exist?


18 12 2013

Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I think what Gordon meant by ‘impossible’ is that questions that push at the frontiers of our knowledge are difficult to get to grips with conceptually. Even in speculation, we must have the breadth of imagination to make a leap into the unknown.


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