The Limits of Knowledge?

Illustration by John Tenniel

Penetrating so many secrets,

we cease to believe in the unknowable.

But there it sits nevertheless,

calmly licking its chops.

— H.L. Mencken

 

 

 

And that’s where we part company, my husband and I. A devout rationalist, he believes that mystery is what is yet unknown. That given enough time, enough attention, enough science, we WILL know.  Me, I believe in the unknowable. Tenniel’s caught the perfect emblem for it — the Cheshire Cat grinning at Alice just before it fades away — slowly, its smile last to go, calmly licking its chops.

Fortunately, after almost 51 years of marriage, we have learned to agree to disagree. Neither of us insists on having the last laugh.

That, after all, belongs to the unknowable.


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This entry was posted in Etcetera, Personal Essay, Quotes and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to The Limits of Knowledge?

  1. fb says:

    My Dear. . I am in accord with you with the Unknown, or as it is more popularly called, the Mysteries. Just their being there gives us a sense of the numinous or the Romantic, and these things can be rather pleasant to have around. But they are continually giving way to evidence, and evidence provides understanding. And when Alice’s Cheshire Cat achieves understanding, my feeling is that her grin will evolve into a catlike smile.

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  2. Stef says:

    Interesting; I read something this morning along the lines of how we can only explain what we know – but there resides a whole different level of peace/compassion/tranquility/wholeness that exists beyond our realm; but we can’t fathom it until we experience it; and if we experience it, we can’t explain it to others because they can’t relate to it, because it really is “unknowable” until it is experienced…. kind of circular, but kind of cool, too. (The article did a much better job than I just did.) 🙂 Anyway, your post reminded me of this…

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Which reminds me of something C.S. Lewis once wrote about the ultimate untranmissability of things that require experience. He said it better than me. I’ll try and recover it.

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      • Touch2Touch says:

        The process of living seems to consist in coming to realize truths so ancient and simple that, if stated, they sound like barren platitudes. They cannot sound otherwise to those who have not had the relevant experience: that is why there is no real teaching of such truths possible and every generation starts from scratch.

        C.S. Lewis
        Letters

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      • Stef says:

        “What can be described is the known, and the freedom from the known can come into being only when there is a dying to the known…” From “A Still Mind” by J. Krishnamurti.

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      • Stef says:

        I agree that Krishnamurti is difficult; I read just 2 paragraphs in a magazine, and that was sufficient for me. 🙂 I tend to do best with “robust” text in very small amounts….

        I really like your CS Lewis paragraph; a bit more ‘understandable’ phrasing of a similar sentiment.

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        • Touch2Touch says:

          There are times (this morning being one of them, as the snow drifts down, again and interminably) when I think Lewis Carroll understands it all better than anyone, and Alice is my favorite text!

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  3. pauline says:

    I like Oscar Wilde’s statement that, “The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

    We may someday know the how of everything but I’m willing to bet none of us get the why right.

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Wilde always did love standing things on their heads — with variable results —
      But in several senses I can go along with what he says in your quote.
      In any event, I sure won’t take your bet — as Golda Meir said in another context, folks never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity — to get the why RIGHT.
      In fact, a lot of problems (it suddenly occurs to me) arise from the fact that people tend not even to ask WHY, we just assume How is sufficient reason to do something and blunder right on ahead.

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  4. pauline says:

    You’ve got me thinking in all sorts of directions now but especially abut the why of things and if we did know the why of say, life itself, given our limitations as humans, do you think it would change the how of what we do? It would to some degree, I’m sure; the slightest change in anything can bring about the domino effect. Still, looking at our history and at how little we’ve really learned from it (the whole experience thing you mentioned in your post coming to bear), I’m not sure knowing the why would change our basic need to control. Perhaps we need mystery as well, as a spur, as a carrot?

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Brilliant!
      Because humans are as they are, we’re not going to change to become more reasonable, compassionate, foresighted, on and on and on. I think we’re stuck with us.
      But YES, that’s exactly what mystery does, it spurs us to the unknown. We can’t muck that up because it’s still unknown.
      THE MYSTICAL CARROT of the universe.
      Yes, brilliant!

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  5. Kattsby says:

    This has been a favourite quotation of mine for several years. Was pleasantly surprised to find this post. I’ve always had an image for my inner vision while thinking of it, and the one used here is almost identical to mine.

    Science tells us all the «hows» but no one tells us the «whys»…

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    • Touch2Touch says:

      Thanks for stopping by — here and on sister blog, View from the Woods.
      It’s nice to know that something cherished is also cherished by another person. You may find interesting the discussion in the comments section: some really good people kicking it around.

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      • Kattsby says:

        Now I’ve read all the comments too, and that certainly was interesting reading.

        I liked the C.S. Lewis quote. Sometime, very soon, I’ll get around to reading ‘Mere Christianity’ by him … a project I started long time ago but never finished. I have it here on my desk …

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