Think about it this way:

Imagine trying to teach a dog calculus.  

Not only will the dog not understand calculus, not only will he not understand why he doesn't understand calculus, he won't even understand that he doesn't understand calculus.  He won't even understand that he doesn't understand.  He won't understand that you're trying to teach him something, and if he has any inkling, for a fraction of a second, of what you are trying to tell him, it will look to him like meaningless nonsense.  The calculus is fully valid - the calculus works, but the dog has zero comprehension of it.

Imagine trying to explain Einstein's Theory of General Relativity to a chimpanzee, or read one of Shakespeare's sonnets to an ant.  (That might actually be kind of fun.  Try it sometime.)

When you think along these lines, inevitably it will occur to you that it's possible that there are truths that are as far beyond human comprehension as calculus is to a dog.  That is, not only will we never understand them - we'll never even understand that we don't understand them.  It won't ever even occur to us to think of such things.  

Perhaps you think that the human mind can understand almost everything, but that there might be a few, exceptional things that are too complicated for us.  I suspect the reverse is true.  I suspect that the number of incomprehensibles vastly outweighs the comprehensible.  I think that, just as all the colors of visible light comprise a thin range of the electromagnetic spectrum, just as humans have existed for a eyeblink of the time of the universe, just as the observable universe is only a tiny part of the entire universe, I would guess that we should expect that everything that humans will ever know is merely a vanishingly small fraction of all there is to know - so small that we might as well round it down to zero.

An analogy from math: in math, we can speak of counting numbers: 1, 2, 3, and so on.  Those numbers are already infinite.  Or we can speak of integers, which are the counting numbers, along with zero, and the corresponding negatives of the counting numbers.  Or we can speak of the rational numbers, that is, every number that can be written as a ratio of two integers: one half, two thirds, five and five eighths, 16 billion forty-two and 37 million-millionths, and so on.  But wait - there's more!  Now we can start thinking about irrational numbers, like the square root of two, which cannot be expressed as a ratio of any integer with any other integer.  Or the fifth root of 39, or the 27th root of negative 51.  But you can express those numbers in some kind of formula - as I just did.  Here's another one: the seventh root of 11, times the 11th root of seven, all divided by the square root of 13, plus six.  But then there are the transcendental numbers - numbers so crazy that you can't express them by any finitely long mathematical formula at all.  Pi is just such a number.  Wow!  Transcendental numbers!  They seem pretty special, right?  Mind-bogglingly special.  Well, it turns out, no.  They're not special at all.  They're the norm.  Almost every single number is transcendental.  The numbers that we humans can understand with finite expressions are the vanishingly tiny exception.  In fact, compared with all the numbers, the numbers that can be expressed in a finite formula are an infinitely small fraction - which is to say, if you're hoping to throw a dart into the sea of numbers and hit a number that is not transcendent, the probability that you will hit one is exactly zero.  The numbers we can comprehend are like a few specks of dust floating in an infinite ocean of transcendence.  And I think we should expect that everything that we humans will comprehend with our little finite brains is, similarly, approximately, within-the-margin-of-error of... nothing.

Maybe out there in space, there are aliens who have evolved minds that are way beyond ours, so that, compared with theirs, our brains seem closer to those of a chimpanzee or a dog or an ant or a paramecium.  But even though they can comprehend things that are literally unimaginable to us, their minds are likely ultimately limited as well, and there are truths beyond even their comprehension.  And maybe there are beings transcendently beyond theirs, but there are even truths that they can't comprehend.  And so on.

Now there are things that are so far beyond our understanding that we have no idea that we don't know them, but there are also liminal realities, right on the border of our possible comprehension, or just outside of our ability to grasp them - tantalizingly close enough to our minds that we can recognize them as profound mysteries.  What should a rational mind do when it is confronted with such a mystery?

One option that I don't recommend is to go around acting like "Well, I know everything, so if this doesn't fit into my worldview, then it must not be real."  In a world governed by natural selection, this kind of attitude is likely to get you killed, because anyone with this kind of arrogance, this lack of caution and circumspection, is bound to wander out over their heads.

May I suggest that a healthier attitude, when confronted with such a profound mystery, is a sense of humor?  It may sound counterintuitive, and it is, but when a finite mind is confronted with something way too complex for it to possibly understand, rather than trying to arrogate for oneself the task of taking into account all of its complexity, a more reasonable gesture would be to move in the opposite direction, towards simplicity.  Any attempt at understanding such imponderables will end in some kind of over-simplification, so instead of lying, and pretending that your over-simplification contains reality in all of its bewildering and frustrating nuance and texture, why not embrace the over-simplification, embrace the confusion, embrace the error as error?  Be simple.  Be a fool.  And be a fool resolutely.  

Indeed, much of the greatest humor is exactly of this type: caricature.  We all misperceive things, as in a funhouse mirror, reducing reality to a series of gestures, a few shapes, but caricature embraces the elision of detail, the simplification, the exaggeration.  The Simpsons do this well: not representing things as they are, or even trying to, but exaggerating them cartoonishly, until they become absurd, and the humor lies precisely in a kind of distance from humdrum reality, which nonetheless brings out and makes salient a truth we can all acknowledge.  Of course, the Simpsons did not invent this - every cartoonist has done the same thing, going back to the graffiti archaeologists find on the ruins of ancient palaces and temples, speaking truth to their civilization's powers.

And I believe that this is sometimes the deepest truth in the ancient myths of the world: confronted with realities and forces beyond their comprehension, human beings acknowledged their inability to understand these profound mysteries by turning them into caricatures, stories... I'm tempted to say, cartoons.  How else can we talk about the story of Cronos and Zeus, a story which tells us in the most graphic and grotesque way that time eats its children, and relates to us a war against time?  There is an anguish at the heart of this humor, to be sure.  Like Jacob, we are all wrestling with God.

Thus I think we miss something when we take these myths too literally and too seriously, rather than as expressions of the very inexpressibility of being.  

[click here to the next article in this series]


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