On the impossible

On the impossible

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[The following remarks were made by yours truly to open the 2008 Metanexus Conference in Madrid]

Now to the business at hand….

(I have become a question to myself.)
Augustini Confessiones (liber X, caput xxxiii)

Who are we?  Why are we here?  In our age, it is science that purports to answer these ancient questions, while technology promises to make us even “more than human.”  But despite our amazing scientific discoveries and technological powers, are we not still “a question to ourselves?”  And what new questions about ourselves have been raised in our own times?

If we are truly to understand ourselves, our place in the cosmos, and our relation to each other and to the divine, we must adopt rich transdisciplinary approaches that cut across fields of knowledge, institutional boundaries, cultural borders, and religious traditions.  We need to explore such questions as these:

  • Is there not something inescapably “first person” about consciousness?  What accounts for this?  Can third-person, objective science give a complete analysis of first-person, subjective experience?  And can it tell us how to live our lives, how to seek virtue, or how to live together?
  • The human brain manifests a massive complexity, comprising about 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion (1014) synapses.  But are we our brains?  Or is there something we are that is irreducible to brain states?  Is there a soul—or something like it?
  • To what degree are we relational beings?   Is there an essential relation between “I” and “Other”?  Is the notion of the subject inescapably political?  What is the relationship between subjectivity and sovereignty?
  • Are there such things as a collective consciousness or a collective unconscious? Must we add “community” to the classical triad of “body-mind-soul”?
  • What are the metaphysical underpinnings of the human person?  What sort of clues can the existence of persons hold for metaphysics?  Do persons exist on a different level of reality?  And what could it mean to say that there are different levels of reality?  What are the perils for attempting to reduce many levels of reality to just a single level?
  • How might we go about a search for meaning, for what is “real and important” to ourselves? Is this a spiritual quest? A philosophical practice? An empirical exercise? How do we best approach this search, or are these questions somehow flawed?  How are we, in the deluge of data and the inundation of information, to find genuine knowledge, indeed, wisdom?

Over the next few days, we philosophers, biologists, physicists, cosmologists, neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, theologians, religious scholars and community leaders, historians and educators will discuss these and other profound questions of what it means to be a person in a rapidly evolving and complex world.

In almost all cases we are at the very beginning of the kind of work that will be exemplified throughout this conference.  A lot of what we will explore is new.  Sometimes, in the questions we choose to pursue, we happen to find ourselves playing the role of trail-blazers.  That is very exciting, indeed, to be driven by such questions. 

But critics might claim this sort of transdisciplinary work is impossible.  We might be told it is impossible to change the structures of the university to make room for this sort of work.  In a way, these criticisms might be right.  In a way…. 

As we begin our conference, I think we should call to mind the provocative opening lecture from last year’s Metanexus Conference that was offered by Philip Clayton (and if you didn’t hear it, you can listen to it and all the talks from last year at any time via podcast on iTunes).  Recall that Phil Clayton warned us that as we seek for something like the unity of knowledge, that as we pursue transdisciplinary research, that as we explore the possibilities of a vision of the “forest” of wisdom as a complement to the “trees” of disciplinary knowledge, we must guard against the dangers of moving too far too fast, that we must undertake the hard work of developing an analogous (but not necessarily identical) methodological rigor for transdisciplinary research as we have in the diversity of disciplines.  And, on the other hand, we must remember, too, the advice of The Philosopher, Aristotle, who told us to expect no more certainty in a field of investigation than that field will by nature allow. 

But how much certainty can transdisciplinary exploration be expected to allow?  Maybe we should, from time to time, ask ourselves the dangerous question:  Is what we are attempting to do—in this conference, in this interdisciplinary global network, in attempting a constructive engagement of science and religion, in inaugurating programs of transdisciplinary research—is what we are attempting to do even possible?

People like us, it seems to me my friends, are after something like “the whole story of the whole cosmos for the whole person.”  We are “after” it, because we do not have it.  We have the stories told to us and by us in our various academic fields and intellectual areas of expertise.  We have the stories told to us and by us in our diverse faith traditions and our various cultural contexts.  We have the stories told to us and by us in the very formation and structure of our institutions–educational and commercial, religious and political.  We have a lot of stories, many very good ones, some not so good, a few that are at times too grievous to recall.

But people like us, it seems to me my friends, want the “whole” story, the story of our stories, the story of how all these stories hang together.  We want a story that covers all of the cosmos, all aspects, elements, or levels of the entire cosmos—all the mineral, vegetable, animal, and self-conscious bits.  We want—if we heed Phil Clayton’s prudent warning—a whole story that does not, however, deny the validity or value of any of the other, constituent, “regional,” stories that we’ve worked so hard together to construct, that we’ve become so invested in, usually with very strong reasons for being so.  For we have “checked out” those stories to one degree or another.  We’ve developed ways to “look into” those stories to make sure they are true stories, at least as far as we know.  Clayton warns us against those who come along telling us to throw out our familiar and comfortable stories with a promise of a radically new story that will replace them.  Those kinds of stories are nothing but empty promises, hardly coherent or convincing at all.

And yet, we want the “whole story.”  We sense that the stories we have and hold dear, the stories around which we build and base our lives, loves, and livelihoods, can never be fully satisfying unless there is a whole story that gives an ultimate account of them.  We think that this is a matter of justice, in a way.  Though each of us has a story—many stories, really—if the stories should conflict with one another we worry that at best we can only say, “I simply prefer my story to yours.”  But we know personal preference, when it comes to these stories that order and regulate our lives, loves, and livelihoods just isn’t (or at least doesn’t seem) good enough.  We want to know:  Is our story the right story?  Is our story true?  And we can only know that, if we are honest with ourselves, if we know how the other stories, the stories of others that seem to conflict with our story, have turned out to be false (if indeed they are false at all).  And that, it would seem, would take the whole story, the story of the whole.

Thus, we can say that we, my friends, are on a quest for wholeness, for our own wholeness, wholeness as persons, for a world to be made whole in spite of its penchant for fragmentation.

But is the whole story, the story of the whole, the story that can make us whole persons and restore our world to wholeness…is such a story even possible?

It would seem that such a story is impossible.  It’s not just that we do not happen to have the whole story, that we could get it if only we worked long enough and hard enough.  No.  The whole story—the story of the whole—is impossible.  The whole story is impossible because it would require a complete speech, and as we human beings are beings in time, we can never get to completeness short of the completeness—if that is what it is—of death, the very end of humanity.  In short, the complete speech would be indistinguishable from silence, or no speech at all.  Anything story short of the complete speech would be, in the end, just another story, a story we’d feel we’d need—if we are honest with ourselves—another story to back it up, namely, the whole story.

So the whole story is impossible.  But we are after it.  In fact, perhaps paradoxically, that is why we are after it.  We are after it because we have not attained it…we cannot attain it, so we are after it.  As we seek knowledge, the disciplines (our intellectual stories) are formed and multiply.  Interdisciplinary studies are developed to try to leverage the successes of the disciplines and get at a “whole” story.  But interdisciplinary studies quickly become new disciplines (new stories).  So we try to move to transdisciplinary work to get ourselves some purchase, some vantage point to try to see what it is we know now that we know so many disciplinarily and interdisciplinarily distinct things.  But if we let transdisciplinary studies become the next disciplines—and I believe we will—we will still come up short of our goal—the whole story. 

Because that is impossible.  It is impossible that we should come up with the whole story, with the complete speech.  And yet it is that impossibility which drives us.  And, it is that drive for the impossible which is, in my opinion, and to draw from Aristotle again, the most divine thing in us.

You see, it is like this:  If we were to have the whole story, we would be gods.  But we are not gods, and to think that anything other than God is God is idolatry.  And to think ourselves god is the worst form of idolatry.  We could say—and if I could but convey my meaning clearly, you would not accuse me of heresy—we could say—if we say it very, very carefully—that God is, in the sense I mean, The Impossible. 

But, on the other hand, to shrink back from the impossible would be tantamount to claiming that there is no God, that there is not the Whole Story.  And, Scripture teaches that “the fool has said in his heart there is no God.”  And if there is no God, no Whole Story, then all our stories are “mere” stories, full of sound and fury perhaps, but signifying nothing.  Equivalent to mere silence (only noisier).

Our work, our honest, hard work, rests just in this space between idolatry and foolishness, between thinking we already have the whole story and thinking there is no point to seeking the whole story at all (which is another way of saying nihilism).  To remain in this space, this difficult but not impossible space, I think you will find, requires extreme discipline (so it can be disciplinary, in a way).  It requires humility (so it BOTH avoids reductionism to some specific partial story AND it avoids attempts to “overcome” or to homogenize or flatten all existing disciplines).  It requires openness (an ear for the call of the impossible drive that drives us and prevents us from resting satisfied).

In short, to undertake the transdisciplinary work we do, to find means of the constructive engagement of science and religion, philosophy and theology, to develop new notions of rigor and methodologies and non-standard logics, is difficult and demanding.  It can be no easy mish-mash of half-digested theories and awkwardly blended vocabularies, a “theory of everything” condensed to ten pages lacking footnotes!  No.  It is hard—but honest—work.  It doesn’t fit in neatly with the way our educational and academic institutions are structured.  It is not measured in just the same way as our disciplinary work.  But it is real work, and maybe, in the end, the most important work.  So long as we are persistent enough in our thinking and envisioning to remain in the tension of the space between idolatry and foolishness (which extremes, by the way, always meet). 

We might also be mindful, as we go about our work, of the place in which we are doing our work.  As we may have learned yesterday, Spain with its unique history in all the world, is sort of an impossible place.  Who but Quixote is most emblematic of “tilting at windmills,” of “dreaming the impossible dream”?  Without naÔve idealism, without erasing the painful past of this great nation, we can still catch a glimmer of a brief and shining moment when a manifestation of the impossible seemed possible, a time when the great religions of the age—and their political manifestations—found a way to transcend and transform their significant differences, to give rise to something new, even though, still, alas, impossible.  It gave rise to hope.  It is a hope that I hope we still share: the hope of convivencia, of learning to live together, of healing our fragmented world and fractured spirits, a hope for new discoveries, for new possibilities that arise in the evanescent light of the impossible, for new stories driven yet tempered by the quest for the whole story.

July 11, the day many of us began our journey here, is the Feast of St. Benedict.  St. Benedict, as you may know, wrote a rule for monks living in community, a guidebook for living together.  Benedict—the patron saint of Europe, by the way—was a great manager of people.  He knew the kinds of demands that might be put upon a person in fulfilling his obligations to his or her community.  My favorite chapter of the Rule of St. Benedict is the one in which he answers the question:  What happens if I am asked to do the impossible?  Benedict advises the monk to first of all just give it a try…maybe he only thinks the task is impossible.  But what if it turns out to really be impossible?  Then, says Benedict, the monk should respectfully try to explain to the Abbot that the assigned task is impossible.  But what if the Abbot should insist?  What then?  Benedict says that the monk, with deep humility, should heed the call, and go and do the impossible.

The motto of the Benedictines is “ora et labora”—pray and work.  As we begin our work, let’s pray that it will bear fruit, that it will open new lines of research and exploration, that we will develop new relationships and new ways of understanding ourselves and our world.  And if sometimes it seems the path we’re on is impossible, let’s remember that this is actually a good sign, maybe even a divine sign.  It’s meant to keep us honest, to not let us get ahead of ourselves.  Let’s not shrink from doing the impossible.

So, in great hope, with genuine humility, and a willingness to labor diligently, COME, LET US SEEK WISDOM TOGETHER!