Sunday, April 08, 2007

your 2007 Easter meditation

Some people believe that everything ultimately makes sense. Perhaps things don't make sense from our point of view, but they do make sense from someone else's perspective-- God's, perhaps.

But what if things ultimately don't make sense?

I can think of two very different schools of thought that embrace this view. The first, and most well-known, is without a doubt the deliberate absurdism of post-World War II French existentialism. Born out of the blood and rubble of a war that spanned years and continents, this school of thought basically said we need to stop looking to God for solutions, because the universe, unlike what religion teaches us, is inherently absurd. The only sense to be found is what we make on our own, wresting meaning from the nonsense around us.

The second school of thought is best represented by Catholic thinker Raimondo Panikkar, an advocate of religious pluralism who resists the temptation to form philosophical or theological models to explain how some or all religious traditions fit together within a greater paradigm. For Panikkar, there is no ultimate fitting-together: the universe is marked by an inherent incommensurability.

Think about it this way. People who believe that It All Somehow Makes Sense are partial to this analogy: the universe is like a large, rectangular sheet of window glass that's been smashed on the floor. We, as beings with a limited perspective, pick up the pieces as best we can and successfully fit some of them together, all in the faith that, ultimately, the window itself can be pieced back together-- if not by us, then by Someone.

But Panikkar would say that it's more like this: imagine two such windows have been shattered in separate rooms. Half of the glass from one window is scooped up and combined with half of the glass from the other window; those pieces are strewn across the floor of a third room, and now here we are, trying to put those pieces together into one whole window. The project is doomed to fail.

What do you think? Does the world ultimately make sense, or doesn't it? Can we ever arrive at a Grand Unified Theory? A Theory of Everything? Can we attain GUT or TOE?

What I find interesting is that Panikkar is a Catholic priest. You'd think that he would side with those who believe that, ultimately, things do make sense, even if that sense is visible only to God. But this is not Panikkar's stance. No: for him, the universe's parts do not fit neatly together; there is harmony, to be sure, but there is also a certain jagged, mismatched quality to reality.

Perhaps we can, with caution, replace "jaggedness" (my label, not Panikkar's) with the more elegant term "mystery." Most people seem to think mystery is a one-sided phenomenon. After all, to God, who sees The Other Side as well as our side, what is mysterious? The traditional answer is Nothing! But Panikkar is suggesting something different, I think: that mystery is not merely a function of our limited human perspective, but something woven into the fabric of the cosmos, into the fabric of the Absolute itself.

Which leaves us with two choices: mystery is one-sided, or mystery "goes all the way down." So perhaps this essay has led us to an even stranger question: what is mystery?

And there I leave you on this Easter Sunday: to ponder the mystery of mystery, and the abyssal, infinite regression to which that turn of phrase alludes: the mystery of the mystery of mystery, and so on. A good existentialist would dare you stare into the abyss.

Come to the edge.



taemin said...

Interesting essay, but I find myself wondering what you (and the others you mention) all mean by "makes sense," in the first place.

Kevin Kim said...

I'm not sure there's an easier or clearer expression than "makes sense." I don't mean that in a smart-alleck way; I'm truly stymied as to how best to express this idea.

Maybe "is intelligible"?

But that seems to be working backward, using a 50-cent concept to replace a common, everyday concept.


If I were to say "The universe ultimately makes sense," I would be saying that the universe's parts all somehow fit together in an understandable way, even if that way isn't immediately apprehensible to me right now, or ever. Perhaps the universe makes sense only from the standpoint of omniscience (not that I believe in an omniscient deity), but it at least makes sense from some perspective.


setnaffa said...

What if?

What if the Bible were true?

What if we were all sinners needing repentance and a Savior?

What if the answer wasn't for sale; but available free to all who just believed?

What if we knew the answer, saw it every day, and just passed it by?

What if?

Anonymous said...

Can I choose "both"? that is, both "Yes, the Universe makes sense" and "Absolutely, there's no way to fit it all together into one comprehensible system"?

After all, if God is not held to the Law of the Excluded Middle (which you maintain a couple of different places), why must I (or the Universe) be?

Seriously, I bet I could make the above proposition make sense given enough time, but I gotta go mark some more papers. :-)

Kevin Kim said...


I think I make reference to the principle of non-contradiction in my writing. After reading the (trustworthy?) Wikipedia entry on the Law of the Excluded Middle, I'm not sure whether PNC and LEM are the same thing. They might be, and I'm just not sophisticated enough to grasp that fact.

As for having it both ways, I say WHY NOT? We need to develop a Burger King Ontology (you know: "Have It Your Way"), a specialized, American form of nondualism in which no dilemmas are possible because all choices are merely add-ons. Heh.

Seriously, though, I go back and forth on the paradox issue. Robert Aitken-roshi's Zen take-- i.e., that there are no paradoxes in nature-- is often appealing to me. From his perspective, paradox serves a specific function in helping a Zen adept break through the dualistic barriers of discursive thinking. But reality in its suchness simply is what it is, and "paradox talk" obscures that fact.

But there are times when I think that paradox is a necessary part of the religious viewpoint, and that it even serves a moral purpose. I can't say I've explored this issue in sufficient depth to have any intelligent insights.

Happy paper-marking!


PS: It occurs to me that I've missed your point and that you might not be talking about paradox at all. I assumed that was where you were heading because of the LEM remark; please correct me if I'm wrong.

Kevin Kim said...


Paradox is definitely relevant; and it's not like I had it all thought out or anything. But I was thinking more along the lines that "making sense" is a human thing to do; we make sense of things, and so considering how that happens, what the mechanisms and limitations of our making sense are, is relevant.

I have a mental metaphor that I use: we are points of consciousness on the surface of a sphere. We're trying to map the entire sphere, and (this is important to the metaphor) for whatever reson we map it onto a plane. Our minds can't grok (look it up--it dates me, but it's a good word) that third dimension. Locally--near ourselves--we do pretty well; but the further out we get, the more distorted the mapping--inevitably. One person, one point of view CAN map the whole thing, or try to--but a lot of the result will be distorted. Internally consistent, mind you, and bearing a recognizable relationship to the original--but distorted. If we stay really close to home, our maps may be extremely accurate--but who needs a map that only shows, say, a radius of 3 ft around where we are standing? So we share maps, and re-map as we move around, and our maps grow as we learn and think, and shrink as we stumble over inaccuracies. . . I could go on, but I REALLY gotta go mark those papers.


Kevin Kim said...


I think "grok" is from Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land, right?

I like your metaphor and find it evocative, though I think it's similar to models that actually remove paradox from the equation by saying the paradox is merely apparent. Something defective in our perceptual apparatus prevents us from piecing together a coherent Big Picture, but your model encourages us to take heart because there is a Big Picture, and it's not fractured or fundamentally incomprehensible (at least, that's how I would interpret the integrity and equilibrium of a perfect sphere).

This isn't a dig at the metaphor; to the contrary, I find it eloquent, powerful, and somewhat reminiscent of "hidden harmony" imagery, as well as of Edwin Abbott's little book Flatland, in which two-dimensional creatures live out their lives in general ignorance of a third physical dimension until a three-dimensional being from Spaceland appears in their midst and performs what appear to be miracles (e.g., changing size as the being passes through the plane of Flatland). I remember first hearing about this story from Carl Sagan's televised series "Cosmos." Your analogy definitely calls Flatland to mind.

Without a doubt, our perspectives are horizoned, which some would say dooms us never to see the Big Picture (leading Hans Georg Gadamer to talk about "fusion of horizons"). That attitude stands in contrast to the Zen attitude about seeing with the dharma eye, which penetrates to the heart of reality (a detailed version of this critique can be found here; the critique is a response to John Hick's pluralistic hypothesis).

Here again, I'm a fence-sitter, because both the Zen position and the "we are horizoned" position are defensible. I probably lean more toward the Zen side of things, but only slightly.