The Miraculous and its enemies (2)

Democratic Antignosis – knowing the limits

In this book, I want to encourage the reader to become aware of the miraculous. However, my approach, will not consist in quoting authorities or presenting mere assertions. Rather, I want to guide the reader by stimulating his or her own approach. Independent thinking is the prerogative of human beings, everyone may engage in it and everyone can gain from it, if in the process he frees himself from prevailing prejudices or announced taboos.

That means, I will appeal explicitly to a democratic capacity, because pure thinking is not the prerogative of self-appointed experts. Pure or elementary thinking is the foundation on which all of us, including experts, must rely. This fact is all too easily lost sight of. Certainly – to speak with expertise about any field of science, be it physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc., requires a study of several years, and even then individual knowledge remains fragmentary considering what in any particular field can be known. Since Leibniz and Voltaire, the universal scholar no longer exists. But the principles on which human knowledge is based – including of course all expert knowledge –  are quite simple and elementary and belong to the comprehension of all of us. That is why the sciences are accessible to all mankind – all dispose of the necessary preconditions of “pure reason”.

These basic premises are so universal

that, after an assumed destruction of present-day humanity, a new generation, starting from zero, would bring forth science anew in theory and practice. Of course, all conventional determinations such as length, weight, time, temperature, etc., could be determined in different ways (which is true even today: Celsius differs from Fahrenheit, inches from centimeters, etc.), but after conversion of these conventional units the laws of nature would have the same appearance as before – and for an obvious reason: we abstract them from a reality existing outside ourselves, independent of our desires and wills.

It is of crucial importance,

to keep this in mind. The democratic basis of human thought is universal, even if – opposed to it and often denying it – we are faced with the claims of power, which exist in science quite as much as in all other human activities. I already said that anyone would make a fool of himself who talks about details of quantum theory without having acquired the relevant knowledge in years of study. In such a case, ridicule is, of course, justified. But it becomes an abuse of power when specialists resist the generalist’s efforts to illuminate the elementary, democratic foundations of knowledge that are at the root of his particular knowledge too. Then they ascribe to themselves a monopoly of truth that they certainly do not possess because the foundations of their method of thinking have their roots in the thinking of all other people.

Pure or elementary thinking,

once described by the now rather worn-out term of philosophy – leads man not only to the objective world, which he understands with the help of science, but to his own self as well. It is true that he may understand his own person in a scientific way, namely like any other external object, as he is made of the same material as the nature surrounding him. For the physician, my body is a machine, which he can diagnose and possibly repair by means of his physical, chemical, biological, neuronal, and psychological knowledge. When he restores this body-machine to its normal state, we speak of a cure. The laws of nature inside my body are not different from those outside me. Therefore, miracles have just as little place here as in the rest of nature. A dead man has never risen from the graveyard, a severed head has never grown back, no man can withstand a hail of bullets.

And yet it is precisely at this point

that we encounter the miraculous. It remains hidden from most people only because it seems so commonplace and ordinary. Science assumes that a stone detaches itself from the height of a rock at a certain moment, because quite determinate natural causes are responsible for this event. If a physicist were to know all relevant causes, he would be able to predict exactly when, where, and why such an event will and must happen. In any case, science already determines causes and effects so precisely that a rocket to Mars arrives exactly at the time and place predicted by theory. But now look at my person or at yours. Nobody – at most times not even I myself – is able to predict what I will do in half an hour.

The contrast between the behavior of a stone

and that of a human being seems at first sight irreconcilable. Obviously, the stone slavishly obeys those laws which we can demonstrate in all nature.  It has no will of its own and therefore no possibility to change reality. It is exclusively controlled by forces over which it has no influence – at least this used to be the view of classical natural science. Meanwhile, quantum theory has cast some doubt on this understanding. After having introduced chance, it attributes to the stone (more exactly, to the elementary particles of which it consists) a certain initiative of its own, even if an infinitely small one. Theoretically it is quite conceivable that the stone not merely slavishly obeys external laws but may, so to speak, take the initiative of falling from the top of the rock, because some of its atoms happen to make some erratic, unpredictable movements…

Like any stone, humans and other living creatures are subject to thousands of dependencies. If calories are missing from their diet, they die of debilitation; if calcium is lacking, their bones atrophy; if they are exposed to an excess of ultraviolet radiation, cancerous melanomas develop on their skin. Moreover, are we seldom aware of how narrow the boundary conditions of our existence on this planet really are. The air must have a minimum percentage of oxygen and must not exceed a maximum concentration of CO2 or nitrogen. The temperature range that allows us and other living beings to survive on Gaia is, as we now learn, compressed to a very narrow corridor. In addition, life only takes place in a wafer-thin area spanning no more than ten kilometers between the hard surface of the earth and surrounding infinity. Seen in this perspective, the laws of nature radically limit possible life on our planet. We are part of nature and so inescapably subject to its laws that even minor changes to the existing physical parameters could completely wipe out our existence.

But this is by no means all

Though life is subject to the same laws of nature, these laws do not exclude chance and freedom. Guided by the meaning which we give to our actions we constantly intervene in the things around us, in order to shape them (for good or for worse) after our own desires. This constant shaping of outside reality does not happen against the laws of nature, but it can in no way be derived or justified from them.

This is the miracle par excellence, because in a world, where all events without exception are determined by law, such an intervention of the will should not exist. Is it not the most basic principle of science that its procedure consists in describing and explaining reality – independent of our will and desires – as it objectively exists? But if living beings led by their wants and desires constantly shape reality, then we are faced with a completely different picture! The will – the human one as well as that of our animal fellow creatures – represents a separate force beside the laws of nature. It is, moreover, a force of such prodigious proportions that it enables us to transform our own habitat into a paradise or, conversely, to poison and destroy it so permanently that it may become uninhabitable for life.

The scientific specialist does not need

to close his mind to such insights into the power of human will, yet they do not belong to his or any other field of expertise – they belong to the pure, elementary thinking that is common to all human beings. The marvelous, as just shown, does not only expand the self, in some cases it is also terrible and threatening, that is, exiting and shaking us at the same time. It is a fact of life to which we should devote special attention. The specialist, every specialist, deals with certain problems of a theoretical or practical nature. For this he is respected and rewarded. If his achievements significantly exceed the usual range, he may even be awarded with the highest prize that today’s mankind has to award, the Nobel Prize. This raises an important question.

What does a generalist achieve,

when he falls back on pure thinking, that is, on initial principles in dealing with nature? We will see that he shows something completely different: the limits which human knowledge is not able to cross. Limits – the word is discouraging at first sight. You may get the impression that the generalist would rather do a bad service to human knowledge even if he succeeds in opposing learned certainty of knowledge – all that learned arrogance that demands submission. The generalist seems to diminish the faculties of man as he demonstrates the boundaries beyond which our knowledge and the explanation of reality do not reach.

This impression is reinforced by the fact that democratic antignosis does not deal with those fluid boundaries conditioned by the actual state of scientific knowledge. No, it speaks of fundamental limits which result from the nature of our cognitive faculty itself. We do not trust an ant to possess a complete theory of the world; its senses and intelligence are made exclusively for its particular sphere of life. Human beings too are the product of evolution. We possess senses and a mental apparatus which are made for the orientation within the areas of reality relevant for us. This results in obvious limits which we partly exceed by extending our senses by all kinds of instruments. In the same manner, we extend our reason quantitatively through artificial intelligence, but we cannot change it qualitatively, because in this case we would no longer understand this kind of intelligence.

I speak of democratic antignosis

as that insight which not only intuitively describes the limits of human reason but by compellingly proving them goes far beyong mere intution.  This insight is rightly seen as democratic because it is at the base of all specialized knowledge and therefore accessible to everyone. I speak of “antignosis”, because it is not at all identical with that seemingly similar doctrine, which may boast of a long history – I mean agnosticism. Agnosticism consists in the – usually hesitant – admission that there is much we do not know and perhaps cannot know. Agnosticism is another word for renunciation, and as such it is always experienced as a shortcoming that brings no satisfaction.Antignosis, on the other hand, knows a lot more than agnosticism. It shows, no, it proves by means of pure thinking that human knowledge is limited in principle. But this insight does not lead to mere renunciation or resignation. It will be seen that, on the contrary, it opens the horizon of a world freed from prejudice and hubris. For democratic antignosis shows us that we could neither live nor want to live in a world that we have completely concquered, deciphered, decrypted. Such a world would block all horizons and stifle all freedom. The fact that democratic antignosis also puts the arrogance of experts in its place may seem to some to be a democratically desirable side effect.