(This is part 1/9 of the series, “Paradigms Lost”.)
“And worlds without number have I created; and I also created them for mine own purpose… Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me.”
E: Adam, it has been some time now that we have been dressing and keeping this garden of ours. So long, in fact, that I now struggle to recall more and more of the details regarding the lives we had before coming here.
A: I too can sense the veil growing thick, Eve, but I still retain a few bits and pieces, fleeting memories of time served and lessons learned under the careful guidance of our Forefathers and Elders. Alas, while these precious few fragments remain fairly vibrant in my heart and mind, I too have forgotten how they fit together or otherwise relate to one another. Hopefully your recollection has not faded to the point that you can remember nothing of those things they taught us?
E: Thankfully, no. While it is true that I have nearly forgotten everything our Elders taught us about this world, the principles by which we were taught to live remain curiously vivid and pristine within my mind. And yet, I cannot deny that certain questions irresistibly crowd in, finding refuge in the vacant spaces once held by high and noble doctrines: How did we get here? How did this world with everything in it come to be? For what purpose are we, along with everything else here? Do you have any memory of such things?
A: I do recall a handful of points regarding these matters, but any attempt at filling in the spaces between them would be as arbitrary as marking out the constellations in the heavens. What I do know is this: This world was not an accident but was deliberately organized as part of a great plan which was conceived and refined in the grand councils before this world was. I also know that this is not the only world which was created in this manner, for worlds without number, we were told, have also come and gone according to such deliberate planning. But as for this particular creation, I know that it was not entirely wrought instantaneously, but instead unfolded in a progressive manner over the course of various stages. I know that in these stages there was a time before life was to be found on this planet at all, after which the more simple forms of life were introduced and allowed to multiply and replenish the earth, followed, in turn, by the more complex forms. Most of all, I know that however this deliberate and intentional process was accomplished, it was good and according to that great plan.
E: That plan must have been great indeed, for to me it seems as obvious as anything can be that vast amounts of intelligence and work must have been required to accomplish the exact opposite of what we tend to observe around us.
A: What do you mean by that?
E: Look around and notice that so much of what we do involves undoing or using up the creation in some way: We cannot un-burn the wood by which we produce light and warmth at night nor can we un-break the rocks or un-cut the trees which we have put to our own purposes. The blossom cannot be re-attached to the tree anymore than its fruit can be un-eaten and the butterfly never reenters the cocoon in order to become a caterpillar again. Indeed, have you not noticed that those parts of the garden which we spend the most time dressing and keeping fare better than those parts which we, for our own reasons and purposes, have tended to neglect? What lesson are we to take from this other than that this creation must have required something akin to our labors of dressing and keeping, but on a far grander scale and that absent such organized and intelligent work, the world instead tends toward disorganization? Further still, our own experience in these regards suggests that this tendency is so strong that work must be done simply to maintain a constant level of organization in the world.
A: Hear, hear and Amen! Our magnificent world in its imponderable complexity and elegant beauty is truly a living testimony to the boundless power and wisdom of our Forefathers!
E: And yet, it is here that even more questions flood my mind. Why would our Elders with their limitless reservoir of wisdom and power use such a long, drawn out and indirect process of creation? It cannot be disputed that our world bears the marks of vast stretches of time in which organisms have lived and died for no obvious purpose. Wouldn’t it have been better to have simply cut to the chase and created everything in its entirety and perfection all at once? While the wisdom and power of our Forefathers is surely beyond dispute or my ability to conceive, I can’t help but suspect that perhaps some things might not be entirely possible to them after all.
A: It would seem that your powers of observation and inference are exceeded only by your confidence in your own imagination. As for myself, there are some things that I know and there are some things that I do not know, but there is nothing in the former of which I am more certain than the latter.
E: I fear that you misconstrue both my intent as well as my confidence in the conversation at hand. I seek only truth and knowledge and presume that, like the morning dawn, the light of conviction comes in various shades and hues. Surely you allow for this vast space betwixt the two extremes of certain knowledge and utter ignorance inhabited by the likes of belief, suspicion and even doubt?
A: To be true! For example, I doubt that we have enough information to pronounce final judgment on any of these important matters. Like you, I suspect that the creation was indeed an uphill journey requiring vast amounts of well-organized work if only to counter the universal tendency toward disorganization. Finally, I believe that our limited knowledge regarding the ends sought by our Forefathers or those factors which constrained their course along the way precludes us from reaching any kind of verdict as to the optimality of the means by which the former were pursued.
Could the world have been created differently? To be sure. But to what end and at what cost? Which of us can say that those countless generations before our advent served no indispensable purpose? What makes us so sure that time is the costliest and most pressing constraint from the eternal perspective? Why assume that dedicating more time, attention and work to this particular creation is entirely compatible with that required by the countless other worlds which we know to exist? My ignorance surrounding these issues gives me plenty of reason to trust that even if things could have gone any number of different ways, they ended up going the way they ought to have gone.
E: While I don’t object to a single one of the beliefs which you have proclaimed allegiance to, I find myself dissatisfied with the finality by which you close the matter. ‘Tis true that we both find ourselves groping about in a dimly lit room, but you seem pleased to patiently and passively wait for the dawn which is to come, whereas my enthusiasm compels me to actively seek out further light so as to further illuminate my surroundings. Is this not what our Elders have counseled us to do?
A: It would be nothing less than disingenuous of me to deny that your zeal for knowledge seems to exceed my own. I can’t help but notice, however, that your portrayal of our differences manifests a curious tendency in both content and form. As you rightly note, there are few, if any differences in terms of what each of us professes. Nevertheless, I would suggest that our differences are based not so much in our yearning for knowledge as in our discomfort with the unknown. What you mistake for an inactive or even complacent exploration of my dimly lit surroundings, is actually a composed trust that the world around me is well-suited to my ultimate well-being, even if I can’t see or explain it for myself.
E: I admire and might even agree with the positive spin you put upon your approach were it not for the negative light which it implicitly casts upon my own perspective. Your composed trust in the unknown makes my enthusiasm for light seem like an insecure fear of the dark, but such would be to once again distort the intents and convictions of my heart. Perhaps I can help disentangle the confusion which I fear besets you. I have no doubt whatsoever that you would like to one day understand how the world around us came to be and you appreciate that I too believe the world to be well-designed for us, by intelligence vastly superior to my own. Maybe the difference between us lies in the focus and importance which we each assign to these two distinct issues? Would this seem fair to you?
A: Hmm. While I don’t seem to have any particular objection to the distinction which you draw between us, I’m not so sure that it does not bear a deep and intimate relation to the difference in attitude which we each take to the unknown after all. You seem to think that the opposite of certain knowledge is absolute ignorance between which there exist only differences in degree. I disagree. Perhaps it would help if I re-approached your distinction between the “how?” and “why?” of creation from another angle which accentuates the difference which I see between “knowledge” and “wisdom”. A brief parable should help us in this:
Suppose you re given a multiple choice test of some kind wherein you are to fill in the relatively scarce set of correct answer bubbles scattered among a numerous and diverse set of possible answer bubbles. What is the most rational way for you to go about this?
E: Obviously, I would simply go about filling in, for the most part, all and only the “correct” bubbles on the answer sheet.
A: A fair answer indeed. But I wish to suggest that there is also another, less obvious but equally successful method wherein you might fill in as many bubbles as possible and then simply not count the “incorrect” ones. Would not this approach get you the exact same grade?
E: I suppose so, but this would have to be a peculiar test indeed where the grader turns a blind eye to all wrong answers. Furthermore, I fail to see the relevance of your parable to my distinction with regard to the “how?” and “why?” of creation.
A: I’m coming to that. Let us suppose now that there are two engineers who are to create various complex systems to see which ones out of the multiple choices available to them will reliably multiply, fill and thus be “counted” in the world. What is interesting about this particular test is that both of our tactics will get the exact same results. One very knowledgeable engineer could rationally plan out and spend considerable time and energy discerning all and only those systems which will pass the test and let them loose within the environment. The other engineer, on the other hand, could simply take as many of the plans as she possibly could and simply see which ones replicate upon releasing them all into the environment. In both cases those systems which do not successfully replicate themselves will not multiply, will not fill their environment and thus will not be “counted”.
E: It would appear that you’ve been holding out on me, for you seem to have had a theory regarding the “how?” of creation all along and a rather exciting theory at that! All we have to do is think of ourselves, looking out on the world around us, as the graders of a test which largely takes itself, the multiple-choice test regarding complex systems which will multiply and replenish some environment. While I certainly like that it seems to provide a creative tool with high benefits and relatively low costs and that it seems fairly consistent with much of the evidence we find around us, there also seem to be a couple implications which I’m not too su…
A: No, no, just stop! I’m not putting forth any kind of theory or explanation as to how the world was created. Even if such thoughts had occurred to me, that’s not what the parable is about. What I am presently concerned with is acknowledging the intelligence and rationality which is so clearly built into this world and of which we have so little understanding, rather than articulating the nitty gritty details and theories whereby we might be able to cultivate such an understanding.
E: I must have missed something, for your parable seems to me little more than an indirect way of making my earlier point. Was I wrong in expecting you to expand upon the distinction which I drew between focusing on the “how?” and the “why?” of creation rather than simply illustrating it?
A: Haha! It comes to me as no great surprise that your attraction to the “how?” questions are accompanied by an acute appreciation for clarity in articulation. Although it is not my rule to clearly formulate and unpack the morals to be found in the world around us (Indeed, this is very nearly the point I am trying to make!), I have an idea that our gains in mutual understanding will justify an exception in this particular case.
E: By all means, please do!
A: Perhaps it would help if we gave our two engineers the somewhat unimaginative names “Knowledge” and “Wisdom”, respectively. Knowledge is the engineer who had studied and learned a great deal in order to acquire a well-articulated understanding of the principles which were relevant to his test. If we were to ask him why he did or did not build some particular system a particular way, a reasonably intelligent and convincing answer based in his years of study would surely be forthcoming. In short, he knows it all, or at least knows more than anybody who might suggest otherwise…
E: … Which is exactly why he is so much better qualified to take the test than the other engineer is!
A: Not so fast! While he might be better qualified to take the verbal tests we are accustomed to, this is not such a test. On our test Wisdom did just as well as Knowledge while not requiring, or perhaps not even having a well-articulated understanding of the particular details and principles by which she did it.
E: Okay, while I might allow that the complex systems which Wisdom built are just as intelligent as those built by Knowledge, it’s clear that any questions which might be put to her regarding the principled differences between the right and wrong answers to the test will likely go unanswered in any concise or convincing manner.
A: It’s true, Wisdom doesn’t know it all and doesn’t pretend to. But she knows enough, and what she does know comes not from books or lectures but largely from the accumulated experience and reason which, over the course of many generations, has been built into the world she has created.
E: Obviously you mean to suggest that my focus on the “how?” of creation corresponds to Knowledge and your emphasis on the “why?” to Wisdom. Be that as it may, it cannot be denied that the former is the far brighter of the two engineers and therefore far more worthy of our trust and accolades. It would seem that your parable has done nothing more than illustrate the importance of actively seeking greater light and knowledge rather than passively waiting for it. Indeed, we might as well have named the second engineer “Ignorance”.
A: I agree completely, so long as you acknowledge that Ignorance would have gotten the exact same grade and demonstrated just as much intelligence as Knowledge did. That is the point! Remember, we are testing what the engineers can express in action, not what they can clearly articulate with their words. Furthermore, if we consider how the lives of Knowledge, Wisdom and everybody else consist in more than taking this particular test, and if we also take into account of all the tasks which Wisdom was surely able accomplish while Knowledge was busy studying for a verbal test which he was never meant to take, then we can’t help but wonder if Knowledge is more rational than Wisdom in any way at all!
E: But you will admit that Knowledge is the more qualified engineer of the two? At least give me that.
A: In one sense, this is certainly true, but nothing of importance would be lost in our story if we assumed that Wisdom possessed an equal amount of articulated understanding as Knowledge did. But this would be to miss the point entirely, for a lack of knowledge does not in any way entail a lack of intelligence or rationality. Yes, Wisdom could have taken the test as Knowledge did, but her way was simply better for the simple reason that, whether she was able to fully comprehend or articulate the rationality in her creations or not, she was able to appreciate and rely upon the deep reservoir of intelligence and rationality which had been built into her world through the generations.
But enough of these lofty ideas which are of so little benefit to our practical lives in the here and now. Let us instead return to keeping and dressing our garden.
E: I agree, for nothing lifts my spirits more than working in and tending to the elegant forms we observe blossoming around us. To which part of our garden ought we direct our time and energy today?
Summary: Intelligent work is required to resist the ubiquitous tendency toward disorder and chaos in the world. Whether one believes that this work was accomplished by a knowledgeable agent, an ignorant process or something in between is unimportant. What is important is that there is an un-articulated rationality built into the world around us which can be called “wisdom”. This, in turn, can serve as a source of humility and faith in all of us.
Next time: On the one hand, the world around us seems to be inhabited by intelligent agents, complete with their own beliefs, desires and wills. On the other hand, the world also seems to be composed of nothing more than mere matter in motion. How can these two perspective be reconciled with each other? Perhaps it is more important to ask “why?” before we concern ourselves too much with the “how?” of the matter.