On the Unintelligible

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A reflection on the fragments of Zeno of Elea

In my previous reflection, I examined the spectrum of belief, attempting to create a basic map showing the relative position of each school of thought (see on Assumptions). However, some would argue vehemently against having their system of belief lumped together with those they consider not only ideological rivals – but sworn enemies. The dogmatic materialist would snort at being grouped with ‘superstitions’. Similarly, the true believer will be aghast that their faith is mixed with ‘heathens’ and ‘apostates’. Largely, I think that such outrage is irrelevant – being angry doesn’t make your position unassailable. However, I find the willingness of interlocutors to toss entire systems of thought in the dustbin disturbing – especially when this takes the form of mockery and derision. Thus, in this reflection I will attempt to unpack the general rules necessary to ensure that we don’t fall into the cognitive trap of arrogant self-satisfaction.

To begin with, we should examine the argument for discarding ‘nonsense’. To be fair, the root of this argument lies in recognition of the finite period of human life. With this realisation, it would appear that we have to short a period to ‘waste’ time on doctrines and texts that provide us with no value. I similarly have recognised the inability of a single human to read all possible texts and to treat all beliefs and opinions with the same loving attention and analysis (see on Failed Inquiry). In this model, we should discard that thought which is irrelevant to our understanding of the world and pursue truth at the expense of these superfluous documents.

There is, however, an argument to be made against this mode of thinking – primarily the subjective measure of intelligibility. What measure can a person use to discard another worldview as ‘nonsense’? Even if a person could come to a metric they find suitable, how do they know that said measure is of value and not merely an extension of their own biases? To be sure, I am not suggesting that all opinions and beliefs are of the same value – one cannot measure the weight of pre-modern herbalists and alchemists as equal to that of modern medicine and chemistry. However, to dismiss these systems of thought as ‘worthless’ neglects the insights that differing viewpoints can have in helping us understanding the mental furniture that exists within our own minds – and prevent us from lazily holding unstated assumptions.

Noting the above, I argue that we must tread the tightrope between the dogmatist and the relativist. We must recognise the impossibility, so far, of perfect knowledge – and as such remain cautious with our claims, generalisations and the universality of our beliefs. However, we cannot backslide into relativism and declare all viewpoints as equal in value – the dangers of which I have already discussed (see Against Absolute Relativism).  Now that the requirements of our path are clear, the more pressing matter is upon us: how do we balance on this razor’s edge?

First and foremost, I recommend that we approach any new tradition with a generosity of spirit, especially if this school of thinking lies outside the scope of your own culture and upbringing. It is the willingness to engage sympathetically and seriously with another’s beliefs – rather than cherry picking for targets of polemic – that is the hallmark of a true thinker. Once we understand a system of thought, at least from an outsider’s point of view, then we have earned the right to pass comment. Secondly, once we have formed an opinion on another branch of thinking, we should be cautious not to close our mind to potential re-interpretations. To allow our judgements to calcify into stereotypes is a surefire way to stymie our overall intellectual progress. One should not be afraid of changing one’s mind over time, recognising your wrongs is evidence of one’s maturity. Finally, read widely and across as many traditions as possible, attempting to knock the rough edges off your biases. Even if one cannot escape our lens of acculturation and achieve the ‘view from nowhere’ detachment craved by the scientist, we can still polish the glass and remove the smudges of arrogance and ignorance.

Original text



Francisco de Goya, Escena de Inquisición, 1808-1812

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