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The Possible Possibility
Searching for meaning in a generation that doesn't want to bother with it.

by Everett Wilson
October 2, 2004

"If a man does not know what harbor he is seeking,
no light will be enough to guide him."

I lifted up my eyes and looked beyond the lab tech who was filling syringe after syringe with  my blood. Behold, the words of the epigraph were there before me on the wall, attributed to "Unknown." Because I was thinking of this essay, the sentence struck me as rather profound (I hadn?t had my coffee yet). I have since been humbled. I learned that it is a common saying on inspirational posters, and not a fit introduction to an essay on epistemology, the science of knowing what we know.

I'm sticking to my guns, though. It is still profound enough for me. If you want more detail, read the rest of this article; if you want it straight up, keep the anonymous one-liner and work it out for yourself.

This article arises from a challenge I received recently from an applied physicist. He asked me to deal with questions of ultimate meaning in terms used by the typical thoughtful secularist. Obviously it cannot be done in the space of a PO article, and it won't be. But it also can't be done in a longer piece because the reader won't still for it. So a series of short pieces might be in order, if the Editor agrees. Not every week, just once in a while, because I have a day job.

The problem with the assignment is that because there is no typical secularist, I cannot guess what he is thinking. There are as many versions of secularity as there are varieties of religion.

Instead I will postulate someone who doesn't exist at all: the absolute secularist, a person uncontaminated by faith of any kind - no faith in any god or gods, but also no faith in language, process, natural order, other persons, and so on. I say he does not exist in nature, because survival in a random universe (which it must be to a secularist; what else could it be?) requires us at least to pretend that our words have meaning, much as we agree to the rules of Monopoly when we sit down to play.

The absolute secularist, because he is absolute, is forbidden to pretend. He must function without pretense because that would beg the question of his secularity. If meaning can be found only by pretending there is meaning, we will never be able to test whether there is any real meaning in the universe.

I'm willing to face this test because I have known a few, all of them male and especially when I was young, who either believed themselves to be absolute secularists or were aspiring toward that goal. The ideal secularist is as necessary to epistemology as imaginary numbers are to mathematics.

I begin with the everyday concept of the distinction between the possible and the impossible, a functional distinction that preserves the species. It's exhausting to deal with in every day life, because in human activities the distinction is invisible until you reach it - then it is too late. Since by definition you cannot enter the realm of the impossible, there is a smash-up of some kind. Usually intellectual, but sometimes physical. If you want to discover the distinction between the highest speed at which you can take a curve and survive, and the next fraction of mph, you won't know what it is until you have crashed and the information will no longer be useful to you. We agree with the secularist that there is no segue between the possible and the impossible. Neither can we start with the impossible and become possible, because, of course, then it never was impossible. Only apparently so.

One of the reasons the Harry Potter books are so enjoyable to children and the childlike is that the impossible disappears. All we have to do is go to Track 9¾ and board the Hogwarts Express. To get to it we must run straight through a stone barrier between tracks 9 and 10. We do it because in that world we know beyond doubt that the Hogwarts Express is chuffing away on the other side.

The absolute secularist has no patience with Harry Potter?s world because the impossible, the truly impossible, is as necessary to his worldview as it is to ours. The difference between him and us is that he wants to be able to list the impossible. To do that, he must restrict his worldview enormously because he is attempting a logical fallacy: He cannot list the impossible because he does not know what he does not know. He may make judgments on the possibility or impossibility only of those things he knows something about. Even then he must make a separate category for things that are apparently impossible but may not be. The history of science, indeed, the history of thought, is littered with them.

Children are not dismayed by these because their world is changing so quickly. When one of our granddaughters was four, I was sure she had never seen an automatic garage door. I told her to watch the garage door as I held the opener behind my back. When the door shut at my invisible signal, her natural conclusion was that grandpa has a garage door that closes by itself. For her, the impossible became possible. At the age of four, that happens all the time. She does not now think that Grandpa has a garage door that opens by itself.

The older we grow, more and more apparently impossible things become possible. We do not begin to understand them, but we accept them. We are like the fellow in the old Reader's Digest joke who is in a jumbo jetliner for the first time. "How does this thing fly?" he asks his seatmate. The seatmate has some interest in the subject and goes into a long lecture about air pressure, speed, and so on. "I know all that," says his questioner impatiently, "But what I want to know is, how does this thing fly?"

As we accept what we do not understand, fewer and fewer items remain on the impossible list. There are some; there have to be, or language itself is nullified. But perhaps there are not as many as the absolute secularist thinks. Stay tuned.



All Installments of this Series:
1. The Possible Possibility, 10/2/2004
2. The Legitimately Weird, 10/16/2004
3. Nature and Supernature, 11/29/2004
4. Designer Jeans, Designer God, 1/6/2005
5. What Mathematical Certainty?, 2/2/2005
6. Credible, Not Verifiable, 2/28/2005
7. The God of Ultimate Meaning, 2/28/2005
8. Dialogue with a Postmodern Nephew, 5/11/2005 
9. Why the Bible?, 5/21/2005
10. Why Jesus?, 6/4/2005
 


About the Author:
Everett Wilson has been writing for publication since 1962, and has been thinking even longer.


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