Finally listened to the On Being episode with Maria Popova . Brilliant stuff. I especially like her discussion of the relationship between cynicism and hope and the role critical thinking has in bridging the gap. And of course anyone who is a proponent of reading Seneca is OK in my book. If you’re going to read a classical philosopher, pass by Plato and head straight for Seneca. Many more modern application for his thoughts and ideas.
One thing that bothers me about her though is her intentional neglect of western Christian thinkers in her intellectual travels. She speaks a lot about the common human record, but then ignores a vital part of it. For instance, she talks about struggling for years to understand why flashes of insight occurred to her while showering or exercising, but a reading of St John of the Cross would have made that clear. Then she goes on about how important Thoreau is to her thinking, but doesn’t seem to realize that Thoreau is indebted to St. Augustine for many of his ideas.
Part of me wonders too if her neglect of this branch of thought has created a certain self-centeredness. I am specifically thinking of when she describes what it means to be human. While speaking eloquently about how our identity as human changes with time, she can not seem to come up with an answer that does not revolve entirely around herself. Even when she starts to talk about a relational definition of mankind, she turns it into a relationship with her past identities. I suspect she is partly right, but I also think a definition of what it means to be human that ignores community cannot be complete.
Regardless, Popova’s site is a favorite and it was cool to get a peek behind the scenes.
I was reading an article on artificial intelligence and came across the following idea:
“ But it’s not just that a chimp can’t do what we do, it’s that his brain is unable to grasp that those worlds even exist—a chimp can become familiar with what a human is and what a skyscraper is, but he’ll never be able to understand that the skyscraper was built by humans. In his world, anything that huge is part of nature, period, and not only is it beyond him to build a skyscraper, it’s beyond him to realize that anyone can build a skyscraper. That’s the result of a small difference in intelligence quality.”
If we take this as true, then doesn’t it stand to reason that there are things in the vastness of the universe that we, as humans, will find to simply be beyond our ability to understand? One of the central tenets of the Enlightenment is that the world is ultimately knowable to science, but perhaps it isn’t.
Does this mean scientific inquiry is wrong? No. But it does say that we should not be so vain as to think we can ever really understand it all. And, just maybe, mystery has a place at the table of human understanding after-all.