Understanding and Perception: Part 1

Recently, in preparation for a class, I re-read Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius wrote in an Italy recently captured by barbarians from a shrinking Roman empire. Being an educated Roman in a barbarian government, Boethius was caught in political machinations and charged with treason. While in prison awaiting execution, he set to work on his Consolation. The text presents a sorrowing Boethius visited by Lady Philosophy. This lady attempts to give him some consolation in the midst of his despair. Together they discuss topics ranging from the fickleness of fortune to the nature of God’s foreknowledge. The book was incredibly popular in the middle ages, being frequently translated and imitated by later writers.

Near the end of the book the pair reaches the difficult issue of how God can know the future while also allowing for human free will. As they talk, Philosophy makes this comment about human knowledge:

The cause of this mistake is that people think that the totality of their knowledge depends on the nature and capacity to be known of the object of knowledge. But this is all wrong. Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing. (Book V, Section IV)

What Boethius says through Philosophy is that human knowledge is limited by our finite capacity to understand. In context, Philosophy is arguing that just because we can’t understand how God knows what will happen in the future without making the future fixed, and thereby destroying our free will, that such a thing is impossible or illogical. Rather most humans’ intellects are insufficient to understand it. However, we need not limit Boethius’s point to the issue of divine foreknowledge, neither do I think Boethius intended us to do so.

Our understanding of reality does not circumscribe it.

Our understanding of reality does not circumscribe it.

Our understanding of reality does not limit reality. In fact, certain aspects of reality are likely to be beyond our ability to understand. A human mind understanding the totality of reality is like trying to contain the contents of the sea in a teacup. We must be very careful before we call something illogical or say that is impossible. In doing so we may be making our own minds the measure of reality instead of reality itself. Our understanding of reality does not circumscribe it.

Take the electromagnetic spectrum for example. The full electromagnetic spectrum contains a wide range of wavelengths. Humans are only able to perceive a slim range of wavelengths with our eyes, the colors red through violet. In the same way, reality extends far beyond what we are able to apprehend directly. As children learn quickly, just because you can’t see something, does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Just because we can’t understand something, does not mean that it is impossible or illogical.

I write this not to say that truth is unknowable or that it is impossible to have any certainty in life. Boethius’ statement should not lead us to a kind of fatalism in regards to knowledges, regarding truth as unknowable or unable to be understood. Post-modernism takes the immensity and complexity of reality and concludes that accurate knowledge of reality is impossible. That fact that every blind mind comes away with a different understanding of the elephant leads them to conclude that the elephant doesn’t exist. Certain religious traditions firmly declare what is true, but consider understanding suspect. For them, taking something on faith excludes understanding or exploration. God’s understanding is so much greater than ours so why try. The result is a fatalistic approach to knowledge.

We need to expand our understanding.

We need to expand our understanding.

Boethius statement above does not bring his attempt to make divine foreknowledge understandable in terms of human logic to an end. Rather his caution functions as a preface to it. It is a call for those who seek after knowledge, of any kind, to do so with humility. The understanding we have at any one moment likely falls short of the full picture. Boethius’ statement is not telling us to refrain from exploring but an encouragement not to stop. We can always dive deeper. This humility should also push us to gain a better understanding of how we know. We are in a much better position to know well when we are aware of our blind spots.


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