01 November 2008

"I do believe in spooks"

The headline of this entry is of course the affirmation of the Cowardly Lion, as Dorothy and her three allegorical companions walk through the scary forest surrounding the witch's castle. An affirmation appropriate to yesterday's holiday, surely.

I might have had my say on this holiday yesterday, but I was just bursting with amazement at the strangeness on display Thursday on CNBC.

The 19th century German logician, Christoph von Sigwart (1830 - 1894), didn't believe in the Lion's affirmation. Well ... presumably he had never walked through that particular forest. Still, let us record that he wrote: "No amount of failure in the attempt to subject the world of sensible experience to a thorough-going system of conceptions, and to bring all happenings back to cases of immutably valid law, is able to shake our faith in the rightness of our principles. We hold fast to our demand that even the greatest apparent confusion must sooner or later solve itself in transparent formulas."

The "we" in the second of those sentences is the western post-Renaissance scientific spirit, inclined to put facts into tables and draw conclusions, then impute those conclusions to God or (what is the same) the nature of things.

As Dostoyevsky knew, as his "underground man" expressed with eloquence at about the time that Sigwart was writing those words, there is also that within "us" that rebels against the "transparent formulas" in which "we" have such faith. So let the thorough-going system of conceptions have the other 364 days of the year. This one is given over to defiance, to sensible experiences that aren't so sensible, and aren't interested in "solving themselves." To flights on broomsticks and knocks on the door though nobody is there.

To the unenlightened belief in spooks.

1 comment:

Henry said...

Christopher, you mention Dostoevsky, but your post prompts two different literary associations for me. One is Philip Roth's _The Human Stain_, in which the protagonist gets in trouble for using the word "spook," when politically correct people wrongly construe it as a racial slur. The other is Hamlet's famous remark: "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy."

Wait! Here is another Dostoevsky quotation, which I filed away; it's from _Memoirs From the House of the Dead_: "Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and it does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification."

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.