Saturday, November 11, 2006

No Easy Answers to Difficult Questions

No Easy Answers to Difficult Questions

If you are a person interested in easy answers, then these pages are not for you.  I remember when I was a young teacher, very green about the gills and all of 22 years of age, a fellow teacher challenging me with the question “what is it all about?”  It was only years later, when Ger Smith had died at the young age of some 30 years, that I learned that he had suffered from a congenital heart disease from birth and that his allotted span on this earth was limited.  Hence the question, and that question did stop me in my gallop as it were.  Such questions are big questions and there are no easy answers.

I have always been captivated by the big questions not merely as an intellectual pursuit but also as an existential wrestling match with one’s own soul or spirit.  Other questions that have also fascinated me are questions about the origins of our universe.  I have read Stephen Hawking’s brilliant A Brief History of Time when it was first published.  I hasten to add that I did not understand much of it.  I was rather enthralled by the whole task this marvellously brilliant mathematician and theoretical physicist set before him – that fundamental work and project of all physics namely an ultimate explanation of the origins and destiny of the universe in complicated mathematical equations.  Understanding each little iota of the theory did not bother me at all, it was the very beauty of the overall project that caught my imagination.

I went on to read a marvellous introduction to his life and work by two physicist friends, Dr. Michael White and Dr. John Gribbin, simply called Stephen Hawkin: A Life in Science (Viking, 1992).  Therein we are introduced to this wonderful mind, prisoner of a most disobedient body.  A physicist, out and out, is Hawkin.  Not for him the rather tame answers of theologians and believers.  Not for him the cloudy thinking of metaphysicians either.  He has absolutely no time for the likes of Jung, to whose great work and marvellous personality I am very attracted, and certainly no time at all for Jung’s marvellous theory of synchronicity which I will explain in a later post.  White and Gribbin allude to the serendipitous fact that 8 January 1942 was both the three-hundredth anniversary of the death of one of history’s greatest intellectual figures, the Italian scientist Galileo Galilei, and the day Stephen William Hawking was born into a world torn apart by war and global strife.  They go on significantly to point out that Hawking would typically reply to this coincidence that “around two hundred thousand other babies were born on that day, so maybe it is after all not such an amazing coincidence.” (op. cit., p 5)

Stephen Hawking’s writings are brilliant.  I learned from this biography cum introduction that like Dawkin he has no time for much apart from his physics.  Consequently he is not really too concerned with metaphysics or psychology or soul work.  That does not reduce him in my eyes.  His outlook on the world could be termed to be stoic in that traditional sense.  He blames no one, and certainly no God as he is an atheist, for his severe medical condition.  Rather, he sees life as a mere question of luck, how the atoms and molecules or life substances evolve and collide.  We are, after all, to quote the great Bertrand Russell mere “collocations of atoms.”  However, for anyone interested in the big questions Hawking is worth wrestling with as is Bertrand Russell.

On the other side of the debate I am singularly put off by the dogmatism of the fundamentalists in all religions who have easy answers to all the big questions.  I cannot stand the self-righteousness of any of the Creationists.  I am doubly annoyed at the fundamentalism of the Bible Belt Americans who support the blind “gung ho” policies of the oil-man president George W. Bush.  Easy answers to big questions bring much suffering in their wake.  As I have mentioned in other posts fundamentalism in science I also eschew because it is simply as bad as fundamentalism in religion.  It reduces the questions to either science or mathematics and leaves no room for mystery, creativity, genius, aesthetics, spirituality, moderate open religion, morality or ethics.

An old school teacher who taught me many years ago had a lovely phrase or proverb which went, “always beware the man who has only read one book.”

This is where the philosophy of a good sound liberal education comes in.  We must educate our children in all the ways of human culture, both yesterday and today, in the liberal arts, in the sciences, in the human sciences, in sociology, philosophy, psychology, anthropology, theology – in the whole enterprise of all learning in all its various categories.  Obviously they will only be able to study certain subjects in great detail as Renaissance man or woman is long dead.  However, we must educate our youth to open to all knowledge from all areas of human endeavour.  It’s too easy to dismiss.  Let us call upon the epistemology of the likes of a Socrates who declared his ignorance first before proceeding on his path to the discovery of the new.

Let us cultivate a system of education that seeks to ask the big questions; that seeks to continually deepen the questions; to make them more precise; to question easy answers; to be open to everything that’s new and novel; not to dismiss anything without giving it a fair hearing at the bar of living experience; to be open to the multiplicities of approach to subjects; to see intelligence in its multiple forms and not to reduce it to mathematics or linguistic prowess; to cultivate formation of character as well as information in facts and finally to promote peace and understanding between all humankind. The picture I have placed above is The Opening of The Fifth Seal of The Apocalypse by El Greco

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