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Wednesday, December 7, A.D. 2011
Kristor on Mystery

Auster frequently addresses the Darwinian question on his View from the Right, but a tangential post from a few days ago caught my eye. In it, the ever insightful commentator Kristor elaborates on the Bonaventuran distinction between apprehension and comprehension:

When we speak of knowing something, we may mean either that we apprehend, or that we comprehend. To apprehend is, literally, to “grasp at or toward.” To comprehend is to “grasp together.” Apprehension happens when we know of something, but do not understand it; we can touch it, but it escapes our grasp. Comprehension happens when we know of something and have some understanding of it; when we are able to wrap our minds around it.

So, then: we can apprehend that there is—that there must logically be—something outside our world, and greater, for only thus could there be a context, a way, a receptacle in which the world could come to be. We may come to understand certain things about that transcendent reality. But only a few things, and them but dimly. We cannot ever understand it in its fullness, or even come close. There is no way to grasp him, who has our whole world in his grasp.

The only sorts of things it is possible for us to comprehend are those that are lesser than we. These we may encompass. Part of the reason we have theories about the world is that the theories are small and intellectually manageable, as compared with the complex concrete realities to which they refer. The theories are smaller than we are. The realities to which they refer never, ever are.

To apprehend something without understanding it, is to be confronted with mystery. Sometimes we can dispel the mystery a bit by our own efforts. Our understanding may even be good enough to give us great power. But no matter how deeply we plumb a phenomenon, howsoever humble, we can never find its bottom. Take a pebble. What is it? What is its complete, exhaustive description? The answer cannot be completed, even in an infinite span of time. Nicholas Rescher points out that the number of true statements that can be made about anything is infinite; and Gödel proved that no self-consistent answer to any question can ever be completed. Thus the more one learns about something—about anything—the more one learns that there is more to learn about it. Think of something homely and familiar—say, knitting, or model railroading. One could never get to the bottom of them, never finish them, never express all their beauties. Every concrete actuality is infinitely deep.

And the reason this must be so is not far to seek; for every instance of definite being must necessarily arise in the context of, and as a derivate of, the limitless indefinite. Being as such is the necessary prerequisite and source of every particular being. Reality is infinitely deep, because its depths are in the fathomless abyss of God. So, a pebble is as rooted in God, and as full of his presence and expressive of his glory, as the highest seraph. One of the reasons scientists—even the atheists among them—do science is that, in delving into the depths of the real, they apprehend that glory, wonder and power at the root of all things. Depth calls to depth.

No matter what it grasps at, knowledge never suffices to its object. Only being suffices; for a being can suffice to itself, indeed must do so if it is actually to be. The only way to comprehend a thing fully, then, is to open oneself to it and make oneself a part of it, to partake in it. Comprehension is trans-rational, trans-cognitive. It happens when we allow ourselves to be comprehended by something larger than we are.

Such is worship. It is effected by sacrifice.

Curiously, as mystics all tell us, in the utter turn of the soul to God is delivered a full comprehension of all lesser things.

It seems to follow, then, that progress toward knowledge is an infinite activity wherein we come to know more and more what we apprehend. We never exhaustively comprehend eternal truths, but we conform our minds to being as we continue to understand it better. Only God comprehends completely.

Posted by Joseph on Wednesday, December 7, A.D. 2011
Philosophy | EpistemologyMetaphysicsPermalink
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