The Map Problem and the Fly

Questions to Ponder, 4

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 23 juli 2021

A friend of mine once told me that he had an unusual experience which took him totally by surprise.

Many years ago he walked around Moscow, before the collapse of the Soviet Union, consulting a map so as to know where he was. From where he stood, he could see several huge churches, – but not one of them appeared on the map. When he asked a tour guide, he was told: “In Russia, we do not show any churches on our maps.” When he showed the guide that there was one church that was marked on the map, the guide responded: “That is a museum, not a living church. It is ‘living’ churches we do not show.”

My friend asked me what I made of that statement. I told him that I had often been confronted with this strange response. I had seen, studied or experienced many great things that were denied by /or absent in my school or university education, and even in yeshiva. In fact, very often these were matters I cared about most.

I received a great secular education during which my teachers kept telling me that the matters I cared about most were nothing more than “museums”, – irrational beliefs and superstitions. These were matters that my ancestors took very seriously, and consequently subjected themselves to certain beliefs, rituals, prayers, the Bible and different forms of religious experience.

However, I was told that today we know better and I should ignore these matters. Sure, one was allowed to speak about the Bible and prayer, but not in the sense that they really have value or that they are true or applicable to real life. Sure, these beliefs were to be treated with respect since our ancestors believed in them – but while they may have been great people, in truth they had fallen victim to backwardness and underdeveloped concepts.

The point my teachers, including my professors, were making was that on the real map of life only those matters that can be proven are to be shown. These are real. The principle that was constantly emphasized was: “If in doubt, leave it out.” – otherwise, it was only good enough to be shown in a museum.

However, over the years I grew beyond my teachers and I started to ask them what actually constitutes “proof”. The answers I got were poor, inadequate and often revealed a lot of doubt. When I looked deeper it became clear to me that proof is a very subtle and complicated topic, and that many “proven” proofs were open to doubt. After all, all that was proven was only proven on the basis of certain beliefs which themselves cannot be proven, such as the immutable existence of the laws of nature or the logic of logic.

Perhaps it is better to claim: “If in doubt, demonstrate it clearly.” For it is doubt that gives one an education. Doubt makes you look much deeper, touching on matters you otherwise would never even realize.

Even more important was the issue that something “proven” no longer required further investigation – for it no longer constitutes a challenge to life. And that which cannot be challenged is dead.

True, if I do not limit myself to that which can be proven, I run the risk of error, but by limiting myself I run the risk of missing out on that which is most important. “The slenderest knowledge that may be obtained of the highest things is more desirable than the certain knowledge obtained of lesser”, said Thomas Aquinas in the name of Aristotle (1) Perhaps the nature of higher things simply cannot be known with the same certainty as lesser things.

When I am told – in the name of scientific objectivity – that “meaning”, “value”, “religious experience”, and “moral intuition” are nothing but the result of biological mechanisms, similar to the workings of a computer, I wonder whether I am not being fooled.

Are these very items not the results of another dimension that my brain cannot reach, but where my very being hears a voice that cannot be expressed in words and indeed, will remain ineffable?

Should we not be afraid to miss out on the most important, higher matters only because we do not want to admit that there is more to our lives, than that which can be proven.

I experience awe, a sense of transcendence, an ongoing awareness of mystery, a thunderbolt in which the flash of the undisclosed is just for a moment revealed.

And these are not derived from logical assumptions and scientific studies. They are the result of an immediate insight, self-evident as the light we see with our eyes. And are no less than an expression of splendor.

These matters may not be on the map of some very sophisticated people. For me this is “proof” that their map has been redacted. They may laugh about my primitive notions; but I think they are the victims of the prisons of their minds.

It is like the fly of Ludwig Wittgenstein that cannot get out of the bottle because it forgets to look upwards.

(1) See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, 1,1,5 ad 1.

7 + 3 = ?

Columns 2024

Columns 2023

Columns 2022

Columns 2021

Columns 2020

Columns 2019

Columns 2018

Columns 2017

Columns 2016

Columns 2015

Columns 2014

Columns 2013


Crescas kan niet zonder jouw steun. Met elke donatie, hoe klein ook, steun je onze activiteiten en zorg je dat wij nog meer voor Joods Nederland kunnen betekenen.