Unknowable Unknowns

| January 19, 2017 | 19 Replies

Philosophy is to be studied, not for the sake of any definite answers to its questions, since no definite answers can, as a rule, be known to be true, but rather for the sake of the questions themselves; because these questions enlarge our conception of what is possible, enrich our intellectual imagination and diminish the dogmatic assurance which closes the mind against speculation; but above all because, through the greatness of the universe which philosophy contemplates, the mind also is rendered great, and becomes capable of that union with the universe which constitutes its highest good. ~Bertrand Russell

I posted recently about some thoughts I experienced on a cold desert night on a recent outing. Although not explicitly mentioned, these were not necessarily welcome thoughts, having emerged out of a tired, sleepless night. I am no stranger to sleepless nights, but when out in the desert I don’t experience them as often as I do in other places, unless by choice. When out in the welcoming peace and silence of the wild I generally sleep better than in the human hives. In my case, “better” means that I still wake up every couple of hours, but upon realizing where I am, I am comforted and drift back into sleep. But this time was different. I felt anxious, and was out hoping to find some solace in solitude. It didn’t work.

I found myself caught in the defeating cycle of a creative block. For some days prior, I wished to write (although at times this happens when I wish to photograph, too), but found myself unable to come up with useful ideas. When ideas did come, they did not lend themselves to a narrative, and at the end of an unproductive day I was filled with frustration. The block made me anxious, and the anxiety piled more blocks on top of the first block, and the pile of blocks made me more anxious, and the greater anxiety poured a truckload of concrete on top of the pile of blocks, which gave anxiety something to climb up on where it could shout louder and further and summon more truckloads of blocks and concrete and heavy machinery hauling cargo ships loaded with containers filled with depleted uranium… Deep breath.

Which brings me to this post. I am writing these words to break the feedback loop of anxiety and lack of inspiration, to sabotage the engine of discontent. Knowing how such mechanisms feed off themselves also reveals the way to defeat them. It is not enough to wait, to hope that the evil machine will malfunction or consume itself like the mythical ouroboros. That would be like looking at a bulldozer heading toward your house and hoping it will run out of gas. Certainly this will happen at some point, but is it worth the cost of waiting? No, when considering the potential damage, a more radical solution is in order: shoot the driver; throw a monkey wrench into the spinning gears; pour epoxy into the oil reservoir; steer the blasted thing off a cliff, then load it up with dynamite, light the fuse and walk away laughing maniacally. Make sure it not only stops, but cannot be restarted again. Not only dead, but dismembered beyond recognition and reconstruction. There, I feel better already.

When I’m blocked, I write streams of consciousness. I purge my brain. I let thoughts flow and mix into random concoctions. I don’t expect any of it to be good in itself, I just want it out of my mind. It’s no different than expelling any other undesired substances from my being—whether physical or intellectual (with no offense intended to non-dualists; you are not entirely wrong, just oversimplifying things to the extreme).

If you are short on time, the rest may not be of much use to you. Bear with me if you wish. This will be more entertainment than substance.

Why don’t we have a proven solution to creative blocks? A pill? A ritual? A treatment? Because creativity is one of the great mysteries of the human brain (and there are many). We literally don’t know what we are and how we function, and likely are unable to know much of it.

The human brain is the most complex structure we know of in the universe. Yes, that universe—the one that stretches nearly a hundred billion light years across (that’s a hundred billion times 5,878,499,810,000 miles), home to a couple of trillion galaxies spreading out faster than the speed of light… and still accelerating. For scale, if you tried to travel from one edge of our fairly ordinary galaxy—the Milky Way—to the other edge, going at the speed of light (roughly 186,000 miles per second), it would take you about 100,000 years. More precisely, someone waiting for you on planet Earth will have to wait 100,000 years for you to finish that journey. As far as you’re concerned, you will—literally–make the trip in no time at all. Because to an entity traveling at the speed of light, there is no such thing as time. Everything happens at once. Don’t try to wrap your brain around that. You can’t. If you want to get close to understanding it, learn math.

Consider that there are (as far as we know) a couple of trillion galaxies like (or unlike) our Milky Way out there, most comprising of hundreds of billions of stars each, which in turn are each often encircled by a few planets, and you get an idea of how much “stuff” is out there. Now consider that all that “stuff” makes up about 4% of the measurable mass in the universe. The other 96%? Umm… we have no idea. But all of it is arranged in beautiful self-similar fractal patterns, because… well, we have no idea; held together by gravity, which is… hmm, no idea there, either. We’re pretty sure that all of it emerges out of random fluctuations in “fields” (no, we don’t know what these are, actually, why they have the laws and values that they do, whether they are finite or infinite, or why it all lends itself so perfectly to mathematical representation). But I digress.

To my original point, to compare something with what we “know of in the universe” really implies a continuation of that sentence, which is this: we really don’t know much about the universe, and we know that much of the “much” is not only unknown, but very likely unknowable—placed by the very laws of physics out of reach of the limited intellects emerging out of self-perpetuating clumps of particles arranged, for some minute period of time, as tiny ape critters.

Where was I? Oh yes, we have no idea how our brains do certain things, creativity being one of them, which is why we don’t know how to “cure” creative blocks.

Despite overwhelming opposition and violent defense of ignorance and superstition perpetrated by the majority of our species, some humans actually do manage to stubbornly eke out knowledge about the brain’s working, about the universe and about the nature of existence. As it turns out, the more we uncover about the true nature of things, the more we realize how little resemblance exists between reality and what we believe or assume it to be. We also find ourselves on a relentless trajectory toward an understanding of our utter unimportance in any objective sense. With every new discovery in cosmology we become more minute in the vastness of space and time; with every advancement in neuroscience, evolutionary biology and psychology we are faced with how limited, distorted and irrational our knowledge and choices are, how wrong most of our perceptions are and (to the chagrin of many) that even our celebrated consciousness—including its most elevated dimensions: virtue and compassion and love—likely amounts to little more than chemical processes evolved to maximize biological fitness.

Bit by bit we learn the enormity of our delusions and denial. Thank… well, existence, that we also possess the ability to philosophize—to place all our knowledge and intuitions, perceptions and superstitions—into a framework that transcends them all and that suggests a context where they may all coexist, where there is at least the possibility—however remote—of an explanation to link them all consistently and coherently. And the more we fill in the pieces in philosophy—the greatest puzzle of all—it appears that the only attitude toward life that remains defensible in the face of what we know and what we don’t know and what we know to be unknowable, is this: the quality of our living experience has nothing to do with us being divinely endowed benevolent beings (in fact, there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary) but rather that whatever meaning we may find in our existence is entirely subjective; that any notion of what is “meaningful” can only exist within arbitrary boundaries of time and space—objectively speaking, a very short amount of time and a very tiny amount of space.

Our quality of life ultimately is measurable only by one currency—one that has no fixed system of measure, no absolute baseline, no quantifiable units or denominations, and no universal notation. And the quality is this: the value we take from experiences encountered in the course of conscious living. And although there is no system of measure for quality of experience, we know it behaves as some measurable things do: more is better. And if we set aside the stochastic elements, there does remain one thing that is positively correlated with quality of experience, and that is measurable, at least within the boundaries of our practical existence on this planet: time. And not just time in the abstract, but time used according to our subjective preference (no, this is not the same as “free” time). Which points to what I consider humanity’s most grotesque manifestations of cognitive dissonance: the thoughtless way in which we squander our most valuable of assets—the allotment of conscious moments of living we are each given. How many activities would you guess will be stopped dead in their tracks if one was to consider: is this the absolute best use of my living moments? the most rewarding and (subjectively) meaningful option available to me right now?

Consider this: what if you were diagnosed with an incurable terminal condition and knew you will be dead within some unspecified number of years. How would that change your attitude and your priorities? Will you be scared? Will you steer yourself differently? Will you think the same way about people, about your career, about where you live, about how much time you spent on those activities you find most meaningful?

I regret to tell you that you actually have been diagnosed with such a condition. No, this is not a joke or a metaphor. I am not being sarcastic or vague or a smartass. I am completely serious. You really are afflicted with a terminal condition with a 100% mortality rate. You really will die within a number of years. You are afflicted (gifted/blessed/endowed—pick your word, it’s all semantics) with life. I dare you to make good on your answers to the questions in the previous paragraph.

I steer clear of discussing faith. I’m a philosopher with a strong penchant for logic. I have yet to meet a single person whose most deeply held beliefs I could not shake profoundly (and this has nothing to do with whether such a person is, by any definition, “religious”). Are you a humanist? an environmentalist? a scientist? a materialist? an idealist? Don’t get too comfortable, I can reduce those to indefensible paradoxes, too. In time I learned that people do not respond well to their life philosophies being challenged, unless they initiate such challenges themselves, intending and willing to accept the consequences of their inquiry. I also learned that there is little to be gained form doing so. It’s not that difficult, really; we are all deeply delusional and hypocritical. And so I will leave alone whatever you choose to believe about the prospects of a life beyond this one. I will say this, however: an afterlife is a terrifying concept. To know that death is final is the most comforting of thoughts. It implies that things cannot get worse. It is also the most liberating of thoughts. It implies that striving to maximize the quality of experience in this life is the only attitude that is logically defensible, and therefore is the most justified way to live.

And if there is an afterlife, and knowing what little we know of the immensity of the universe, why would anyone wish to return to this clump of dust? to this short-lived and intellectually challenged species? In fact, given the astounding scale of the universe, even if there is an afterlife, statistics alone suggest that it is unlikely to the extreme that anyone will “come back” as anything remotely resembling a human. And so, the consequences of such belief is the same as believing there is no afterlife: in this life, maximizing the value of subjective experience remains the only justified and defensible attitude.

And what if we are all part of a greater consciousness? and what if we are not? and what if we live in a simulation? and what if we really don’t have free will? (all plausible theories postulated, very convincingly, by philosophers). Those, too, lead to the same inevitable conclusion: without actual knowledge to the contrary, the most logical and defensible attitude remains the pursuit of meaningful life experiences.

There. I wrote 2,000 words. Goodbye, block.

Cold Embers

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Thoughts and Musings

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (19)

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  1. Steve says:

    A wonderful exercise. Have you read Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow ? How would I change my priorities? I wouldn’t read blogs/journals 😉

  2. Jared says:

    Thank you, Guy. I enjoyed reading this as much as any of your other wonderful essays. I sincerely wish time and circumstances allowed us to be friends, so we could have these kinds of conversations while wandering around your favorite playgrounds. ☺️✌️

  3. Dave Benson says:

    I could feel the freight train gaining momentum as it roared down the tracks…

    and I kept thinking back to Douglas Adam’s and his writings…

    … and my priorities certainly have changed over the past few years… mellower to be sure…

  4. Dave Kosiur says:

    Love it! One of your best essays. A great read, one I’ll revisit frequently.

    The paragraphs about physics and the “known universe’ were particularly timely, as I just finished reading Arthur Zajonc’s “Catching the Light”.

  5. Herb Cunningham says:

    What is the cause of death? Birth.
    Until we actually experience what is real and
    what is projected, we are doomed to examine
    what others say, and if we accept it, that becomes
    our ‘belief’. The whole metaphysical scene
    is filled with proponents of a particular solution; some historical
    figures support their teaching. Unless one
    actually accepts a position that makes good sense (to them),
    one has to continually challenge what is and is not.

  6. Lydia Goetze says:


    Some time go I had a bad block that was interfering with the photography I needed to do to nurture my spirit. A person I respect suggested I make a 3-D construct of the block, and I devoted time and thought to doing so. We then discussed the various parts of the piece and how to get rid of each part of the block. It was very effective and freed me up to get on with the creative work I needed to do.

    I really like your work!

  7. John Wall says:

    Very materialistic and logical! Maybe a little irrationality would throw a stick at that uroboros. Then again, maybe if you don’t stop the snake, it’ll finally strike the back of its own head and let everyone in for a surprise.

    “Because to an entity traveling at the speed of light, there is no such thing as time.” There would be no space either, so no such thing as traveling!

  8. Tom Robbins says:

    Yeah, interesting exercise!

    Your comment about traveling at the speed of light reminded me of the quantum entanglement phenomenon, or “spooky action at a distance”. Traveling at the speed of light, a photon that goes a million light years is, from its own perspective, simultaneously at its starting point and a million light years away. This sort of thinking can disturb a good night’s sleep!

  9. Brad Mangas says:

    I relate to this more than I should admit.

  10. Jules Stern says:

    Thanks, a very deep and well written essay, as usual. I like very much your honesty and desire to share with us your experience. However…this time you digressed significantly from your main subject and many things you mentioned are highly controversial. You said “I have yet to meet a single person whose most deeply held beliefs I could not shake profoundly “. With due respect, this is highly arrogant and you seems again to place yourself as the only owner of truth and disregards the intelligence that other also have. Where is your openness of mind ? You can probably shake mine, but I am not so sure I could not also shake yours, in spite of your affirmation. Also, you say “the most logical and defensible attitude remains the pursuit of meaningful life experiences”. Although I understand your point of you, which I agree with in some way, this attitude of doing whatever it takes to maximize our self pleasure can be quite dangerous (many terrible things made to human beings are done exactly in the name of that principle. Who cares what they feel as long as I get pleasure, thus enhancing my own experience). So the “religious” way of thinking that you despise so much has at least the advantage of preventing this type of atrocities (I grossly simplify here due to lack of space). If I have to choose a dream helping me to have a better life and allowing my human family to be protected from my own selfishness and pleasure-seeking individual, isn’t it better to believe in an afterlife ? I think so.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Point well taken, Jules. I would argue that knowing you can shake people’s beliefs is not an arrogant position but a statement of fact rooted in the nature of beliefs: they cannot be defended with knowledge and are therefore inherently shakable.

      By all means, I welcome any shaking of my beliefs and, if done convincingly, I will most certainly change them. This is the definition of openness of mind.

      I wrote this in another context but it’s worth repeating: it is quite well known that people are bad at judging what will bring them happiness. Selfishness, in particular, is among those things that do not, in fact, bring happiness or fulfillment. Studies show that such things as kindness and generosity are among the things that do. So, by maximizing those experiences known (not erroneously believed) to bring happiness and meaning, one also becomes more benevolent.

      I sincerely hope you are not proposing that religious belief has not been implicated in, if not directly responsible for, atrocities.

      • Jules Stern says:

        Thank you for your kind and respectful answer. Of course, religious believes have been many times hijacked to justify atrocities, I am with you on this. Some religions are much more prone than others to justify such barbaric acts (should I name some ?). If you take the case of Christianity for example, it is amazing that the sack of Constantinople have been committed by so-called Christians, even if everything proves quite clearly to my mind that they were nothing alike. Consider atheism (which is I would argue loosely a kind of “religion” to the no-God, with its prophets, sacred books, believes not to be contested, fundamentalists, etc) , not to be confounded with agnosticism. The worst atrocities of human history (in numeric term) have been committed in the name of atheism by true believers (Mao, Stalin, Hitler). The problem is not religion I would suggest, it is the madness of mankind (again I greatly simplify due to lack of space, this would deserve to be expanded further). Anyway, thank you for sharing your view, I will continue to read with great interest all of your post. I suggest to your analysis that there are other way to consider life as pure nihilism, while maintaining a “reasonable” level of intellectual and logic integrity. Best regards.

  11. Dick thomas says:

    I like many, cherish your writing and consider you to be a source of inspiration and knowledge, especially as I work to enjoy my creative efforts more deeply and realize, through your words, that I create for myself first and an appreciation by others and sales of my images are secondary. But I want to say I too was uncomfortable when reading this essay. I felt as if you were angry and chose to talk down to your audience and challenge us to try and defend beliefs we cling to that you can shake so profoundly. I guess it rattled me because I look to you to help me put words to my own thoughts on photographic art and creativity that I’m unable to define myself. Not to remind me I’m going to die someday. I already know that. You remain, however, a source of inspiration to me.

    • Guy Tal says:

      I’m sorry I let you down, Dick. You are right, I was angry, and writing sometimes helps me exorcise my demons. But, I agree with you, cynicism is not the best way to do so. I do believe that defending your beliefs is a useful exercise for a person to do for themselves (I recognized, and had to give up, a few of my own beliefs this way, and, difficult as it was, I later realized it made my life better). But, like all deeply personal things, this is something one should do in private, at their own will and for their own edification.

      • Dick thomas says:

        Thanks Guy. I do have your book and ebook before that. Your writing means so much to me. We all have our moments. Please carry on and continue to gift us with your words, even if it means we are helping you get past a bump in the road.

  12. Pam Kelso says:

    The stream of consciousness is real. You wrote this on Jan. 19, 2017 the day a man was inaugurated that caused worldwide loud protests. Huge anger and rage expressed verbally outside. Just because you were out in the desert doesn’t mean that you were immune to the huge disturbance in the mental global stream of consciousness. These events yanked a lot of people out of their heart energy into their mind, churning minds in this case. I keep up with some current events because I feel I need to gauge my level of protectedness when I’m outside. Do I just need to wear a hamsa necklace or write it in letter all over my body?

    All nature photographers are sensitive, otherwise they would not be doing what they are doing.

    Breathe, sit with your bottom on the earth, reconnect with your love of what you do. You are ungrounded because of the huge amount of mental angst and fear swirling around you.

    When I feel like this I take time out, put my favorite music on and look deeply through my archives at the natural beauty I have found in the past to document and pass on. I feel better when I’m done and I haven’t contributed to the negative thoughts in the stream of consciousness.

    I spotted the flowers in this link ( http://www.pamkelso.com/portfolio/G0000R6QwTsmBVTE/I0000OPTYOKwdBRw ) a few days before January 19th and went back on that day to capture them. I was windy and ugly. People were driving like they had planks on their shoulders instead of chips. I did get a few that satisfied me and then went to the café across the street where people were cranked, loud animated discussions on everything but I knew what was going on so I transmuted much of it. We are not immune from current events even though we are not a part of it, even in the wilderness.

    Look at your work when you get stuck in your head. You are an amazing photographer and your work is inspiring and enlightening.

    Feel better and be healthy.

    • Guy Tal says:

      Thank you so much for these wonderful words, Pam!

      The reason for my anger was actually a different one. To a degree I probably am more immune to political turmoil than most, but I am certainly not oblivious to it.

      We each deal with those cases where reality fails to meet ideal in different ways. To an outsider it may well seem that most of my life is already a “time out,” from the oddities of the human-made worlds. But, none of us is immune to turmoil within (perhaps with the exception of the most devoted meditators, whose inner peace I admit I don’t really envy—I like feeling powerful emotions, and the extremes do seem to enhance each other).

      My work, to me, indeed is also a form of self-therapy (as is art, in general), and I am very grateful for, and comforted by, having the opportunity and skill to engage in it.

      I hope you are well,

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