Monday, January 18, 2016

The Personal as the Epiphany of the Supererogatory by David Walsh

What is remarkable is the extent to which the instrumental perspective still exercises a hold on us despite its contrary exemplification in science itself.

 Within the logic of survival as the highest goal, the emergence of the mind is often regarded as significant although not a revolutionary event. Reason merely allows a more efficient application of means to guarantee the survival and flourishing of the species.. The notion that the arrival of mind exponentially surpasses biology does not seem to arise. Perhaps only humor can capture the situation in which scientists dutifully calculate the positive and negative effects on survival, while themselves operating within the realm of rationality impervious to all cost-benefit considerations. Their own thinking has left the motivation of survival so far behind that they are scarcely disturbed by the prospect of their own epiphenomenality. So profound is their commitment to the free unfolding of reason that they are even willing to overlook its significance in their dedication to the process of emergence. Truth, they proclaim with every fiber of their being, is their goal, not mere survival. Yet they continue to think only in terms of the logic of survival as the only viable explanatory basis. It is the self-forgetfulness of persons we have already noticed, although now brought to a sublimely glorious extreme. The reason for it, however, is not too hard to discern. It is the dominance of a purely objectivist perspective that lacks any room for the spectator.

 Once it is recognized that science itself is free from the servitude to any purpose beyond it, then it begins to radiate the light of the supererogatory over the whole of reality. Survival, even of the fittest, is only one of the possible goals presented by nature and not by any means the highest. The apprehension of truth, even when it is not instrumentally useful, stands far higher. Having thus loosened the straight-jacket of utility within its own thinking, science can then become the means of recognizing the overflow of purpose that seems to occur on every level of reality .Science is, in other words, not alone in transcending utilitarian calculations. In itself it attests to the degree to which rationality always exceeds any confinement within boundaries defined in advance and thereby alerts us to the extent to which the supererogatory pervades the reality it investigates. It is not just that science cannot comprehend itself. There is also a profound respect in which all that it seeks to grasp eludes it. .  .  .

“Nature loves to hide “ is one of the memorable fragments from Heraclitus. It perfectly captures the outburst of surprise by which the investigator is recurrently seized. The hiddeness of nature is one that wishes to be found, although always in such a way that it overflows the boundaries that thought had set for it. Like the game of hide-and-seek everything builds towards the moment when surprise overwhelms the participants. No matter how rationally they might have anticipated the event there remains something irrepressible about it. Sheer gratuitousness burst upon them. To ask what purpose it serves would be to misunderstand  the transcendence  of the purpose entailed, for surprise exceeds all that could be anticipated within the economy of purpose. New boundaries will then be assigned but we know that they too will be overwhelmed in the surprise that is unanticipated in all discovery.

Routine, the predictable rationality within which we live most of the time, does not endure forever. Periodically it is shattered by what cannot be predicted or anticipated because it lies beyond the purview of the merely useful. Uselessness finally has the last word, as what cannot be superseded because it is the very possibility of all supersession. Strictly speaking, however, that possibility remains confined to the world of persons. They alone can be surprised. But nature too seems to yearn to break free from the routine in which it finds itself. It seems to virtually require the presence of persons in whom that rupture of disclosure, of which nature alone is incapable, can take place. Only persons can be surprised, for they alone can be captured by routine in such a way that they fail to be captured by it. Their mode of being present as not being present is an invitation to the gift of disclosure that nature recurrently furnishes.

This means, of course, that persons are the point at which the sheer immoderate exuberance of nature is displayed. It is through persons that nature discloses more than it can disclose. They are the point at which it is definitively carried beyond itself. Without  persons the surprises hidden within nature would remained locked with expectancy ever ready to overflow expectations. Left to itself, however, nature provides only the barest hints of the expressions within it. We sense it in the profligacy with which nature has dispersed itself throughout an ever expanding cosmos, but we intuit it most directly in the capacity of all living things to leap over the merely expected. The restless inquisitiveness of all animals is the refutation of their mere existence. They are never simply what they are. This is why we can relate to them as if they were persons for they have some of element of the capacity to astonish.

It is not just the obstinacy of living creatures  that they refuse to remain within the laws of behavior assigned to them. There is an inescapable excess of creativity that will probe the limits of the possible. It is in this way that they become individuals, each with their own “personality.” By deviating from the norm they establish an identity that says the unique I is always more than the universal constituents comprising it. They do not of course change their natures in the process, but they proclaim that they are always more than nature imprinted on them. This is why I know my dog better than the vet who sees him once a year for, although the vet has a far deeper grasp of biology, the dog is always more than can be captured within the science. He loves to play. From it he undoubtedly derives many biological benefits but they would hardly be available unless he were prepared to be driven by more than biology. Is there not a metaphor for the whole of nature here, nature that loves to hide? This is not to personify nature as another presence within or behind it. The point is not to read personality into it but to appreciate the extent to which nature can only be read within the horizon of personality. To accept this, however, we must be prepared to acknowledge the provisionality of all scientific explanation. Every account of the state of affairs merely awaits the astonishment that overturns it.

The prospect may seem, at first glance, to turn science into an exercise in futility. But closer inspection suggests that it more deeply confirms the trajectory of science itself, which operates within the paradox of avoiding success. It has long been noted that the one thing that retards the momentum of science is the advent of a grand theoretical settlement of fundamental questions. Even worse would be the acceleration of progress to the point that no further questions remain to be investigated. Nietzsche loved to invoked Lessing’s observation  that scientists are not really interested in the truth, they only care about the pursuit of truth. For all who share this love of science, as opposed to its results, the discovery that science is never able to attain its goal is surely welcome. Accepting the provisionality of all that science has uncovered is no mere concession to the limits of our investigative power. It is rater a blessed release from the burden of completion and an opening into the limitless possibility of wonder from which, in Aristotle’s observation, all knowledge flows. We ought to be heartened by the realization that nothing that science knows is really known  in any definitive sense.

Every explanation adduced is only one step away from the astonishing discovery that upends it and, even when the explanation stands, we are often painfully aware that the investigators too are subject to the same necessities. The reason for this is that scientist is ultimately not outside of the reality he or she investigates. He or she understands it from within, knowing matter as one composed of it and of life as one who lives. We are not outside of the categories of our thought but find ourselves within the very things we investigate. The “explanations” at which we arrive therefore not really explanations in any ultimate sense. They are merely glimpses of the mystery by which we are held.

Science, despite the hubristic cloak in which it is often wrapped, has no more been able to pierce the mystery than philosophy. Every genuine scientist knows that the the more he or she penetrates into the subject matter the more the mystery deepens, rather than dissolves. But that in itself is sufficient reassurance. Nature that loves to hide does not close itself off from us but rather draws us even deeper into the romance of understanding that is the surety of its lasting. In the end it is only because we too are part of nature that we are capable of the adventure of deepening understanding that yet never achieves its goal.  Science is an inescapably personal activity, possible at once because persons are within nature and at the same time beyond it.

Persons alone can contain what cannot be contained, the movement of nature by which it disclose itself as always more than it is. The supererogatory, the miracle of the personal, pervades reality.  .  .


  1. “If those glad tidings of your Bible were written in your faces you would not need to insist so obstinately on the authority of that book: your works, your actions ought continually to render the Bible superfluous, through you a new Bible ought to be continually in course of creation.”

  2. “The sublime metaphysical illusion of the attainability of truth is an instinct which belongs inseparably to science, and leads it to its limits time after time, at which point it must transform itself into art; which is actually, given this mechanism, what it has been aiming at all along.”- Nietzsche.

    “Each of our lives is part of a lengthy process of the universe gradually waking up and becoming aware of itself”- Thomas Nagel

    “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living”- Jaroslav Pelikan