At first blush, faith seems like a quality of knowledge that could fall under the “personal knowledge” category of data source. Faith is often a deeply personal thing, though it is just as likely to not be so in evidence. Some skeptics think knowledge of God comes from the iron fist of parents and Republicans, so that would actually fit under the “knowledge-through-language” category of data sourcing. And many beliefs that derive from faith are considered myths in some speech communities, so that might fall under the “non-personal knowledge” category. Still, faith, whether religious or otherwise, may also sometimes be the domain of something completely different. It may not be a type of knowledge at all, but rather a conclusion of the will alone with almost, if not entirely, zero basis from other sources to back it up. ( In this sense, Christianity for many may not be the purest faith, since it involves reliance on The Bible and other sources generally. )

Since it seems to me that every bit of information transmitted in natural language has an implied data source element tied to it, I think natural language may have a difficult time touching the areas of faith. We may not all be entirely sure of our faith, in people, ideas, outcomes. Precisely because there is no backing for the objects of it, it is possible for the entire realm of imagination to come to the fore, leading to ever more components inside natural language and outside it as well, grasping equally unlikely and impossible ideas. (It reminds me of E Space from David Brin’s Heaven’s Reach.) Perhaps any world imagined requires a little faith (see: “Far Beyond the Stars” below).

Faith, and its linked universes, are but one manifestation of “the set of all things that are possible and impossible.” The set of all things that are possible and impossible is a large, infinite set, larger than the set of things that are merely possible. What has been, is, or will be imagined, which overlaps with the set of things possible and not, is also smaller. Since the capacity of natural language depends very much on imagination, as all texts, narratives, even biographies, are fictions (as Milosz said), language is limiting, though with its rules, it gives us the capacity to explore. This leads us to faith’s brother in the set: ethereality. This, too, could lead us beyond natural language. By this, I mean anything with one foot in our own tangible world and one foot in another, be it Heaven, Mt. Olympus, or a parallel universe slightly running slightly slower than our own. (The distinction here between ethereality and faith is mostly false, used for illustrative purposes.) As Anne Carson showed, where the Christians have holy, the ancients have MOLY. We have the sounds, can express the word, but have no idea what the expression really means, nor the etymology. The translator encounters a brilliant, not terrible, silence. It implies entire domains of knowledge outside our grasp, words, concepts, and rules for constructing them that are beyond natural language. Their utterance in our world is but a tip of the iceberg for their meaning. Translation is stopped, worthless.

One particular set of expressions, arising from faith and ethereality, is paradox. Paradoxes in conventional discourse could mean almost anything. According to wikipedia:

A paradox is a statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which defies intuition. The term is also used for an apparent contradiction that actually expresses a non-dual truth (cf. kōan, Catuskoti). Typically, either the statements in question do not really imply the contradiction, the puzzling result is not really a contradiction, or the premises themselves are not all really true or cannot all be true together. The word paradox is often used interchangeably with contradiction. Often, mistakenly, it is used to describe situations that are ironic.

Paradox is probably mostly used to describe situations defying intuition. Some paradoxes in logic, like Curry’s paradox, remain as a virtue of logic, though my hunch is that it could probably be solved by a heavy dose of linguistics. If you enjoy those games, by the way, knock yourself out. The ethereal cases we discussed above do not necessarily entail paradox of any sort, even the ironic. Rather, much paradox depends on our perceptions and beliefs. For example, is it possible for someone to be both good and evil? This questions relates to some deep questions of human nature that vex even those who do not think about them and lead to some profound art. Also: is it possible to be in the past and the future (and the present) at the same time?

Both questions were considered by Shakespeare, and one or both were considered by other greats, including Klimt, Milton, Spenser, and Dali. Klimt’s work pits the static, timeless, glittering gold medium versus passionate, timely, tangible action. His Byzantine and Egyptian influences command awe, not respect, because the meanings are meant to be ambiguous yet beautiful. Milton rejoices in the freedom to choose humanity possesses, showing that this freedom can lead to the most sublime of existences or the most dastardly, the glorious or the tragic. It is for us to choose, for we possess the potential for both. Spenser grasped at similar themes, as Kermode described:

The discords of our experience– delight in change, fear in change; the death of the individual and the survival of the species, the pains and pleasures of love, the knowledge of light and dark, the extinction and the perpetuity of empires– these were Spenser’s subject; and they could not be treated without this third thing, a kind of time between time and eternity.

Not just discords, but paradoxes, perhaps. Dali brought old symbols into modern art, meticulously plotting old stores for the modern era, but his “The Persistence of Memory” summons our consideration of our relationship with time. Most believe we live a linear existence, moving from one moment to the next. Dali suggested this isn’t necessarily the case. Although Dali showed you this idea quickly by painting, I have never seen a better explication in any other visual medium than this one from, sigh, yes, Deep Space Nine:

Of course, Shakespeare may have endured as the paradox specialist nonpareil. It is probably no coincidence his works stand above almost all others in their capacity to possess us. That’s because, unlike Twilight or Star Wars, they ask questions and there are no clear answers. We can consider them anew each day. Kermode, a critic where I am not, had much to say of the Bard:

Now Macbeth is above all others a play of prophecy; it not only enacts prophecies, it is obsessed by them. It is concerned with the desire to feel the future in the instant, to be transported beyond the ignorant present. It is about failures to attend to the part of equivoque which lacks immediate interest (as if one should attend to hurly and not to burly). It is concerned, too, with equivocations inherent in language. Hebrew could manage with one word for ‘I am’ and ‘I shall be’; Macbeth is a man of a different temporal order. The world feeds his fictions of the future. When he asks the sisters ‘what are you?’ their answer is to tell him what he will be. […] …and the similarities of language and feeling remind us that Macbeth had also to examine the relation between what may be willed and what is predicted. The equivocating witches conflate past, present, and future; Glamis, Cawdor, Scotland. They are themselves, like the future, fantasies capable of objective shape. Fair and foul, they say; lost and won; lesser and greater, less happy and much happier. […] The act is not an end. Macbeth three times wishes it were: if the doing were an end, he says; if surcease cancelled success, if ‘be’ were ‘end.’ But only the angels make their choices in non-successive time, and ‘be’ and ‘end’ are only one in God. The choice is between time and eternity. There is, in life, no such third order as that Macbeth wishes for.

That’s a mouthful, but you get a sense of the conceptual foldings that the reader must grapple with. Paradoxes may turn cause and effect on its head or involve contradictions. Whatever the case, they usually involve the existence of something that should not be given the truth value of other parts of the situation or statement. When one thing could suddenly mean another thing that was thought to be mutually exclusive, all kinds of possibilities unfold. This would, in turn, expand the scope of natural language and the landscapes of our human adventures. They are a means by which we can surpass our limits, thereby giving incentive to grow.

Advertisements