I have, alas, studied philosophy, / Jurisprudence and medicine too, / And, worst of all, theology / With keen endeavor, through and through— / And here I am, for all my lore, / The wretched fool I was before.
For many years now I have been an avid autodidact. I have, alas, studied philosophy, ancient and modern, analytic and continental. I have read tomes of history and slogged my way through old poems and enormous novels. I have slammed my intellect against textbooks—physics, chemistry, psychology, economics—often to no avail. Theology, biography, books in foreign tongues, collections of essays and classics of science—I have read them all.
And yet, despite all this, a feeling of ignorance, utter and hopeless ignorance, often plagues me. And this feeling is not entirely illusory. After all, there are still huge swaths of knowledge of which I have not the faintest idea. How does a computer work? What about the history of China, Russia, India, Latin America? How do you grow corn or build a house? How do lithium batteries or Wi-Fi work? The world around me is still, in large part, mysterious. And even if I spend my whole life investigating, there simply isn’t enough time to learn it all.
This bothers me. Partially it is a feeling of being inauthentic. How can I be a citizen of a world I don’t understand? How can I act intelligently and make wise choices if so much is beyond my grasp? One need not be omniscient to live authentically, of course; and partial knowledge, being the best we mortals can ever achieve, is what we must work with. Still, it does seem that the more complex the world becomes, as the global economy weaves more and more lives into a tighter knot, the more we must learn in order to achieve even a basic understanding of the ramifications of our lives.
Thoreau felt this, I think, which is what drove him into the woods. At least there, living simply and in relative isolation, he could hope to come to grips with his world. In our post-industrial society, this is simply impossible. Take, for example, the desk that my computer is sitting on. The top is made of wood. Where was the tree cut down, where was the wood cut up, and who did this? What chemical process was used to dye the wood? And the metal legs: What kind of metal is it, where does it come from, how was it put together? Hundreds of people must have had a hand in this simple table, from its beginning as a tree, to the factory, to the truck that transported it, and the shop that finally sold it.
And this is just a table. Multiplied by all the objects in your life, you can get some idea of how enmeshed you are in relationships and technologies that you do not, and cannot, completely understand. I think this feeling of being ignorant of the sources of your own possessions, the fabric of your daily life, is part of what drives me to read.
The table example only touches on the social world. What about questions about the natural world? How does my body work, and why does it have the shape it has? Where did the universe come from and what are its properties? What is the fundamental truth of things? What is the order of reality? Human science has done an astoundingly successful job in tackling these questions. Indeed, it is by far the most successful example of human intellectual efforts. Even so, the world we have discovered is so amazingly complex that no one mind could understand it all. You have to specialize, and study for years, to hope to deeply understand even one part of it. As for the rest, we must settle for simplified versions, popular accounts, sketchy outlines. And even with this recourse, we must still learn continuously if we hope to survey everything.
The vastness of available knowledge, then, is another reason why I read. But there is still a deeper reason. This has to do with what might be called ‘existential’ questions, questions about the meaning and purpose of life. What does it mean to be good? What does it mean for a society to be just? Why are we here, what should we be doing? Questions like these driver seekers into the arms of poets, philosophers, and preachers. These are the questions that have been asked most persistently by our benighted species. We have been hoping to find our place in the universe since the very beginning. And yet, it is these questions that most trenchantly resist final answers.
Seen in this way, the quest for knowledge may seem hopeless. We may end up feeling like Faust, bitter and disappointed, after a lifetime of effort for negligible results. The utter hopelessness of this search is what, I think drives some into religions, where God serves as a universal explanation and justification, for everything and anything. It drove Faust in the opposite direction. Nevertheless, the impossibility of total knowledge or final answers does not mean that we cannot achieve adequate knowledge and workable answers. Our history, our philosophy, literature, and science, has clearly proven otherwise. So instead of being bitter like Faust and selling our soul to some deity or devil, we should embrace the endlessness of the quest. After all, the world would be terribly boring if we could know everything about it.