Boxes of Truth

I once saw a very unique film by the name of Koyaanisqatsi.  This film had no actors, no dialogue, no narration, no plot, and really only a few sparse themes.  The music was minimalist and the entire 87 minute feature ran as a series of montages relating to life on planet earth- mostly by showing rivers and landscapes and occasionally cities.  It was very odd.

The point of the whole thing, however, was to demonstrate in a very unconventional way that life is out of balance on the planet earth.  (The word “Koyaanisqatsi” itself is a Hopi word that means “life out of balance”).  I’m not here to do a film review or to tell you to run out and watch something- frankly I didn’t enjoy very much of the experience- but I find the theme of the film to be an interesting one.  Is life out of balance?

I think we all know that it is.

Life is out of balance in many ways, but what I wish to discuss for now is one of the main depictions in the strange film I’ve mentioned.  Koyaanisqatsi spends a good portion of its allotted time showing cities and escalators and streets where people bustle like insects- all to the tune of very repetitive, manic music that does a good job of reinforcing the theme, but is very unpleasant to endure.   I find these depictions of man always in a hurry, always rushing about in their cars and on their phones and whatnot, very telling about where we are today and how we are out of balance in at least one sense.

Bear with me.  I mean not to say that people are too busy, or that they never rest (though perhaps in some cases that may be the truth) I see rather that people are very focused on the material.  People hurry by one another in order to get to their jobs to accomplish their work to bring home their money to purchase their technology- none of which is bad in itself.  However, is it possible that we spend all of our attention and time on that which is measurable and immediately accessible?

We live in an age where we consider ourselves “enlightened”.  And what has enlightened us?  Science, of course.  The scientific revolution changed how we live in many ways, good ways, even, but it also bled into other things, changing how we look at the world.  The scientific method is brilliant and it has helped us achieve numerous advances in medicine, technology, agriculture, and in other areas as well.  We have been presented with a wonderful gift box that reads “scientific truth” on the outside and we as a wide-eyed, eager child have opened it, spilling the golden contents out of the top of the box.  We have been blinded in this display of light and color.  “Scientific truth” is a large box and deep, but there are other, older boxes that now lie mostly neglected in the corner.  We search the depths of the “scientific truth” box, as well we should, but deeper boxes remain unprobed by modern man.

The other boxes can be called by many different names, but for now let us simply refer to them as “philosophy” and “poetry”.

You may dispute my little parable.  “Do we not have philosophy?” You may cry.  I agree that it exists in some small sense, but not much in so far as daily life is concerned, and further more it is entirely dependent upon scientific truth, making it derivative, rather than a distinct entity.  What is our culture’s philosophy?  We do not often talk about it.  We have some vague notions of happiness and decency, but really only because these things make us feel good and science tells us that they may increase our lifespans.  It is difficult for me to nail anything down as our philosophy because it is an area that is simply not discussed.  We believe man to be progressing, though he be an accident, according to our science.  We believe that people should be treated fairly, but we never really bother to explain why, which is, of course, the central question of philosophy.

You see- science asks “how?”, which is good.  Yet knowing how I built a machine does not tell you why I built it.  Science aims at truth- at least at its best it does.  We as a culture seem to believe that scientists are somehow more than common men and are therefore above bias, error, and superstition.  I wish it were so.  Science aims at truth, but it cannot possibly reveal the whole of truth- for science by definition is concerned with that which is observable, quantifiable, and repeatable.  Not everything falls into these categories.  So what do we do?  One of two things, according to the trends of this day and age: we either overextend science into areas where it cannot possibly tell us anything useful, or we deny that anything exists outside of its realm at all, devolving into a materialist perspective that is at least as old as the ancient Greeks (so much for a new enlightenment).

There are things that exist that are not observable or not measurable or not repeatable.  Philosophy and poetry are even deeper boxes than “scientific truth” I believe, but we look into them not often.  Science aims at the body of truth, philosophy at the soul of truth, and poetry at the spirit of truth.  If one desires to have a better picture of the whole, it behooves him to seek truth in more than just one of these boxes.  A mistake that is often made by those who realize their worldviews lack something is that they simply pick a convenient perspective from philosophy that lines up with what they are already doing.  This is as fallacious as the Nazi scientists (Godwin’s law, I know) who had already decided that certain races of people were inferior to their own and they then performed experiments to “prove” this.  Starting with what you want to see is no way to search for the truth.

Science asks “how?”, philosophy asks “why?”, and poetry just listens- or perhaps if we must give its questions a form it would be “what?”.  Philosophy is rare in our society- our culture doesn’t even really believe in love any more, simply because we cannot measure it or put it in a lab.  Some will claim to believe in it, but when the butterflies in their stomach go away they claim that it has died and they get a divorce because it’s convenient.  That’s not believing in love- that’s believing that anything outside of the realm of scientific truth doesn’t exist.  If the brain stops producing chemicals that make me feel in love, it must not be real anymore.  Couples who have endured together for a lifetime in love will tell you differently.

My aim in all of this is to simply say that we limit ourselves, claiming to have it all.  Philosophy is rare in our culture and poetry is almost dead.  Let us remember the slower things and think critically about what is all around us.  There is more to life than “how?”

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4 comments on “Boxes of Truth

  1. Interesting points. I join with you especially around the notion that we feel ourselves as a people to be especially enlightened. While there are pockets here and there, it has been my observation that, for most, ‘smug’ would fit better! Just because we are the newest crop of humans and are lucky enough to live in times where we have access to better toys and, yes, in many parts of the world, better infrastructure, does not necessarily imply that we are better. In fact, it seems to me, that in the absence of suffering many actually take those great gains for granted and take little time to reflect on how it all got there and at what cost. Like I said–smug.

    …but there’s always hope!

  2. Jeff says:

    Time changes, technology changes, but mankind remains the same, arrogant, self-indulgent, selfish, and yes, smug. Great post, Wes.

  3. […] talked about the limitations of science on this blog before (Specifically, here) and it bears repeating.  Science is not able to measure everything, much to the chagrin of […]

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