The Thickness of the World

The Thickness of the World September 11, 2023

Header-The Thickness of the World.
This one was hard to come up with an image for. The prompt was “Robots playing in a waterfall of blood”. Yeah, grim. Generated by Adobe Firefly Beta.

I- “Clear and Thin Like Water”

Much less does it give them understanding of holy things. They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book. I, King, have dealt with the gods for three generations of men, and I know that they dazzle our eyes and flow in and out of one another like eddies on a river, and nothing that is said clearly can be said truly about them. Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.

~ C. S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces

I recently finished Till We Have Faces, and the above quote has haunted me ever since. It comes early on in the book when the goddess Ungit makes a demand of the King that seems illogical. The quote is the priest’s defense of an opaque and (seemingly) unreasonable request. 

It is a deep commentary of the nature of wisdom in general, and the more I consider it, the more it appears to illuminate the strange and dangerous sterility of the modern world. But before we can discuss what it’s saying about our own day we need to go back in time.

Centuries ago a scientific revolution came about. This revolution radically shifted our understanding of the world and led to a period aptly named the Age of Enlightenment. People felt that they were finally seeing “things clearly”. This sense of clarity has only gotten stronger as what we achieved in the centuries since then has been nothing short of remarkable.

Scientific thought brought new life even to old ideas. Democritus came up with the idea of the atom 2,400 years ago, but only in the last two hundred years have we been able to describe actual atomic properties with any accuracy and, more importantly, make use of those properties, creating both nuclear power and nuclear weapons, among other things.

However, our advances have not been confined merely to the microscopic, we’re masters of the macro as well. We’ve spread across the world building a vast and complicated global civilization. More concretely, we have mastered heavier-than-air flight, we have built computers of unfathomable power, and we have millions of scientists generating additional knowledge about every nook of creation.

Gradually, our ability to see things clearly has turned into a demand to see things clearly. Instinct, common sense, tradition, and of course religion—all the things that comprise wisdom rather than knowledge—have become gradually less important, while “clarity” has become more and more prized. However this clarity has not brought us salvation, but rather we’ve ended up with superficialities, lives that are clear, but also thin and fleeting, like water. 

Perhaps you can already sense this thinness, or perhaps you need an example. The most obvious is the lack of children. Over 50% of men younger than 50 have never fathered their own child. I believe it’s accurate to call a life without children “thin and fleeting”. Certainly some of these people wanted children and never got the chance, but others decided against children, frequently because it would muddy their own lives. They sought clarity and ended up with a life that was clear, but thin.

II- “No More Than Letters Written in a Book”

Neil Postman, perhaps less well known than CS Lewis, but equally perceptive, identified this obsession with clarity at all costs as a perversion of science. In his book Technopoly he labeled it Scientism:

This, then, is what I mean by Scientism. It is not merely the misapplication of techniques such as quantification to questions where numbers have nothing to say; not merely the confusion of the material and social realms of human experience; not merely the claim of social researchers to be applying the aims and procedures of natural science to the human world. Scientism is all of these, but something profoundly more. It is the desperate hope, and wish, and ultimately the illusory belief that some standardized set of procedures called “science” can provide us with an unimpeachable source of moral authority, a suprahuman basis for answers to questions like “What is life, and when, and why?” “Why is death, and suffering?” “What is right and wrong to do?” “What are good and evil ends?” “How ought we to think and feel and behave?” It is Scientism on a personal level when one says, as President Reagan did, that he personally believes that abortion is wrong but we must leave it to science to tell us when a fetus enters life. It is Scientism on a cultural level when no scientist rises to demur, when no newspaper prints a rebuttal on its “science” pages, when everyone cooperates, willfully or through ignorance, in the perpetuation of such an illusion.

Postman is essentially saying the same thing Lewis did: “They demand to see such things clearly, as if the gods were no more than letters written in a book.” (Postman may have been as perceptive as Lewis, but he wasn’t as poetic.) 

An understanding of “the gods” and their “thickness”—wisdom, correct behavior, connection—does not come from performing better studies or conducting more rigorous science. It does not come from translating the world into letters written in a book, or, more accurately, studies published in Nature. The only thing one accomplishes through these efforts is to narrow things so completely that you cast aside all of the important bits. This is akin to straining all of the cells out of blood. Work hard enough at this and you will eventually distill pure water, but in so doing you will have lost everything important. All that remains would be what Postman identifies as an “illusion of morality.”

None of this is to say that clarity isn’t useful. Or that water isn’t important. But when everything becomes a drive for clarity, when we turn science into scientism and imagine that it can provide us with an “unimpeachable source of moral authority”— in other words, answer ALL our questions—we both expect too much from science, but also limit the questions we ask. In this sense science doesn’t merely provide the illusion of wisdom, it actively leads us away from wisdom, into the same sterility already mentioned.

III- “Thick and Dark Like Blood”

If we can’t rely on science for wisdom and morality, then where are we to find it? I could provide a simple answer here. I could just say “religion” and be done with it. And that’s not a bad answer, but it’s precisely these simple answers that Lewis cautions us to avoid. Holy wisdom cannot be summed up in a single word, nor does it come in a straightforward fashion. We’re not looking for “knowledge and words” we’re looking for “life and strength”. 

Here we turn to yet a third author, Matthew B. Crawford, and his book The World Beyond Your Head. While Postman pointed out that we expect too much from science, Crawford points out that we expect too much from our inner preferences, i.e. our desires. In this case the thinness comes from a focus on “authenticity”. Crawford describes it thusly:

According to the prevailing notion, to be free means to be free to satisfy one’s preferences. Preferences themselves are beyond rational scrutiny; they express the authentic core of a self whose freedom is realized when there are no encumbrances to its preference-satisfying behavior. 

This supposed authenticity is just another form of (supposed) clarity without wisdom. Reality is encumbering, and wisdom derives not from ignoring those encumbrances any more than it comes from distilling these encumbrances down into numbers and data. Wisdom derives from engaging with them. Crawford explains that “thickness” is engagement with the world:

Attention is at the core of this constitutive or formative process. [What I’m calling thickness.] When we become competent in some particular field of practice, our perception is disciplined by that practice; we become attuned to pertinent features of a situation that would be invisible to a bystander. Through the exercise of a skill, the self that acts in the world takes on a definite shape. It comes to be in a relation of fit to a world it has grasped.

To emphasize this is to put oneself at odds with some pervasive cultural reflexes. Any quick perusal of the self-help section of a bookstore teaches that the central character in our contemporary drama is a being who must choose what he is to be, and bring about his transformation through an effort of the will. It is a heroic project of open-ended, ultimately groundless [i.e. thin] self-making. 

Beyond the material things listed in the quote, Crawford also discusses submission to other people as well as to inherited beliefs and traditions. In these complicated interactions—which includes things like discovery, apprenticeship, humility, charity, children, and strangers—we at last begin to approach the holy wisdom Lewis was referring to. 

Approach, but never fully arrive, because as believers we’re always striving to understand and be more like God, but we also think we’ll never quite arrive. Holy wisdom is deep, and ineffable, but it can also be simple. In my own quest to understand the world and its thickness, one scripture has been a continual source of comfort. It’s from The Book of Mormon 1 Nephi 11:17. Speaking of God, Nephi says:

I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

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