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The enigma of knowing

  • 17 February 2022
  Confusion is the beginning of Wisdom. Socrates In the 1930s the esteemed epistemologist Karl Popper clarified an important aspect of what constitutes human knowledge. He asserted that all human knowing is provisional: our best approximation of reality at a particular point in time. Although it may appear obvious now, it was an important break though in our understanding of the nature of knowledge at a time when knowing was closely aligned with factual truth. It enabled the holding of a creative tension between what was currently known and what was yet to be discovered. Truth, it would appear, is not discovered and left undisturbed but is continually discerned in a process that unfolds organically.

At a time when the Catholic Church is being invited to greater humility by the Plenary Council and greater synodality by Pope Francis it may be prudent to acknowledge both the richness and limitations of human knowing, especially when it comes to matters concerning ultimate reality. A progressive understanding of the nature of knowledge will enable the Church to tell its story with boldness and humility. It will also enhance its capacity to honour the wisdom of other faith traditions and, indeed, of other important disciplines.

In the religious sphere the mystical tradition had a nuanced understanding of knowing within the spiritual realm. It posits three dimensions of the soul: intellect, will and memory. Each dimension has an ambiguous quality insofar that it reveals and veils reality at the same time. In this short article the function of the intellect, its relationship to the holy and its role in revelation are considered.

The intellect helps one to understand and relate to the world through the formation of concepts and the use of images. It equates to a knowing by naming and picturing. It is a powerful way to be in the world, enabling a deep understanding, control and manipulation of many aspects of reality. For example, human ingenuity allows for the greening of the deserts; the transformation of stored water into electrical energy; and the ability to look into outer space to witness the birth and death of distant stars. It is easy to see why the ancient Greek philosopher Protagoras spoke of man (sic) being the measure of all things. 

Yet, Christian Scripture points to another truth about what it means to be human. In the Garden of Eden story, the author alludes to the limits of human understanding and