What’s in behind any belief is what matters most; without addressing origins, any idea falls flat on its keister, philosophically speaking. Jacques Derrida, in a university lecture during the 1970’s (he’d have been epic in the TED talks era for challenging our preconceptions) succinctly addressed the slippery matter of how to truthfully talk about natural life, or life in nature:
“When a science has a subjective genitive relation with is supposed object, when it is the object of its object, which becomes the subject of its subject, a great many consequences follow with regard to the concepts of scientificity, objectivity, truth, and so on.”
Let’s unpack this a bit, as the younger profs say. The Miss Mary song at the end of each verse averts the hearer from hearing what is originally implied, even though in their minds the audience gets exactly what has been said despite it paradoxically never being said. Like an infinite regress down through a hall of mirrors or like a single stray potato chip being flushed down a toilet after an interminable period of circling the drain, each following statement in the song’s lyrics rears its head to once replace and place an already-stated meaning. Like the tautological phrase “I know I’m alive because I’m alive” what’s most commonsensical sometimes falls beyond the purview of the very statement that seems to be addressing it. Like a magician with a flourish of her cape and wand, one statement replaces another and nothing is ever explicitly said or addressed.
The phrase “we don’t know what we don’t know” comes to mind, only many academic disciplines imagine that they do know because they fail to ask the right questions. This, says Derrida, is the nature of biological science: it can address all the facts at hand, even juggle them with methodological prestidigitation and complex jargon so as to induce an awestruck audience to nod in agreement, and yet, when the curtain goes down on the show the same key realities remain unaddressed – namely, what is the nature of life? Derrida thus notes that biological science remains today as vulnerable to “the philosophic-Socratic question that undergoes empiricism” as it did in Ancient Athens when consulting an oracle was the best way to discover truth. But why such uncertainty in the face of a seemingly overwhelming amount of evidence; don’t we know what life is by living it? The answer is that just as a mountain can never be a molehill, or a cow patty a living toadstool although certainly a dangerous spot to place your milking stool, the facts at hand to science do not address the most fundamental object of inquiry at all: life itself!
Anyone who’s fumed over memorizing the parts of a cell for their mandatory science credit course knows how far life, as it feels, strays from life as textbooks reveal. Even by admitting infinite plurality in ways and means of life, like an after-school club so open-minded that people dressed as dogs feel encouraged to attend, science falls far short of addressing the facts of what matters to living organisms in terms of who they are and how they get that way. Sure, says Derrida, “there are truths and lives, effects of truth and effects of life, but then what is the life of life, the livingness (vivance) of life, the truth of life and the truth of truth to which you must be implicitly appealing when you continue to speak of truth or of life” (141). Plainly, science can reveal much that is superficial in life (such as how a panda looks but not why it came out so monochromatic) and little about what life means and what life’s essence really is.
Behind the curtain of existence, presumably, lies an explanation for how the phrase “what is it?” can refer to a panda or a gemstone but somehow, one is imbued with life and the other is not. Henri Bergson a century ago referred to the mysterious glimmer in the eye of a living organism as a vital essence (elan vital) and since then, as we know, science has studiously pitter-pattered away from such conceptions like a child who has surreptitiously scarfed some candy from his Daddy’s candy drawer. Or it’s like a person who peers behind the curtain and, despite seeing shards of a broken bottle, allows a lady to sit there anyway, wearing her finest finery and all. Our academic minds deserve better! The jig would appear to be up, in terms of science having any final answers that matter in terms of life’s meaning. The reality of academic disciplines (that they have borders and walls and no-fly zones but avert their gaze from open philosophic zipper flies) applies just as surely to the natural sciences as it does to the other silos of academia that, happily, AU seeks to intermix through the Interdisciplinary MAIS program—highly recommended, by the way!
So curtains can go up on a fine performance for the ears or eyes or, if we’ve failed to adequately prepare for a crucial exam, it can be “curtains” for our hopes of a top grade. Yet behind every curtain there’s something worth seeing, perhaps even crucial hints to the whole scene at hand. Even joking references from the sorority and fraternity realm, such as the query about whether the carpet matches the drapes, imply a mystery behind every backdrop; that is, what we see only reveals as much as is visible to our eyes at a given time. There’s those tautologies again.
Whether we’re dressed or undressed for philosophic success here hinges on our willingness to open our minds. That’s because the mind’s eye, that mystical seat of imagination and rationality alike, is a matter all its own that nevertheless may be mapped onto the matter-of-fact world of physical matter.
It’s in our minds first and foremost that our ideas and beliefs germinate after being planted from external sources and fertilized by a whole manner of ruminations and ponderings and dreams. Science and its cultural progeny, secular humanism, rest on what seems like a simple enough foundation. Our sense tell us facts and, with a proper method, truth can be unfurled like a red carpet. Yet even as awards for genius, excellence, and innovation are handed out on the societal stage, there remains in the back a curtain of epistemics whereby how we know what merits merit is untethered from a universal measuring stick. Instead, methods are imported from the natural sciences owing to the latter’s position as prized accomplishment of modernity. “Whether surreptitiously or explicitly, the truth of biological science, both its content and its form, become the ultimate reference, the foundation or the measure of other discourses. Everything is then organized in terms of biological knowledge, everything becomes an effect of this knowledge, all discourses find in it their last recourse. This is what has often been designated, since the end of the nineteenth century, by the name biologism.” (Derrida, 1975, Life Death, P. 139) Only when someone shakes or ruffles this backdrop of smug certainty do we start to see how much is absent from even the most stolid of scholastic disciplines – the better to think critically and creatively. Curtains up!