The Unknown

Every Wednesday I meet up with my friend Chris at a local cafe, and we discuss spirituality, existentialism, society and systems. These are some of the thoughts from today’s discussion:

The unknown has long been of philosophic interest to me. This is my first attempt to codify some of those thoughts.

When discussing the unknown, several orders seem to present themselves: The first order of the unknown, the minor unknown, concerns instances of a known system yet to be perceived. An example of this would be chess combinations. Although no one has ever witnessed all possible chess combinations, the system by which such combinations are known is known, and so the unseen combinations, while unknown, are recognizable. These unseen combinations would be of the first order of the unknown.

The second order of the unknown, the major unknown, concerns systems that are unknown. In this case, the instances of such systems are both unknown and unrecognizable. Whenever these new systems are learned, there is a profound experience of awakening to new realities, and a shift in thinking. This type of learning is harder to come by – unless a friend or teacher can identify the systems still unknown to the seeker – but learning these systems can be profoundly satisfying. Once learned, the contents or implications of the system become reduced to the first order of the unknown.

The third order of the unknown, the inaccessible unknown, refers to systems that are both unknown and unknowable, but which remain recognizable in their effects. The differences in life experience between men and women is a good example: A man can learn to appreciate the systems by which a woman understands her life, but he can never directly know that system; as such, the instances of that system are never directly recognizable, but only identifiable by developing an affinity for the traits often characterizing such instances. This implies being aware of something without being able to know it.

The fourth order of the unknown, the great unknown, applies to systems which are both unknowable and unrecognizable. Their contents cannot be recognized in terms of the systems to which they properly belong, although they may be referred to in terms of their likeness to instances of other systems. But since these references are always misapplied, the instances cannot be understood fully. An example of this would be a dog viewing a man’s relationship to money. Since money is an abstract reality inconceivable to the dog, the dog at best will identify the emotions of attachment a man might display for the money. Since this attachment does not truly relate to the foundation of money’s meaning, it is merely a coincidence of money with attachment, and not an understanding of money itself.

The fifth order of the unknown, the perfect unknown, is that which cannot be known by any system, and is knowable only through its own being. There are no examples that come to mind, since an example would imply a system in which to frame the example.

Human beings show a propensity to avoid the unknown in every respect, the moreso the higher the order. Also, those who undertake to enter the unknown – and establish a relationship with those contents, whether by knowledge or perception or faith – experience a degree of revelation and awakening in proportion to the order traversed.

I define “faith” as the faculty that allows man to venture into the unknown. In the first order, this faith consists of the belief that unwitnessed instances described by a system will be found if searched for. Without that faith, a person would believe the search fruitless and would not expend the effort. Archaeologists look for fossils because they have faith that fossils may be found, according to the system of archaeology they have studied.

In the second order, the faith is that new systems will integrate and improve our understanding of the world. Those who seek new systems seek to enrich their view of life. Since new systems also change how previously known systems are viewed, there is a greater aversion to this knowledge. Our “faith” is that the change will have value, and not merely ruin what has been gained so far.

In the third order, faith holds that foreign systems, while describing values that cannot be known, yet describe a genuine value in another context. For example, we hear someone claiming that a reality they experience makes them happy, and we learn by observation that the happiness they experience is genuine and worthwhile. We may never understand why – and the experience may even be detrimental to us – yet by affinity we can appreciate the value-at-a-distance described by the unknowable system. Our faith is that this value is true in that other system, even if we have no personal knowledge of a system for which that value would be true.

Approaching the third unknown is very difficult, as it requires accepting that things are true in unknowable systems that are false in systems that we do know. Trust is needed for this to happen – which is the faith referred to. The enrichment of the individual here is great, however, in that it allows him to relate to foreign systems that would otherwise remain entirely inaccesible by him.

In the fourth order, faith is the only way to approach these systems, in which case the faith is that such systems exist at all. For a system of the fourth order it is always possible to believe that no such system exists, and that whatever instances of that systems are claimed to exist are merely instances of other unknown systems of the second or third order. The after-life falls clearly into the category of the fourth unknown.

Mystics are those who doggedly pursue the fourth unknown, and seek to commune with its mysteries without reference to knowledge. That this is fruitful and worthwhile is the essence of their faith. Without this faith, no concrete reason is possible to suggest that a fourth unknown exists – and this is why these unknowns are placed in the fourth order.

The fifth order may only be approached by identity, since it can only be known immediately through the experience of its own being. Even this knowing is not knowledge in the sense of the preceding orders, since it is not knowledge through a system, and has no instances to refer to. It is the fifth order to which Hallaj may be referring when he says, “I am the Truth”; or the Qur’an when it declares, “He who hath known himself hath known God.”

The five orders of the unknown may be expressed in terms of five correlated orders of the known:

  1. The knowledge of instances of a system.
  2. The knowledge of systems.
  3. The recognition of unknowable yet valid systems.
  4. The apprehension through faith of systems both unknowable and unrecognizable.
  5. The identity through faith with that which cannot be referenced by any system.

And the five corresponding degrees of faith:

  1. Faith that our knowledge of a system accurately predicts the unobserved instances of that system.
  2. Faith that our experience of systems implies the existence of further and better systems.
  3. Faith that unknowable systems are as valid as knowable systems within their relative context.
  4. Faith that unknowable systems whose context cannot be known both exist and pertain to the reality we experience.
  5. Faith that an unknowable exists which is above all systems, and is the reason for their coherence.

The enrichment of mankind is found by progressing into the unknown, with the greatest riches found in the highest orders. To proceed, faith must overcome fear and aversion, which is essentially the belief that such a journey will be rewarding in the end, and worth the pain and discomfort it engenders.

How one proceeds in the case of the first and second order is typically the task of education. The third order is forced upon people who want to learn how to relate to those of a different background or life experience. The fourth and fifth are the object of religion, being as well the easiest to dismiss and the most painful to undertake. And not everyone who associates themselves with religion has begun that journey.

The definition of God is particularly a question of the fifth unknown, meaning that its answer must forever remain unknown, even though a union with the source may ultimately be sought. Who is man, if not a creature capable of recognizing that this unknown exists, and of setting out with determination to find it? In our relationship to the unknown is much that defines who we are.