The Limits of Reason

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Through descriptions of the energetic universe and mysticism, I’ve detailed the philosophy of monism: that all is one, indivisible. But so many people ask me why is our experience so different from reality? The answer is twofold: the limits of reason and the limits of perception make it challenging to comprehend the central truth that all is one. 

For now, let me focus on the limits of reason.

In certain Native American spiritual traditions, the universe was described as an infinite series of emanations of the Great Spirit. The Native Americans’ Great Spirit is closer to the monist God-as-everything than the monotheist God-as-separate-creator. The Great Spirit is understood to be the existential ground of being that everything else exists within.

The word emanations is key. Rather than describing the universe in terms of matter - which implies solidity and permanence - the term ‘emanations’ implies change and impermanence. Talking about the universe in terms of emanations of energy rather than bundles of matter is far closer to the truth of reality. 

When imagining the world in this manner, you can conceptualize reality as generating itself each moment anew. There is no constant state of anything since everything is just an emanation that arises and falls, transforming from one thing into another. While in the slow motion speed of our lives, it may seem that things are constant - your car, your house, your body - in reality, all of these things are emanations: they are in a constant state of transformation and cannot truly be said to be a static ‘thing’ at all. They are all processes. 

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It’s easy to imagine your body as a process because you grow and change throughout your life. But solid objects are no different, they’re just much slower processes. 

So where do these emanations emanate from? 

This question leads us directly to the limits of reason. Why? Because the emanations of the universe by definition must emanate from beyond the universe itself. The Native Americans would say the emanations emanate from the Great Spirit, which is to say, from the incomprehensible source of everything. 

So, minus the supernatural description of the Great Spirit, you could say that the universe - which is in an infinite series of emanations - emanates from a source which cannot be studied materially and therefore cannot be grasped through reason.

The concept is not so crazy when you think about it. Our experience of reality is always trapped within the universe, so how could we study anything outside the universe? We cannot use material, objectivist means to analyze the source of the universe because the source is beyond materiality. 

But that also means that the source cannot be comprehended through reason. Another indigenous concept can help us navigate this philosophical quandary. It’s called, the Three Ways of Knowing: 

The Known 

The Known is everything you presently know. It’s your personal bubble of awareness, the sphere you live your whole life in. You may move that sphere around through space time, but you’re always pretty much trapped in that bubble of perception.

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If you look around the room you’re in, the edges of your perception are the limits of the Known. Or if you wander out to a mountainside and behold a vast view overlooking many miles, the limits of your perception are the limits of the Known. So your sphere of awareness is not confined to an exact dimension, it expands and contracts as your Knowing is boxed in or opened up depending where you go. 

But no matter what, you are always firmly in this bubble and you apparently have no way out. 


The Unknown 

The Unknown is everything outside of your present knowledge that can become known. So if you’re in a room, everything outside of the room is the Unknown for you. But if you go out to that mountaintop again, everything beyond your perceptual limits would be the Unknown. 

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So the Known and Unknown are always doing a dance - trading space back and forth as your bubble of awareness expands and contracts. 

The Unknown also applies to abstract information. So everything that you do not yet know but could possibly learn - physics, music, or how to build a computer - all of these intangibles are part of the Unknown as long as someday, they can be accessed by somebody somewhere. 

So everything in the universe that can possibly enter human knowledge at some point in human existence can be considered the Unknown. 

The Unknowable

The Unknowable is everything else. There are many aspects of reality which we simply cannot know due to the limits of our comprehension. Everything outside of the universe falls into this category. The fundamental existential causes of the universe also fall into this category. 

Calling these aspects Unknowable is not a defeated resignation to ignorance. Rather, it is an acceptance of the limits of reason. To regard something as Unknowable is to admit that the intellect simply will not ever grasp it. 


*** 

So with these three categories of awareness in mind, the source of the universe’s emanations is obviously Unknowable. To the scientist, Unknowable means nonexistent until proven otherwise. To the mystic, encountering the Unknowable is reason for pause. The mystic reveres and honors the Unknowable because it is the source of all that is. Just because it cannot be comprehended by reason does not mean it should not be respected. 

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The mystic understands that the limit of reason does not mean that the Unknowable is completely inaccessible to us. It just means that it cannot be accessed intellectually through reasoning and thinking. Instead, wherever the mystic encounters the Unknowable - wherever he meets the mysteries of existence - the mystic must favor intuitive feeling rather than intellectual reasoning. 

Even now, we’re using intellectual reasoning to articulate the concept. But the true direct experience of the concept - encountering the Unknowable, experiencing the source of everything - can only be felt, not thought about. 

So the mystic turns to spiritual practices that cultivate his ability to use intuition, to look inward and to stare directly at the Unknowable.

Since the universe emanates from a source beyond the universe, the source can never be studied by scientists or materialists or atheists trying to understand. Instead, the source of the universe must be directly experiences and felt. 

Luckily, you do not need to journey into the farthest reaches of outer space to face the Unknowable. The Unknowable is within you always. By turning your attention inward and focusing intently on what you find there, you will see the Unknowable - and you’ll find it staring back at you.