The Simple and Tiny Flea, Knowledge, Truth, and Reality: An Investigation That Failed, But Discovered The Truth
The inter-connectedness and complexity of knowledge, truth, and reality is not often appreciated, even by philosophers. Leibniz’ monads, so minute as to be immeasurable, had a “pre-established harmony” with every other monad in the universe. Modern deconstructionists and dedicated analytics try to break down reality into its smallest components, but every atom, nay, every sub-atomic particle in the universe is related to every other particle. That the whole functions at all requires the “pre-established harmony” of Leibniz’ God who is the God of the Scriptures and Creator of the universe.
What follows is the philosophical pursuit of a simple task involving a very small insect, but an attempt at understanding everything that is involved in the project results in the abandonment of an attempt of what can only be called “omniscience.” It was originally entitled, “Letter from a Graduate Student,” but I have re-titled it to fit more with its theme. It is used with permission of Peter Leithart, the author of the website where I found it, www.leithart.com. I have done some minor editing.
Following is a transcription of a letter found in the archives of a recently deceased Professor of Philosophy at a major American university. The original was written in a childish scrawl and was almost illegible. For reasons that may be obvious, the provenance of the following letter is best left unstated, and any names have been changed or suppressed to prevent embarrassment to the parties involved.
I have only a few moments before they call me in. It’s still chilly here, not nearly so warm as Florida. I asked them to bring me a pen and some paper. This may be my last chance for a while at least to try to explain what happened. After last week’s affaire de plume, they’ve put me under heavy restrictions.
Mother has told me that you were very upset when she told you that I had abandoned my dissertation. I want you to know that I did want to please you. I don’t know if you’ll ever understand. Please try.
I guess the best place to start is the afternoon that Prof. Russell and I went out for a beer to discuss my dissertation project. It’s strange to think that was over a decade ago now. That was the first time that I explained my plan to him. I’m not sure he ever caught on entirely. I told him that I wanted to present an epistemological proof of the non-existence of God by a study of John Donne’s “The Flea.” By providing an exhaustive treatment of that poem, the existence of God, at least of the Christian variety, would be disproved.
My reasoning went like this: Christian theism is grounded, as you know, on a strict distinction between the Creator and the creature, a distinction that reaches to epistemology. God’s knowledge is absolute, exhaustive; man’s knowledge is limited, relative, not to mention mixed with error. The Christian position entails the conclusion that man cannot comprehend fully even the smallest fragment of the creation. To know anything fully would be to know it in all its relations to every other thing. And to know anything in relation to every other thing would require omniscience. Since only God is omniscient, man can never know anything in the creation, much less God, exhaustively. Everywhere man attempts to penetrate, he meets a wall, and beyond that wall is inexhaustible mystery.
That being the case, I convinced Prof. Russell that the way to disprove the existence of such a God would be to provide an exhaustive discussion of a single event. If I could understand and account for Donne’s “Flea” exhaustively, the Christian view of God would be impossible. I thought it would be easy. How difficult could it be to provide an exhaustive account of something as simple as a woman crushing a flea?
I started with studies of Donne, trying to determine whether or not the event of the poem actually took place. I concluded that Donne was describing a real event. A seventeenth-century woman crushed a flea and got blood on her fingernail. I thought my work was nearly done.
Then came what I think was the key meeting with Prof. Russell. He was in kind of a peevish mood and ready to attack anything I said. I told him that my work on the literary history of “The Flea” was nearly complete. He sneered. You remember that sneer, don’t you? And said something like, “All you’ve done is to describe the event itself. What about the transformation of that event into the poem? How did Donne arrive at his image of the flea as his marriage bed?” And so on and on. Endless questions. I was stunned. Through some kind of fog I heard him say, “You’re going to have to do some work in neurology and cognitive science. Linguistics too, I suppose.” He talked for another five minutes, but I didn’t hear much of anything he said.
Someone just looked into the room and gave me a “five minutes” sign. I’ve got to hurry. Sorry for that. It’s the best I can do.
Over the next eight years, I worked in neuropsychology, cognitive science, metaphor theory, linguistics, psycho-linguistics, socio-linguistics, semiotics, everything that might give me a handle on the interaction of brain, language, and art. Combining insights from a connectionist account of categories and inference with a quasi-Chomsky an linguistic theory (somewhat along the lines of Lakoff and Johnson), I had arrived at what I thought was a pretty reasonable model of how the brain formulates and connects sense data and experience to produce a linguistic pattern like a poem. I was mentally exhausted, but I was willing to stick it out the end.
I broke after my final conversation with Prof. Russell, only a few weeks before his suicide. After I explained my model, he sat for a moment, and then said, “You’ve completely forgotten something.” He must have seen the terror on my face; I think I saw a little glimmer of a smile cross his face as he said, “What about the flea? Have you considered what it experienced? Did it feel pain? What was it thinking? You said you were going to provide an exhaustive description. An exhaustive description can’t limit itself to the human participants.” I stammered something stupid like, “What are you telling me?” He flickered that bit of a smile again and said, “I think you need to do some work on insect neuropsychology.”
They’re calling me in. I wish I could write more. I’d love for you to be here for the baptism, but I understand that you don’t go for that kind of thing. Brother Thomas wants to give me a few months to settle in, and then he says we can talk about the novitiate.