“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. These are things we don’t know we don’t know.”
THIS NOTORIOUS quotation from a speech by Donald Rumsfeld when US Defence Secretary, in mitigation of failure to find evidence of alleged Iraqi ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction’, provides an analogy – absurdly incongruous yet irresistibly accurate – with the evolutionary stages of religion in western civilization.
From the last Ice Age until today, mankind’s metaphysical frame of mind has gone through two multi-millennial phases and now is nearing the end of the third, which in turn is about to be (or is already being) imperceptibly followed by a culminating fourth phase – which might succeed in finally reconciling evolution and revelation (the natural and supernatural) in human culture and intelligence.
This epochal process has never before now been revealed or even, apparently, detected; but until it is exposed to a powerful light, dispelling the darkness in which it has been hidden throughout history, we cannot collectively perceive or even conceive of the latest transformation that is currently under way. Without this ‘spiritual satnav’, the world will continue to lose its way, following directions that lead only to the dead end of indifference or minefields of fanaticism.
The First Phase began tens of thousands of years ago, with artistic expression, celebrations of the senses, sacrifices, rituals reverencing the dead and ceremonies observing seasons of the year. But its demonstrative, articulate or recorded characteristics could not originate until the emergence of society – once people were free, individually and collectively, to do more than survive and subsist. Then the infinite fears that infested their lives and deaths could transcend the personally physical and domestic, to be reflected in their celestial, topographical, naturalistic, pastoral or tenebrous environment, becoming embodied and worshipped as gods or dramatized as myths, to provide protection against fears and to create identifiable symbols that commanded tribal or local loyalties.
While reflection and deflection of fear was the essential function served by these piecemeal, primitive repositories of trust and hope, their secondary function – since the counterpart of fear is always ignorance – was to plug the multitude of holes with which their small spheres of knowledge was perforated. Consequently, in this First Phase the intellectual climate was dominated by ‘Unknown Unknowns’. Not even the warlords and shamans could conceive, far less recognise, the vastness of that vacuum. Therefore, from time immemorial, cosmology was necessarily founded solely on faith alone.
This indiscriminate profligacy in worship, which left early western civilization dependent on blind faith, proved a severe handicap in its development; in contrast to the oriental civilizations that flourished very much earlier in unified worship of, respectively, Confucius and Buddha.
Consequently, subservience to galaxies of gods – dynastic, household, topographical, regulatory, military, celestial, pantheistic, etc. – had to satisfy pre-historic western man’s emergent sense of the supernatural, persisting through the classical periods of Anatolia and Babylon, Egypt, Greece and Rome. Their decline thereafter was accelerated by exploration of the wider world, by barbarian invasions, by incursions of Christianity and Islam as well as by scientific advances and scholarship.
So the First Phase gave way to the Second, which extended through the Dark Ages, Middle Ages and Renaissance. Meanwhile the number of Unknown Unknowns fell as the number of Knowns rose. But the demise of a multiplicity of gods was accompanied by a corresponding ascendancy of secular dogma. For these new Knowns, although still tentative, hypothetical or provisional, were seized upon as divine revelation, adopted into a credulous corpus of knowledge and embodied into the language, consequently hardening into established truth, not to be denied on pain of persecution. Then it was assumed that, on the strength of these new Knowns, the complementary Unknowns were readily identified, or at least could be. The two great western religions, Christianity and Islam, arose in this formative period of the Known Unknowns, with their extreme shift from First Phase worship of eclectic gods in the form of sacred mountains, fire, legendary heroes or whatever, to Second Phase worship of one exclusive god in the form of a perfect person.
Ironically, this absolute commitment to a semi-mystical god, imbued with the mysteries of creation and the after-life, with prayer and miracles, proved so successful largely by virtue of the very practical context created by that accumulated body of rudimentary knowledge. It was the concreteness of the new Knowns that provided a basis for the abstractions of the Unknowns, belief in which was unquestionable. In what was a shift from the objective to the subjective, from the specific to the mystical, the Age of Faith had given way to the Age of Belief.
Dominated by these religions, western civilization advanced triumphantly. But modern science, particularly zoology and biology, geology, physics and astronomy, increasingly discredited religious belief, which had degenerated into dogma, from victim of oppression to oppressor, as the Unknowns shrank and man’s sense of omniscience soared. So the Age of Belief gave way to the Age of Knowledge, characterized by Known Knowns. (We seem to have followed Rumsfeld’s sequence in reverse! This Third Phase originated in the 18th century with the intellectual Enlightenment and revolutions in all those sciences, and is still surging ahead, apparently unstoppably.
But nemesis threatens to overtake hubris. After disenchantment with primeval worship of nature and naïve devotion to man-made gods, followed by disillusionment with institutionalized religion, the world is realizing that science and technology cannot answer ‘The Big Questions’. Primeval fear stalks human consciousness again: fear of an unsustainable population, famine and destitution, fear of climate change and ecological catastrophe, of nuclear or biological warfare, of fanatical ethnic conflict, cyber attack, totalitarian tyranny, and of whatever else may befall a species forced to recognize that it is no less evil than in its savage prehistory, despite thousands of years of supposed progress in civilization and spiritual outlook.
These global fears are reinforced at the everyday level by the despair and contempt with which politics and public affairs are recognized as more than ever about power and public money, rather than public morality and freedom; and education more than ever about social sciences rather than learning and civilization; all in pursuit of what increasingly looks like the common purpose of politics and education – to eliminate or destroy the spiritual life in order to ensure the subjugation of the people.
Faith, belief and knowledge have successively failed, with the consequence that western society’s confidence in its own spiritual traditions has collapsed, undermining and endangering sacred and secular cultures alike. In the First Phase everybody believed in something, no matter what; in the Second Phase everybody believed in something and it did matter very much what; in the Third Phase it hasn’t matter because overwhelming material progress promoted confidence enough to dispense with spiritual life altogether; but now the vast majority believe in nothing – and have begun to lose belief even in this nihilism. So will a Fourth, final Phase emerge, to square the circle?
Humanity was subservient to a vast array of gods in the First Phase, to a strict celestial regime in the Second, and has been overwhelmed by an inchoate mass of barely intelligible knowledge in the Third. Throughout, the human spirit has had to play a passive, compliant role. But at last it is beginning to rebel against the soulless tyranny of these external forces – to assert itself by looking within. If the gods are dead and the systems of belief discredited, then we are totally reliant on science and technology to explain how this supposedly insignificant creature experiences and sustains an intellectual and imaginative existence far surpassing any level reached naturally by zoological evolution: to account for the discovery of the Theory of Relativity and of evolution itself, of the Big Bang and Dark Matter, Beethoven’s late quartets, the ‘Mona Lisa’ and ‘Hamlet’, Great Pyramids and Taj Mahal, interplanetary travel and internet, nuclear power and heart transplants, among the many modern miracles which are perversely represented as no more than further proof of mechanical minds in a purely material, non-spiritual world.
Therein lies the fallacy that bedevils debates among the dwindling, defensive adherents of religion and the increasingly aggressive atheistic/ agnostic/ ‘humanist’ majority. For who made those discoveries and inventions or created those sublime works, if not that same wretched creature – and what is the source of its apparently infinite capability? If such terms as ‘genius’ and ‘miracle’ are impermissible as implying some sort of supernatural faculty, then what alternative explanation is available?
Apart from Christians and devout adherents of other religions who can confidently provide the answer to such questions, the developed world in general is in the seemingly anomalous position of recognizing some kind of supreme power or ultra-consciousness but without knowing quite what. Anybody can suddenly experience some awareness of it. An athlete, when performing at peak, may seemingly become hyper-charged, without any excessive sense of effort, describing it as “being in the zone”; or a virtuoso violinist may comment, after an exceptionally transcendent performance, that she had lost herself in it. Evidently, the key to creativity is not simply knowledge, as western culture has so long presumed, but awareness of its spiritual source and potential. So this is the Fourth Phase, characterized by the Unknown Known – the missing dualism that Rumsfeld never imagined. We know it is there but why and how....?
So we have entered a new Age of the Awakening of Awareness. The ultimate mystery, therefore, is whether we can ever go beyond this Awakening? Actually to attain Awareness itself is surely to enter Paradise. For only then can one declare: “No, I no longer believe: I know!”
© VIVIAN LINACRE 2017