18 November 2005

“And the clear truth no man has seen nor will anyone
know concerning the gods and about all the things of which I speak;

for even if he should actually manage to say what is the case, nevertheless, he himself does not know it; but belief is found over all.”*

– Xenophanes, as quoted by Sextus Empiricus
in his tract, Against the Mathematicians

And so, this idea, that "belief is found over all" is a fitting encapsulation of the entire point of the movie "Birth." The crucial point being: It's not that we can't know anything; it's simply that we can't know that we know with absolute certainty.

We can speak truth (with a small "t") about certain mundane things in the world -- the things that can be checked and verified to everyone's mutual satisfaction, the sort of stuff we put in the newspaper, for example -- but not metaphysical, spiritual and religious ideas (along with many scientific theories). And this is what it means to say, "belief is found over all." We reach out into the unknown and pull back a belief. We always speak belief; perhaps sometimes it coincides with the truth; but not as often as we imagine.

So the assertion is as follows: Even if our words should coincide with truth, we're still speaking belief; it just happens to be right belief for a change; we just happen to guess correctly sometimes, or as the popular phrase goes: "Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while."

The problem of speaking belief as if it were literal truth is illustrated toward the end of "Birth" when Anna and her mother are looking at Anna's sister's new baby, and her mother says sarcastically: "Maybe that's Sean!"

This is one of Popper's favorite passages; he gives his own translation, perhaps from another source:

"The gods did not reveal, from the beginning,
All things to us, but in the course of time
Through seeking we may learn and know things better.

But as for certain truth, no man has known it,
Nor shall he know it, neither of the gods
Nor yet of all the things of which I speak.
For even if by chance he were to utter
The final truth, he would himself not know it:
For all is but a woven web of guesses."

I have just come across an interesting passage in Susan Sontag's book, On Photography, which speaks to knowledge and the idea that "belief is found over all."

"Photography implies that we know about the world if we accept it as the camera records it (objectively). But this is the opposite of understanding, which starts from not accepting the world as it looks. All possibility of understanding is rooted in the ability to say no."



©jonfobes 2005