The Tension between Absolute Knowing and Mystical Uncertainty

Can we know anything absolutely? Is there an absolute objective truth out there? What does mysticism say about this?

It will never be possible by pure reason to arrive at some absolute truth.

—Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976), theoretical physicist and pioneer of quantum mechanics

It seems to be the natural human condition to want to know the truth. We want to know that what we believe actually is, that it is true, that it is not merely a figment of our imagination or someone else’s, that it actually accords with reality, with the way things really are. We want to know what’s real.

One of the goals or purposes of all philosophy, and by extension theology and the sciences, is to articulate the truth as accurately as possible. It wants to use human reason and experience to define what reality is, the true nature of things. And in many ways we have made significant progress in learning more about the nature of the world and cosmos, and applying that learning in a myriad of practical ways.

But even with all of our progress in knowing more about nature, and our advances in understanding how the world works, we never seem to be able to grasp an absolute truth. There is always wiggle room, a margin of error, uncertainty, imprecision, a confidence interval, symbolism. What we come to know always seems to be relative in some way.

Werner Heisenberg, as quoted above, is known for his uncertainty principle, in which he found that there is a fundamental limit to the precision of our knowledge of particles. That uncertainty may extend to all areas of nature, not merely the subatomic, as the above quote seems to infer.

The rational intellectual human mind seems to have a hard limit to what it can know. And its knowing seems to always be conditional, relative, uncertain, probabilistic, tentative, partial, and incomplete. It always falls short of the absolute. Always.

Philosopher of science Karl Popper once noted this:

Knowledge consists in the search for truth — the search for objectively true, explanatory theories. It is not the search for certainty. To err is human. All human knowledge is fallible and therefore uncertain.

We search for truth, for better explanations of the world, but this search never comes to a certain end, at least in our outward explorations, through deduction, reason, and logic. We never actually find the objective truth, the absolute truth, that reality that stands independent in itself, and which simply universally is, and is not subjective, relative, or uncertain in some way. It always seems to be beyond our grasp.

This can make us feel anxious, and even lost, as if we are living in a day dream world where nothing is certain, and we cannot know anything for sure. How are we to live in such uncertain conditions? If we cannot know what is real, is nothing real? Is this world a fantasy? Is there no meaning in our lives? We can feel ungrounded, floating, and chaotic. And so we often live by faith, reaching out to something which we hope is there, but which we cannot see directly.

There is truth to the postmodern view that we cannot know absolutes. But just because we cannot intellectually know absolute truth does not mean that such an absolute doesn’t “exist.” It just means we cannot know it with our limited rational minds, as an object of our subjective perceptions. If it was an object of our subjectivity, then it could not be truly absolute; it would stand in a relation to us, to the subject of our mind. We cannot hold the absolute truth as a concept in our minds because that would immediately make it relative. This absolute truth seems to be much more something which simply is than something which is intellectually known.

Mystics throughout history have attested to the existence of this Absolute, this fundamental Truth, this really Real, this Ultimate Reality, this God. But how do they come to know it? Didn’t I just say that it cannot be known?

Mystics engage in practices known as contemplative practices, activities which train the mind, and eventually allow the mystic to transcend it. How can a mystic transcend their own mind? By allowing the thoughts of the mind to come to a stillness, to rest, to silence, consciousness opens up into an infinite pure awareness of being, of experience, of existence, of the most fundamental essence of what consciousness itself is. And it is in that space, beyond all subject-object dualities of mind, that the mystic becomes aware of the Absolute, and is itself that Absolute.

But this knowledge of the mystic is not like all other human knowledge. It is not an object of mind. It is rather the very “subject” of consciousness, or perhaps better, it has transcended the subject of consciousness to the source of consciousness itself, to a pure experience of being. The mystic comes to realize that their deepest essence, and the deepest essence of all things, is this being, this isness, this Absolute. It becomes an experiential knowing, an understanding of the Truth through being that Truth. The mystic knows the Ultimate Reality as the fundamental Truth of their own being in the world, and of all beings. And nothing at all can be said about it except that it IS. “I am.” As soon as anything is said about it, it is relative again. Can anything be a full account of that thing except the thing itself?

There is a profound witnessing that happens in that deepest mystical state of consciousness, beyond the rational mind. There is an experience of radical peace, of joy, of bliss, of innocence, of purity, of love, of well-being, of union, of eternity, that everything is absolutely right, good, and well, that one’s life is a profound blessing, a radical grace, a gift, and it is exactly as it should be. And that is all wrapped up in that Absolute that the mystic experiences directly in their own being, which anchors and grounds that being in Ultimate Reality, as that Reality.

So it is perhaps a paradox that in this uncertainty of our everyday experience in the world we can discover no absolute truth. We may search for it our whole lives in the outside world, and never find it. Philosophers and theologians, and now scientists, have looked for ages and not found it. And they never will, because that is not where it is found. But when we turn inward, and allow the activity of our minds to come to a perfect rest, we may pass through that mystical “cloud of unknowing” and enter a state of pure consciousness which can “see” beyond the limitations of our rational mind, and uncover that Absolute that is the source and essence of our own being, and of all being. The Absolute is both unknowable (to the rational mind) and yet knowable (to the soul, as the soul).

Some argue that this mystical experience of the Absolute has no practical value in the world, since it cannot be put into words, concepts, equations, explanatory theories, etc. It seems to bring no meaning into the world, so that we may know how things really are. This is perhaps why many disregard mysticism entirely as a useless and meaningless endeavor. But I think mystics attest that it is the whole meaning of our lives. It is the source of all meaning. It is what we have been searching for our whole lives, and which is the deepest yearning of the human soul, that it may know itself. We want to know Reality as it really is, the Truth as it really is, but this “knowing” cannot be separated from the reality and truth of our own being. It is not something “out there” to be known, dualistically apart from us, the subjective part of our mind knowing it as some object “over there,” but can only be known in the deepest part of our own selves, as our own deepest Reality, which is also the same Reality of all things.

The meaning of this experience includes absolute reconciliation, absolute Love, total reunion to the source of our being, oneness with our home in the cosmos. It is the ground we’ve been seeking, that anchors us in this world, as a fundamental part of the world, as the activity of the world itself. All our creative activities flow out of this Source, from this essence, all our morality and ethics emerge from this Oneness, and it is a way for the Absolute itself to express itself in the world, to unfold itself, to unveil itself. All things are seen as a manifestation of that Absolute, of that Divine being, and this brings profound meaning into all our interactions in the world. It is the meaning of Life itself.

The human mind will never be able to know this Absolute Truth in the classical sense of knowing, since this is actually not something that can be intellectually known. It is rather something that simply is, and experientially knowing that isness, that beingness, as the deepest reality of our own self, compels us into action in the world, to be, to create, to love, to build, to do, to know, to discover, to search, to explore, to live. When we leave that state of mystical contemplative knowing, we then live by faith in it, knowing it is there, leading us, guiding us, anchoring us to Reality, knowing that we are manifestations of Reality itself, and that our activities in the world are all the play and exploration and evolution of the consciousness of that Absolute itself. The unfolding of our lives is the unfolding of the Divine, the way the Divine is manifesting itself in the present moment. We know we are One in that, and can never be separate from it. And we come to trust in that, which is what faith means.

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2 thoughts on “The Tension between Absolute Knowing and Mystical Uncertainty

  1. Bryce, a paragraph from my ebook on comparative mysticism:

    “Mysticism emphasizes spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Daat is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Marifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth.” Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal.”

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