How do angels know?

I was recently told to “jazz up” my academic writing. But I like structure, conceptual clarity, definitions. I like flying in rounds over topics like a restless bird, trying to hypnotize the reader and tricking her into thinking I already know what I´m going to write about, until I eventually have to call an emergency landing because my first paragraph takes more than half the paper and it´s time to analyse the detail and come to the point and my sentences start getting a too long and incomprehensible succession of conjunctions and I myself start running out of figurative oxygen.

One of my favourite intellectual masturbations is the question of how to explain things. I like to think of formal models and accounts and try to put them into practice whenever I write a paper. I guess I´ve always had the intuition that the problem with explaining is that you wish to focus simultaneously on the big picture and the detail. Why? I don´t know. Maybe because when I myself (think I) understand something, it´s merely because I can link the specific fact I´m looking at to the bigger system. Like building an infinite puzzle, and being able to find the single piece and its spot in the mosaic and glimpsing the final picture- at the same time. Hence, I expect from a utopian explanation to deliver exactly this kind of experience.

Yesterday Lorraine Daston,  historian of science, executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, -also definable as “woman with beautiful silky grey hair”- held a workshop at NYU entitled “Intellectual History”. She took us by her hand and walked us through history, showing how across the spectrum of disciplines and at any point in time, humans tried/try to catch hold of both the detail and the birdseye-view, all at once. This simultaneity is the kind of knowing she ascribed to angels, or pseudodivine beings: the coup d´oeil, the intuition; while the mortal, human struggle to knowledge is inhibited by the lack of simultaneity. Angels intuit to gain knowledge all at once, we have to pave our path to knowledge, we have to earn it step by step. While angels could prove mathematical theorems by grasping of the concept, we have to prove it gradually: we have to prove to be worthy of understanding.

It´s when she mentioned angels and epistemic divinity, that it dawned to me just how utopian my aims for a theory of explanation are. But you can never aim too high, right? I wasn´t satisfied by her talk. Often I have the feeling that talks by historians are the perfect introduction to the topic. Like, ok now that we have seen how mortals suck at knowing, that we´ve raised the question of why we aim at angelic intuition: where´s the stuff? Where´s a theory attempting an answer to the question? Be wary of historians! They take you by your hand and walk around with you through history making pinpointing considerations and at some point they usually leave you in splendid isolation or in presence of your philosophical ghosts. Lorraine Daston masters this art.

So this briefly motivates the sacrifice of this blog to balance my unfulfilled (and nonexistent) theories about why. Why do we want to gain angelic intuition. Are we still secretly building on our Babylon tower? Confess! Haven´t we learnt anything from walking with historian through time and space? Hybris isn´t getting us anywhere guys.  Or isn´t it maybe a biological thing, rather than a theo-spiritual (?) one. Maybe we´re fighting to develop that extra organ giving access to platonic forms via divine afflatus to divine creatures; that seraph-valve; Gabriel´s third eye; that angelic-gut-feeling. Blasphemy apart, maybe the question isn´t about the state of knowing something, really. It´s more about the process. For when we know something, we have a hunch, we have an intuition of it, we have a proof in mind. Aren´t we already divine, when in our highest epistemic position? Our drive to bear the process of getting to know detail and abstractum simultaneously seems otherwise an act of mere idleness. Are we just too lazy to earn our knowledge? Are we just to sluggish to look for necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge? I don´t see why we should endorse the hypothesis that angelic intuition is better than our process to knowledge anyway. If we asked Michael why he knows X. Would he be even able to answer our question?

I see now why Daston didn´t attempt to answer her interdisciplinary question. Perhaps she would have to take us all again on a trip through history to establish why we keep building higher and higher skyscrapers or why we invented the super-extra-marathons. Why we keep setting high aims for theories of explanation, for standards of knowledge. I feel like answers to why we keep saying “you can never aim too high”, might give us insight into a path to an answer about aiming at angelic knowledge.

However, one is for sure: no angel will whisper her intuition into our ears. We´ll have to earn that answer, to pave that path: saddle up!

One thought on “How do angels know?

  1. The quest for a cause, for a relationship with an effect in space and time is embedded in our evolutionary nature. And when we don’t observe, we assume and postulate. Still we don’t grasp and acknowledge that the only certainty is that we don’t know and everything loses a sense. Out of the despair generated by our consciousness of finiteness and inadequacy, by the contradiction between our need of sense and the inscrutability of the universe, we resort to hope and conceive timeless, infinite allmighty.


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