Understanding the Un-Understandable

Nietzsche once said that humans are the “as-yet-undermined-animal” (Beyond Good and Evil, Part 3). Now think about that for a second. What he implies is that every other being on Earth has its life cut out for it. We can, to a certain degree, predict what a squirrel does every day. Or a tiger. Or a table. They have purposes, so to speak — they have their destiny. We, on the other hand, have a large degree of autonomy; we make our own destinies.. But we use our autonomy in varied ways — some good, some questionable, and some terrible. And so we wonder about each other.

For this reason, people are the most mysterious subjects in the universe. Things like the lives of animals, the reactivity of free radicals, and the behavior of photons are predictable. Science is deterministic and seeks to provide consistent answers across repeated trials. Humans, and the humanities, do not — and cannot — provide such consistent answers. So these mysterious humans, they fascinate me.

There was a moment during personal testimonies a few years ago, on a Gracepoint retreat, where it came together for me. The stories told of heartbreak and regret were stories of a humanity fallen, but rising again — where the lowest of lows and the highest of highs embodied the tragedy and triumph of our undetermined nature. Hours of testimony, each as riveting as any other; provided so much to learn. And there I realized: any one person’s experience pales in comparison to the sum total of everyone’s experience. To live, I must experience. To experience, I must experience the experiences of others. And then, I can start understanding humanity. And then, I can start understanding the un-understandable.

A few days ago I had another epiphany. A friend complained to me about how people are unfair, and that she was disillusioned that she could never understand anybody fully. And once again the idea of the as-yet-undetermined-animal, the un-understandable, came to me. Several years removed from my Gracepoint epiphany, I had grown. I had close friends, I developed models of friendship formation, and I became this quirky individual who was not afraid to show off his affection towards weather, photography, football, science, and math. But humans still stumped me. The Theory of Everything Human evaded me. I was not yet understanding the un-understandable.

So I told her how I came to resolve the situation. Consider, in physics, the region around the minimum of a potential energy curve. We might not know what the curve looks like, but we know that near the minimum, a particle will act as if it was a harmonic oscillator. This result is purely mathematical, and is due to Taylor’s theorem. In essence, we approximated a complicated function with a polynomial that did something similar to a harmonic oscillator. And analogously, I told her, we can do nothing but invoke Taylor’s theorem when we attempt to understand the un-understandable. While it might not be completely accurate, but it’s best we can do. In physics, it’s plenty good enough to explain various observed phenomena. And as we experience more experiences with a person, we can add higher-order terms — greater degrees of understanding — to our Taylor polynomial approximation.

The sad conclusion there is that the un-understandable remains unperfectly understood, and never really will be, as analytic functions have infinite terms in their power series expansions. We, the curious philosophers, go through life computing terms. But as I see it, this is a search for wisdom. Life’s a mystery, and people are greater mysteries, but the discovery for higher-order terms grants us bits of understanding. And in a way, it’s all an exciting adventure. Because it’s how we begin to understand the un-understandable.

(Adapted, combined and condensed from four previous blog post drafts over several years.)

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