This Article Was Written by Tariq Ramadan
What can I know? And what is the basis for what I know, what I think I know, or what I hope to know and understand? One major question about the essence and meaning of human knowledge stands out from the myriad questions that arise as we pursue our quest for meaning. Consciousness queries the nature of the known even as it apprehends the horizons of the unknown: death and what comes after death reveal, by a process of induction, our inability to understand its meaning and many ‘whys’, and our very limited understanding of so many ‘hows’. The ocean of what is unfathomable is disturbing; the mystical crisis of the rationalist, mathematical and scientific mind of Blaise Pascal comes at the precise point where the philosophicoreligious quest for meaning encounters the doubts of a reason that has realized that both infinities (the infinitely great and the infinitely small) are beyond its descriptive powers. ‘The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread’. Here, ‘silence’ is another name for my lack of knowledge, and the ‘infinite spaces’ reveal the extent of my ignorance. It is truly dreadful.
Are there any self-evident truths that we can rely upon? Even before we raise the question of what we can know, it is probably helpful to determine which faculties allow us access to knowledge. The simple question of means (faculties), their existence and their capacities has, from the very beginning, been the source of disagreements, disputes and tensions within and between spiritual traditions, religions and schools of philosophy. My consciousness becomes conscious of the real, observes that my senses hear, feel, touch and so on, and that they are the first ‘means of knowledge’, or at least its first mediators. The empiricists regarded them as the essential source of all rational and complex knowledge: they thought that my mind cannot understand the principle of causality if my eye has not observed it. The second source of knowledge is, therefore, obviously my reason, which observes, makes connections and tries to understand the world: it seems to make some progress where the ‘hows’ are concerned, but breaks down when it comes to the ‘whys’ of the world and of life. Another, inner faculty reveals that: the heart that feels and experiences (in a different way from the senses) and that apprehends and understands (in a different way from the mind). The faculty of reason very quickly reveals, in the most intimate proximity, its limitations: it is quite unable to understand the realm of the heart, its knowledge, its truths and even its loves, and is quite bewildered by it. The senses, reason and the heart: are we destined to have three types of knowledge produced by three distinct faculties? Are they complementary or contradictory? Is it possible to overcome the inevitable tensions that exist between them, and to reconcile them? That is the question raised by the typology of the three brothers Karamazov in Dostoyevsky’s novel. They represent Pascal’s three realms, and there is both a tension and love between them. The similarities and differences between them lie at the heart of the human tragedy and human hope. Dimitri and the exuberance of the senses, Ivan and the critical tensions of reason and Alyosha and the transparency of the heart shed a moral light on the order of our faculties and knowledge. This brings us to the heart of the real debate. It is indeed a debate about knowledge and understanding, but it is primarily a matter of deciding what is good for us, for our society and for humanity. Knowledge and ethics converge, as do science and philosophy, science and religion, and philosophy and religion. Is this a question of reason, or a question of faith? Who can tell us how, and who can tell us why? READ MORE