The Ph.D. ritual concerns itself with the production (how 19th century) of new knowledge. “How will your research contribute to the field?” “What is the new knowledge you have unearthed?” The old saw about the Ph.D.—knowing more and more about less and less—is still enforced. “Narrow your focus!” How much can be read into how little? And lurking underneath this knowledge-quest are the assumptions about truth and truth-value, the desire for proofs (consistency, logic), certainty, closure, security (defensibility). Light, not darkness. Certainty, not doubt.
As David Malone points out in his New Scientist article 4 August 07, we are addicted to certainty, especially in science, despite the 20th century theories to the contrary. Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle; Godel’s incompleteness theorums; Turing’s uncomputabilty; non-linear maths; wave-particle co-existence; chaos theory; unpredictable emergence.
The epistemological paradigm that has the goal of truth and certainty has been shattered by the certainty of uncertainty, yet we continue scurrying on its path, like Roadrunner luring Coyote off the edge of the cliff. Don’t look down at the nothing beneath your feet and you’ll do fine–feet firmly planted in mid-air. Validate my illusions and I’ll do the same for yours.
Astrophysicist Roger Malina is fond of pointing out that with the postulation of dark energy and dark matter, complete unknowns and very possibly fictional) physics and cosmology, the stuff and layout of the universe, far from being almost cupped in the Holy Grail of a Theory of Everything, are now nearly 100% unknown: a matter of knowing less and less about more and more.
If we took uncertainty, incompleteness, and uncomputability as the building blocks of a new paradigm, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to revise the educational process to require a firm grasp on what you do not know, plus the ability to ask non-trivial and unanswerable questions as the result of an undergraduate education? With this grounding, one could move into Ph.D. methods involving the recovery of wonder, and a sort of epistemological karezza http://www.sex-lexis.com/Sex-Dictionary/carezza to avoid premature interpretation, followed by a post-doc in sheer dumbfoundedness. The Cloud of Unknowing and The Dark Night of the Soul, speak to this state of mind. But even these absorbed unknowings are instrumental unknowings in that they are way-stations to absolute certainty: the certainty of the Absolute.
I am skirting the fringes of a deep uncertainty about the whole knowledge business, of which the Ph.D. ritual seems a small and parochial example of a much larger process. This is not a comfortable place, and it runs the constant danger of shifting into meaninglessness, depression, long moments of staring into space.
What is it possible to know about the psychedelic experience?