The world is buoyed up by the fact that it is what is: the default of existence is consonance, not dissonance. We can justify or prove or discover any particular thing, but we all this is on as-needed basis, which means, a situation of lack arises. For every one thing we demand an explanation for, there are an infinity of things we don’t. So we can’t explain everything, and while we are explaining one thing, we fail to explain everything else.
Though the default of our existence is consonance, its fabric is one of dissonance. Every act of naming, explaining, discovering, thinking about or altering the world presupposes a rift in the lute, as Tennyson had it, a crack or a moment of friction. Perfect consonance would be like floating in a hot tub of brine that buoys us up: it’s warm, it’s womb-like, and we merely are. But this doesn’t happen often, and it doesn’t last too long. We do not glide forward in life, we negotiate forward with fits and starts, sometimes through a thorny way. But we solve specific problems, not all problems, give specific answers, not all answers.
We discover we were wrong, and we correct the error; we can question any particular belief, but doing so takes time, and precludes us from questioning others. The real is all there is, but we can alter that real by taking detours into the unreal: the not-yet, or never-will-be-real realm that doesn’t exist but that somehow allows us to alter what does. The daily mysterious is the fact that the world is what it is: the red car passing as I write isn’t a blue one, and it is driven along a specific course. We can paint that car blue and drive a different course, but the world then contains the before, the after, and the in between. All this is what is.Conceptualization is the basis of thought: it allows us to break the bond between the world of sensations in which we find ourselves at any given moment and to visualize alternatives. And this in turn allows us to change the world. Identifying a brown blur as a leaf allows us to figure out it’s stuck to our glasses, perhaps in a gale, and make us realize we have to reach up and pull it off. Calling a leaf a “leaf” allows us to see it as one of a type of object that is related to other leaves, and that, like other leaves, has certain qualities in common with them. (It doesn’t matter if these common qualities are the result of “family resemblance” or equal connection to a Platonic Idea.)
Conceptualization, such as calling this thing a “leaf,” or water “water” (the latter the “miracle” of William Gibson’s play about Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, The Miracle Worker) is the basis of explanation, which is at least two levels of abstraction beyond where we are: explanation is a parallel set of facts more general than the individual thing we have identified. We conceptualize to call the sensation we have a “headache” (of course “sensation” is already a conceptualization) and abstract beyond that to suggest or repeat that our headache is caused by X in our brain. We can’t conceptualize this whole process: it’s something we do, except that this suggests that “we” and “do” are logically prior to anything else. What’s the motion of motion? Stillness.
We only ask for explanations for the things for which we do so, which means things we want explained. Our default is lack of explanation. Asking for explanation occurs as the result of aberrations, when something is not what we expect. We don’t ask for an explanation of why my bed is still under me in the morning, since that’s what’s supposed to happen and we’ve very likely never even conceived of anything else happening, nor why tuna fish cans contain tuna, since that’s just what they are and what they do. More likely, we would ask why this can that says it’s got tuna doesn’t, or why I wake up with the bed gone. If a child asks for a treat we don’t ask why; more likely is to ask what’s wrong if he refuses one. Explanation is the furthest layer at any given point, which doesn’t mean it will always be so. We may not be able to say what causes the cause, and typically don’t ask: explanation goes a layer at a time, and is offered on as as-needed basis, with lack of need being the default.
If we ask why we have headaches, we have to look and experiment: we can’t make something up. Let’s say we discover that it’s because the brain releases X: when X is released we get headaches, when it isn’t we don’t. We do studies to make sure this is causality rather than correlation (though coming up with these usually requires ingenuity). But finally we have it. At this point we stop, at least for now, because is the question we wanted to answer. We don’t ask “why?” in a monotonous string, like a child. What’s the explanation for the release of X? At this point it’s not even clear what this question means, as it seems an example of the infinity of questions we don’t want to answer at any given point, such as: what is the meaning of my sandwich? Huh? The questions we ask at any given time are a tiny fraction of those we could; perhaps at some time even this last question would make sense (as we’d say) enough to really try and answer it. Now we brush it aside. And the history of ideas or of philosophy is the trail of the relatively few questions we have asked and had arguments about: we know how the arguments go, as we do not know how the argument over the meaning of my sandwich goes.
But at some point, if we had a reason, we could ask why the brain does things in this way. The sort of answer we could eventually give can vary: a valid explanation is one we accept, it’s not a certain sort of content. And we can explain anything we do, even this process—only we cannot, until we have done so, explain what allows us to explain. And while we are doing this, we are failing to explain an infinity of other things. Life is bigger than anything within it.