May 20, 2024


Bear with me here, y’all — most secular humanists I know read about the Uncertainty Principle and think, well, sure. This is the pinnacle of wisdom, they say: to hold all our views with humility, especially any views about why we’re here, how to live well, the source of moral reasoning. This view is preferable to the triumphalism of my scientistic friends, who are committed a priori to a world in which what’s real is what’s empirically measurable. And I’m with the humanists in thinking that the only truly honest intellectual position, in an absolute sense, is agnosticism.

But if you understand only the “partiality of our perception” piece of the uncertainty principle, you’ve understood maybe half of its importance. The other half is just as challenging: that we can hold in our minds the possibility of a fully complete and comprehensive view of the world, while also bumping up hard against our incapacity to ever experience that view. This is what Egginton means by taking seriously both the “unconditioned whole” and the fact of our conditional knowing. Both things are true: the sublime reality of the view-from-nowhere, and the fact that human perception is gifted and fated to know only in fragments. This is the profundity of Kant’s categorical imperative, too: Not just a pragmatic way to reason ourselves into moral action (can x choice generalize to all times and conditions?), but the fact of both knowing an absolute moral standard exists, and accepting the conditional fate of the human animal to live relative to it.

We all carry around a mishmash of “reasoning” as we make our way through life, of course. But it won’t do to posit that a) the human animal is a mechanical system, evolved and selected for broadly pro-social behavior that has no external reality, only adaptive fitness, while also thinking b) I myself happen to be fortunate enough to be evolved in the right way and will live as though my own preferences correspond to some external standard, while disavowing that any such external reality exists. As Egginton says: the unconditioned whole — the external standard, the comprehensive view — this perfection is what makes our partiality legible, meaningful, perceivable. How can one consider this without stopping in one’s tracks?