Saturday, May 01, 2010

Lacking Depth

I am even less deep a thinker than I was.

What depth of thought I have had is a byproduct of other characteristics of thinking. I can lay claim to some breadth, some quickness. I have had a certain obsessive quality which keeps me returning to a troubling idea. These aren't of major-league caliber, but "high minor league" might be fair.

But depth requires sustained attention, which has always been a weaker point. Philosophy and particle physics are subjects which cannot be understood in fifteen-minute turbocharged bursts. They require the sustained effort of entering into a vocabulary and mental framework and keeping other thoughts out. Perhaps once one has done the heavy lifting, those subjects may be continued with many short bursts throughout the day - I wouldn't know - but at least at the outset one must sign on for some effort. Writing fiction may require a similar intensity, and I did write a first draft of a 120,000 word novel in 23 days when I was 30, but that seems to have been a one-off event in my life. I endured one major rewrite over the next three months, but have been unable to do anything similar since. And even that may not be entirely similar to deep thinking.

Now I have fallen off from even that level, it seems. I have read half of Michael Novak's No One Sees God and liked it very much until about thirty pages ago. Since then it has been a grind, and I don't think that is Novak's failing, but mine. He has finished the part where he makes short work of the reasoning of the New Atheisits, and I rolled right along with him there. Now he is attempting to answer a less-hostile atheist, Heather MacDonald, and goes into some pretty close reasoning to do so. He starts by describing a philosophical framework for asking the right questions. He discourses on "intersubjectivity," something between the subjective and objective. He cites examples from Aristotle, Boethius, Plato - all those early HOF philosophers.

But it's no fun. There are interesting concepts worth keeping that float by: We hold that our Catholic faith does not make sense unless the Jewish faith is also true. Or Heather is not wrong to claim that often God seems to her, from watching the world as it is, criminally passive, callous, cruel, monstrous. God's self-description in the Bible often forewarns that this is the way it will seem, even to those who know and love Him. Clearly, just as Novak gets into what should be the most important stuff, I start checking out. (The Bruins are up 3-2 at the end of the 2nd period.)

I have speculated before that the swift pace of internet surfing, where stimulating, fun intellectual (and less intellectual) pursuits tempt continuously. Or it may simply be a function of aging, whether aging of humans in general, or the specific AVI version of a thinker already desultory.

There are competing versions explaining reality, social and biological evolutions which claim that every human characteristic can be traced back to some rather mechanistic survival tactic rather than the Imago Dei. Those have their attractions as well, but are also faiths. There is a trust that the currently unexplained will be explained by some appeal within that framework. Few people who believe those theories (and I grant them a fair bit of


akafred said...

AVI - Do not be hard on yourself in the least. You are mega light years ahead of the grown man several seats ahead of me on a recent flight from Phoenix. The sap spent 3 hours watching Avatar on a 2x3 inch i-something screen. I felt like giving the guy a dope slap and asking if he'd every heard of the concept of a book. The real sad thing to me was the likely influence on his 4 or 5 year old son traveling with him. "Read a book teacher? Why would I ever want to do that??"

james said...

Don't sell yourself short. I've found you to be a wise observer.

I'm strictly amateur in philosophy, but I do know a little physics. There's some little difference between hearing a talk to understanding the gist of an issue in particle physics, and working through the details to be able to explain it yourself. I can do the first in one of those 15-minute bursts, but the second requires much attention and much scribbling. And usually somebody calls to interrupt... And 99% of what we do is implement or test stuff we already mostly understand; work we can do in those 15-minute bursts punctuated by urgencies.

mr tall said...

Commendable self-analysis, resulting in an excellent post!

I share your concern about intellectual flightiness, if I may call it that. I have been blessed with a reasonably facile intellect myself. But I've never been able to sustain the scholarly focus needed to complete a PhD, for example. I've fortunately been sufficiently honest with myself to know it'd be a fool's errand.

But I feel bad about this sometimes. I'm now in my 40s, and I've noticed as well an increasing impatience when reading longer works. I was an English major as an undergrad, and had the energy to tackle Moby Dick in just a few days, and a play every couple of days when reading Shakespeare. But now, not so much, not nearly so much . . . .

I wonder, though, how much these bad feelings are a result of current expectations of an intellect well-used. We've lived our lives in an era in which the influence and (perhaps to people like us, at least) glamor of the life academic has risen, peaked, and now perhaps begun a decline. The specialist is the norm, and is rewarded; the generalist has been shunted aside. But how ridiculous would this model have looked in other times? Wouldn't the Greeks (the ancient ones, not the rioting pension hounds) have been utterly bemused by this application of intellect? Arete, excellence, was broad and balanced.

Or so I console myself!

Anonymous said...

Or maybe Novak just doesn't make any sense.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Anon - certainly a possibility. Humility that it could be my lack is a good first option, but the idea that the lack of clarity is from he, not I, may turn out to be correct.

I hesitate to leap to that conclusion because of the general sensibleness of the parts that my understanding does grasp.

But hey, it would be great if it's the other guy's fault.