What do the Islamic State, pornography, and evolutionism have to do with each other? Perhaps they are all just things that your granny wouldn’t wish for you. But there might be a deeper connection pointing to a common problem that granny recognizes, but that requires a profound philosopher to diagnose and cure. Leonardo Polo comes to the rescue.
As I was having dinner in the collegiate hall of residence where I live, someone asked: “What is the definition of a mathematician?” Looking at the puzzled faces, the reply came promptly: “It’s a machine for turning coffee into theorems.” You have to be a bit of an aspiring philosopher to think further about an innocent joke like this, but I’ll admit: that’s me. And, if you do take it seriously, I think it points directly to a problem that deeply affects our Western society. We tend to think about man as a machine, as an object. And especially we intellectuals do that because we’re too attached to our own ideas and theories. This is exactly the problem Leonardo Polo points out to us. Let me try to clarify some of his fundamental ideas.
Let’s go back to the question we started with. What do the Islamic State, pornography, and evolutionism have to do with each other? A first answer could be: the people that engage in them find the thought of them very involving. These three realities are extremely different; indeed I chose them to be as far apart as possible. The reasons for engaging with them are also very different. Still, each has a powerful attractive force on those who engage in them. For people engaging in ISIS, the idea of an Islamic Caliphate and the associated rule of Islam is so strong, that they are willing to die for it. For people caught up in pornography, the lower human instincts become psychologically dominant. For an evolutionist (which in my dictionary means someone that tries to explain ALL of reality, not just biology, through evolutionary thinking), the beauty of explaining all of reality through an evolutionary lens keeps him engrossed in his theories. All these people are, for their very different reasons, very much caught up in their own mental world.
The common problem is very simple: being caught up in your own mental world is not a good idea, because it creates a boundary between your mind and the real world out there. And by creating the boundary, chances are your mental world will not do reality any justice.
The human object
Not the only, but certainly one of the clearest problems shows up in the vision of human beings that arises when we are impeded by our mental boundary. In general, it is easy to reduce the human being to an object. And indeed, we see that happening in our three examples. For someone engaged in the Islamic State, the only important property of a human being is the religious conviction that ‘it’ expresses, and perhaps the religious practices ‘it’ engages in. All other aspects are of secondary or no importance compared to that fundamental property. Pornography reduces human beings to little more than physical objects, renouncing any respect for intimacy. Finally, evolutionism perhaps doesn’t reduce a mathematician to a theorem machine, but in its worst forms the human being becomes little more than a gene transfer machine, perhaps with some cognitive memes associated. I hope that the reductive nature of these conceptions does not need further argumentation.
Beyond the boundary
If we accept that being caught up in a mental world creates a mental boundary that leads us to not do justice to reality, what can we do about it? Well, that is quite simple, really: just recognize the boundary so that you can go beyond it. But that may be easier said than done. For one thing because the reality beyond the boundary is awfully complex.
What should be our attitude towards the complexity we find? We could of course just stagger away, and stare at it open-mouthed, too perplexed to say anything. We could also run away, back to our safe mental castle. But the brave thing to do is to recognize our limitation, and slowly but steadily try to make the best of it, and in this way advance, without ever pretending that we have understood it all.
If we look at the human being, for instance, anyone open to the reality of the people around them will realize that each human person is a reality in themselves, a reality with an inextinguishable richness and depth. How else can we explain that people, after decades of marriage, can still discover new aspects of their spouse? Human beings are always more. Human beings are most definitely more than the objects that we imagine from behind our safe mental boundaries. But they are also more in the sense that they are always able to grow and develop.
Human beings are persons, and as such have a fundamental openness that comes with their personal freedom, a freedom that allows them to love, and to engage in meaningful and enriching relationships that make the person grow. This reality is so rich that it cannot simply be captured in any scientific, philosophical, or even theological mental framework. There is a fundamental sense of mystery about the person. By mystery I mean a reality that is so rich, that, without being any less reasonable, it is too big to fit in any human mind completely. Now I grant that mystery is a bit scary, but it is at the same time beautiful and exciting: a challenge for the brave to explore.
The mental boundary plays an important role in modern-day society, as the few very diverse examples I have given illustrate. It is also an important property of modern philosophy. Leonardo Polo, who is one of the first professors of the University of Navarre, in the city of Pamplona, Spain, and who passed away last year, has pointed to this problem. He has made it his philosophical methodology to ‘detect the mental boundary so that we can go beyond it’. This route has led him to grapple with very fundamental questions, including, but not limited to, the being and the freedom of the human person, for which he has found a philosophical description that solves many paradoxes found in modern philosophy.
Because Polo wrote in Spanish, his work is not yet well-known in the Anglophone world, even though he is well known in Spain. To address that situation, the Leonardo Polo Institute of Philosophy is working on English translations of his work, and has recently organized an English-speaking conference in Madrid, (the first one) attended by faculty and students from various countries. They have published some first translations on their website, and have recently also edited a chapter of Polo’s book ‘El Presente y Futuro del Hombre’ under the title ‘Why a transcendental anthropology?‘ This chapter gives a first introduction to Polo’s thought.
I foresee that the reception of Polo’s ideas in the English-speaking world will not be very smooth. For one, there is the problem of translation, which is extremely difficult to do for a philosopher who is continually searching for words to express the rich realities that he is describing. But those problems appear trivial when we consider the methodological contrast between the analytical philosophy that currently reigns in most English-speaking countries, which attaches the highest importance to well-defined questions and concepts, and Polo’s approach, which always invites us to go beyond our small and safe mental world, towards the mysterious richness of reality.
But then again, whoever said that crossing our own mental boundaries was an easy task? Being able to recognize both the valid aspects and the limitations of our insights certainly requires a good dose of humility and discernment, just as crossing our boundaries requires bravery. Still, it is the way of the wise. And it’s just those wise people that our present-day society needs most to correct those of us who prefer to remain enclosed in their own mental castles.
Daan van Schalkwijk writes from Amsterdam. He teaches statistics and biology at Amsterdam University College, and is the director of Leidenhoven College, a collegiate hall of residence in Amsterdam. Visit his blog at Science and Beyond.
A note on translation. Grappling with Polo’s concepts myself, I have chosen translations that best suit my understanding of his thinking. Polo describes his methodology as “detectar el limite mental en condiciones de abandonarlo”, this has been translated as “detecting the mental limit in conditions such that it can be abandoned.”, but I have opted to translate it as “detecting the mental boundary so that we can go beyond it”, which does more justice to my (admittedly limited) understanding of Polo. Also, when speaking of the human being, Polo speaks of “ser además”, which has been translated as “being additionally”, but which I have translated as “being more” for the same reasons.