Seth Godin recently made the point that as more and more people have equipped themselves with cellphones and digital cameras, UFO’s have stopped visiting. His point is to illustrate that our increasing ability to debunk myth has had a somewhat rationalistic impact. But he goes on to explore the idea that the resulting rationalism doesn’t satisfy the need for emotional experience.
The characters of Star Trek dance to a similar tune. Mr. Spock, endowed with rational capabilities far beyond the reach of ordinary humans, provides a stark contrast to the passionate emotionalism of Captain Kirk. The Captain has use for logic and reason, but only insofar as they allow him to pursue what he values. At his worst, he values his own advancement. At his best, he is a rabid defender of the lives of others – a most heroic guardian. But Kirk’s complexities and internal contradictions don’t exceed those of Spock, who faces his own unique inner conflict. Half-Vulcan, half-human, Spock possesses, in addition to his superlative rationality, the capacity for feeling. Like a newly born puppy uncertain of its legs, Spock stumbles about trying to understand and properly engage the passionate side of his personality. As he matures on camera, Spock begins to strike something of a comfortable balance between rationality and sentiment, generally preferring rationality – except in his best and most heroic moments, when he embraces sentiment.
Godin’s commentary on technology’s implications, along with Spock’s and Kirk’s self-expressions, illustrates the very real epistemological tension between Descartes (rationalism) and Hume (sentiment and empiricism). But we are also invited to consider that epistemology isn’t the end of the discussion. The question is not just “how do we know?” Instead the question is, “is knowing enough?”
Solomon diagnosed his pursuit of wisdom as “striving after wind” (Eccl 1:17), for two reasons. First, because under-the-sun wisdom led only to the increase of grief and pain (1:18), and second because he recognized that there are innate limitations on human knowledge (3:11). Because our ability to know is inherently and woefully limited, what we can know and understand leads us only to heartache. Hence Captain Kirk shows us the way to a happy heart is to pursue a happy heart – a pursuit which sometimes requires a rejection of knowledge.
While Kirk’s solution is enticing, and portrayed as generally successful, Solomon offers a different prescription entirely. You see, Solomon recognizes that – at least from our limited perspective – the end of man is the same for the happy and the unhappy alike: “All go to the same place. All came from the dust and all return to the dust” (3:20). Because of the limitations on human knowledge, and our assured common end, he adds that happiness is not a bad pursuit (3:23). But it is still worthless and vain – to the extent that Solomon congratulates those who have never been born as having advantage over both the dead and the living, for they do not have to engage the emptiness of the human experience (4:2-3).
In this context Solomon paints a bleak picture, but for good reason. The punch line for Solomon is not that we should pursue either rationality or sentiment on their own merits, but that we should conduct our pursuits in acknowledgement of God (11:9, 12:1). As the Creator, God has designed human experience and pursuit to be empty without Him. But with Him, even the most base and simple aspects of human existence are endowed with meaning and purpose. This is why Solomon can say, “The conclusion, when all has been heard is: fear God, and keep His commands, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil” (12:13-14).
Neither rationality nor sentiment can take us where we want to go. Hence, the enduring tension between the two – we pursue one course until we realize it doesn’t work, then we opt for the other, then we attempt a synthesis of the two. Rinse and repeat, century after century – always with the same outcomes. This is what Solomon refers to when he talks about the limitations of the under-the-sun perspective. By contrast, Solomon’s prescription shows us that neither pursuit is intended to bring fulfillment independent of the Creator. Solomon urges us to acknowledge our Creator, which in turn resolves the tension and helps us to be properly balanced in our selves and our pursuits. After all, if He designed us, He is the one to show us how to have true and meaningful life. This beyond-the-sun perspective takes us much farther than the U.S.S. Enterprise could ever imagine.