Cognitive closure is an idea that some questions in life are inherently beyond our mind’s grasp. Although such concept sounds rather pessimistic at first, it actually sheds guiding light on many of us hopelessly searching for happiness in this absurd universe.
To be happy, we are in pursuit of the inconceivable. Naively, and perhaps arrogantly, everyday a man hopes to satisfy his yearning for clarity. “What does it mean to be happy?” His instinct for survival destines him to that cruel inquiry in which a thought reaches its merciless confine. Surely the question we are posing here has everything to do with survival, because it is that of life and death. We see people killing themselves because they are depressed, or others living “happily ever after,” so to speak. The profound gravity of the question makes the inability to find answers all the more cruel and hard to accept.
Maybe in everyday struggle the man gradually realizes that the silence is only thing that ever greets his insatiable longing for answers. Faced with the dilemma of relinquishing altogether the inquiry that promises his life a reason for continuing, the man chooses to ignore the futility of his pursuit, and instead imbues it with an artificial sense of purpose. In his chosen ignorance he lives on, endlessly looking for the elusive answers to the meaning of happiness. As Camus said, “we get into the habit of living before acquiring the habit of thinking.”
I am not propounding the idea that there is no hope in the universe, nor am I suggesting that the man should start thinking, in the broadest definition of the word ‘think.’ What interests me is not whether there is the grand answer to the question of what it means to be happy. It is not in our place to conclude that the universe has or has not a meaning, because we cannot know. What fascinates me is the hubris, our entitled attitude towards the inconceivable.
For millennia, the best of human minds have flung themselves at metaphysical problems and have made virtually no progress in figuring them out. Even the most fundamental pieces constituting our lives still remain as utter mystery. If the such fundamental problems as free will and morality remain unresolved thus far, surely we do not deserve the answer to the question of the meaning of happiness. Nevertheless, many of us seem to be demanding the universe for the answer to the question, as though our meager consciousness could at once comprehend the truth that has evaded us for eons.
“Nostalgia,” Camus exclaimed, “is stronger … than knowledge.” We all harbor the nostalgia for that which is not possible, hopelessly unfathomable. Our everyday actions and thoughts are tragically coupled to that irresistible longing for clarity. That irrational urge to explain gives rise to our unreasonable demand for the answer to the unknowable. Our reasoning is humiliated, and atop its fallen shell the instinct for survival stands firmly. Hereby the nostalgia feeds on the desperate need for explanation, agitated and amplified by the unbearable silence of universe.
Why must the barren intellectual terrain without answers bother us so much? I believe it should not. “What makes a desert beautiful,” Saint-Exupéry wrote, “is that somewhere it hides a well.” One can interpret his sentiment in many ways, but to me, it sounds like he is saying that the beauty of a desert does not depend on whether its well is found, or even exists at all. The desert simply ‘hides’ a well, and nothing more is said of it. At that moment, the well might as well not exist–that is the whole point–, but the desert impoverished of life somehow can remain rich in beauty. The answers to the happiness, too, are hidden in this merciless universe whose only response is silence. I am not getting into the absence or existence of answers we seek. Again, we cannot be certain on that issue. All we can proclaim is that they must be ‘hidden,’ much the same way a well is hidden in the Little Prince’s desert.
We are too blind to see the truth, anyway. We would not recognize the truth even in a plain sight, because our cognitive apparatus with which we seek the answers is not equipped well enough; our brain is simply a product of our evolutionary history. In other words, a brain is simply an organ shaped by the natural selective pressure imposed by the survival needs of our ancestors. Such humble realization puts to shame our entitled attitude towards the metaphysical questions. In How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker writes:
why should we ever have expected [the mind] to comprehend all mysteries, to grasp all truths? We should be thankful that the problems of science are close enough in structure to the problems of our foraging ancestors that we have made the progress that we have.
With such realization we can finally bring cognitive closure to the light. In mathematics, a set is said to be ‘closed’ under an operation, if operation on the members of the set always produces a member of the set. For instance, a set of all integers is closed under addition, because we always get back integers when we add two integers. Now, a set of all humanly thinkable thoughts is closed under our reasoning capabilities, and it might never include the metaphysical truths and the grand answers to what it means to be happy. Our thinkable thoughts, in their infinitude, ironically reach a limit. They are bound by a cruel, mathematical closure from which there is no escape.
Since the sophomore year in college I have always been running. Putting one foot in front of another has been the only logical response left for me in this absurd universe never revealing its clandestine meaning of happiness. On the frosty and mean streets of New York, I dashed headlong towards an imaginary destination every day alone in the faceless crowd. To tell the truth, I ran because every step I took was the only thing that ever gave me a sense of direction in life, a direction I hoped would lead to the grandeur of happiness. Yet my meager steps have never been enough to satiate my reckless longing for the clarity.
As I yet again pace the moonlit streets of Sydney, I draw a bizarre parallel among the absurd universe, set theory, and cognitive science. At this moment I know why Little Prince found the desert beautiful. In this mid-autumn night I learn that the only thing more tragic than the lack of answers is the search for those answers. Stopping awhile, breathing, I learn that a life might well be ‘happy’ if it stopped relying on a metaphysical speculation. Yet this pitiless truth is a little too harsh for my heart to bear.
Sydney 2017 May