Pancakes for Thought

A breakfast, at a time at which breakfast would not normally be eaten. A stack of pancakes a mile high.

We ate in silence.

Or so we did for a moment — eventually, as if you dropped a tin can in a quiet temple, you broke the silence.

"Why should we go on like this?"

I didn't dare look up. It would have fed you more than the pancakes could have.

"For years now, we have dwindled on the edge of something beyond what we've tread. We've walked the fine line between what was and what has yet to be. We've arisen from the ashes, only to fall back down again, yet to arise once more."

I pierced a small pile of pancake bits. My fork entered the flesh of sewn wheat, ground up and arranged strategically to form a pancake. What a good world we live in — to have things like pancakes!

"It's only left me to ask myself — what more can there be? What possibilities have not yet been explored — or even yet conceived? What lies beyond what our mind can grasp with its tiny hands?

I looked up from my pancakes.


"Yes. Mind-hands."

I looked back down.

"You see, I've been secretly having thoughts — thoughts that are more secret than the ones you cannot hear occurring in my head in the first place. I've been thinking about what thoughts I cannot think. I've been imagining the unimaginable — and it's brought me to a conundrum."

I moved bits of pancake around my plate with my fork-mind.

"When I think these thoughts — these secret thoughts, of which it is forbidden to speak — my mind cannot grasp the simple fact that it is impossible to even conceive of what is impossible to conceive."

A drop of sweat rolled down my forehead and into my pancakes.

"And then — Lord have mercy on my soul — whenever I try to wrap my mind around the boundary at which my mind can either think or not think, my mind, as if by a sort of instinctual internal mechanism, begins to shut down."

Tears started to well up in my eyes, as I had been staring at my pancakes unblinkingly. I blinked.

“I keep consuming thoughts – menial, everyday thoughts – and I remain hungry. I’m hungry for the unthinkable. Make me some more pancakes.”

I reached into my pocket, grabbed a key, opened the lockbox sitting on the table and procured a few more pancakes. I’m not sure how many. I didn’t count.

“See, I don’t think I want even these. They’re simply not enough. What’s the opposite of a pancake?”

Silence fell once more. We both looked down solemnly at the pancakes before us.

 “Maybe we’ll never know. Maybe we’ll never know what’s impossible to know. Maybe we’ll never know the opposite of a pancake. Or, perhaps, maybe the reason we’re here is to search. Maybe life is an endless quest for something that, in the end, cannot be found. We may never know what the opposite of pancakes are, but the meaning comes from what’s between point A and point B. It’s looking for what the opposite of a pancake is that truly gives us life.”

I gently pushed my plate of pancakes away from me.

“I’m done.”

The Futility of the Known

Red Square (Painterly Realism of a Peasant Woman in Two Dimensions), Kazimir Malevich, 1915

Should the focus of science and the search for knowledge be to reduce the number of Unknowns? To turn Unknowns into ‘Knowns’? If one declares something as Known, they rule out the possibility of error. They deny the possibility of change and the uncertainty that is the very nature of existence. Everything that exists (though existence itself is arguable) is subject to the basic law of evolutionary change, as per Hegelian dialectics.

In Hegel’s famous example, a dog is not born a tiny dog, only to grow to the full-size dogs we today befriend (and, with such advances in technology as have rendered our ability to age to 80 and beyond, in turn these example dogs would be given the ability to reach an older age and therefore grow to be giant dogs towering above us). A dog, like us, starts as a zygote, growing into a fetus, then a puppy, and then the thing we designate with the term ‘dog’. Would the term ‘dog’ also apply to the zygote from which the ‘dog’ evolved? Would a child, with wonder and bliss in its eyes, point to the single-celled microscopic jelly-like zygote and exclaim, “DOG!”?

‘Dog’ is the umbrella term we give to every stage in this process as the ‘dog’ evolves over time. However, as a single-celled organism, would this being contain the essential qualities that define ‘dog’? This question summons the great quandary discussed with such DOGma by pundits of the “pro-life” movement — is the fetus, at any stage (single-celled and beyond) considered a living ‘baby’? They would argue yes. But does this zygote/fetus/baby/human contain the essential qualities we ascribe to humans? More importantly, does it contain personhood — an arguably definitive quality of human life?

Here, you can discern some of the problems that arise when when one attempts to give something a name or a label (an act which places a definitive ontological and epistemic boundary on that which one tries to describe), which in turn may also (intentionally or unintentionally) declare something as Known. When declaring an Unknown as Known, one closes the door on uncertainty and the thing’s intrinsic evolutionary potentiality, as well as all possible knowledge that can unfold by exploring the possibility of Unknowns. One also closes off the ability to contemplate the space between that which is Known and that which is Unknown.

The conflict between Known and Unknown — and the degree to which our conceptual understanding of the world is driven toward limited to eliminating Unknowns — shares qualities with the problem of philosophical absurdity and the human drive to find meaning in an (arguably meaningless) world, as well as the conflict between the two (the Absurd). The human tendency to seek value and meaning is much like the human tendency to delineate with nomenclature and the desire to reach a point at which we can declare things as Known. If the nature of existence is inherently evolutionary and uncertain, then herein lies the nature of the Absurd —-- the drive to reduce the number of Unknowns is doomed to fail.

That which is Known and that which is Unknown participates in a great dance of uncertainty. For, when we dance as humans in a space in which other humans are dancing, it’s a celebration of uncertainty: a revel in the experience of sexual tension and possibility. It is out of uncertainty, the vacillation between Knowns and Unknowns, our inherently impossible search for meaning, and the Absurd that many beautiful and pleasurable things in our lives arise.

Enjoy life, pet some dogs, and embrace and revel in the Unknown, tiny Unknowns!