At the South Pole (1912) L to R: Wilson, Evans, Scott, Oates and BowersWhat is the final frontier?

It depends who you ask.

Fermat had his “last theorem” and Hilbert had his decisive “problem”[1];

The crew of the Enterprise searched for it at the center of our galaxy (Star Trek V);

Robert F. Scott might have named the South Pole;

And scientists the world over search among countless frontiers of knowledge.

The great philosopher of science J.B.S. Haldane put it this way-

Finally [science] is man’s gradual conquest, first of space and time, then of matter as such, then of his own body and those of other living beings, and finally the subjugation of the dark and evil elements in his own soul.[2]

In other words, the final frontier of science lies in mastery of good and evil in the human soul.  Indeed this has been the perennial hope of thinkers throughout all millennia, and the sad history of the 20th century shows that science has not yet conquered the final frontier of good and evil.

Another searcher asked pretty much the same question two thousand years ago-

“Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” [Matthew 19:16]

Adventurers, philosophers, scientists and theologians all arrive at pretty much the same questions: What should I do? How then shall we live?  Every generation seems to start their search over again at the very beginning, without having inherited the answer from the previous generation.

Scientific knowledge grows daily, and yet the questions of ethics persist. Ethics is the final frontier: “How then shall we live?”  Is there any other question that can claim priority?

And since the final question persists in the face of all human knowledge, it is a question that demands faith. Faith in something, or someone lies at the heart of the heart’s search for ethics, the final frontier.


[1] The German philosopher and mathematician David Hilbert in 1900 proposed to find a “general process that could decide, given any formal statement composed of mathematical symbols, whether that statement was true or false.  He called the problem of finding this decision process the Entscheidungsproblem.” (the deciding, decisive, conclusive, problem). – quote from Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel, (The New York Review of Books, 2006), p. 9.

[2] J.B.S. Haldane, Daedalus, or Science and the Future (London: Kegan Paul, 1924). 

What makes a human? “Psyche Opening the Golden Box” by John William Waterhouse (1903).
The answer will depend on the deepest core of being which gives a person an identity.  Let’s give this “core-of-human-being-ness” a name; let’s call it the “soul.”  Whether this thing called “soul” is real or imaginary, physical or spiritual, experiential or mental, or even beyond these categories, matters not for the moment.  Whatever the shape of the soul, it will surely be the place where the deepest tensions of life reside-the human spirit’s search for meaning, the tension between eternity and finiteness, conflicting passions and acts of conscience. We can think of the soul then as the place where the deepest experience, ponderings, and tensions of life reside.  That much at least we can say about the soul.  That much at least has been said since the dawn of human intellect.  We can read of it in books that precede even Socrates; for example, the sage Qoheleth blames this tension on God:
“He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.”               [Ecclesiastes 3:11]
Thus we see that tension dwells in the heart of the soul.  To discern the shape of the soul then, we will need to understand the essence of tension.  We turn to art for help.  Art has played this role through all history and prehistory, expressing the drama in the tensions of existence. Aesthetics provide a language for tension. As Kierkegaard insightfully notes, we learn from the earliest Greek plays that “concealment [is] the element of tension.”[1] Aristotle names the two parts to be found in the drama of myth:
“…indeed, two parts in the myth, namely sudden change of fortune and recognition”   (duo men oun tou mythou meri, peri taut’ esti, peripeteia kai anagnorisis)
-Aristotle, Poetics (Ch.II)
Recognition (anagnorisis) is essential.  Why?  Because the drama turns on tension and the recognition of that tension in a sudden change of some kind in the life of the main character(s).  Recognition of what?  Of that which is concealed.  And in the moment of recognition, is the concealment resolved?  Not in the best dramas, no.  The tension is only heightened for Psyche when the identity of her mysteriously concealed husband Cupid is revealed in the night.[2] The recognition of that which was concealed only intensifies the mystery and tension.
It’s the same for recognition of the soul-the tension and mystery, in either art or the soul, are not removed, as though they had been inconsequential all along; rather, the moment of recognition creates a new and deeper tension that assimilates that which was concealed.  If it were otherwise, the concealment would have been a meaningless mistake of ignorance, and the tension would turn out to not lie at the core of the being.  If it were otherwise, art would not be art, the soul not a soul.
Thus, recognition of the soul is a movement in which the most deeply concealed core of a person is plunged into an even deeper mystery. The soul remains cloaked in mystery, even as it is being recognized for what it is (perhaps we should say, because it is being recognized for what it is).
What type of recognition is this?  What type of knowing is required to know a soul?  This is not scientia, not the type of knowing expressed in formulas or studied with calipers and microscopes.  This is rather the type of knowing that requires a walking along in relationship with the object.  This type of knowing is a “walking-along-with”, a cum scientia, or conscientia, to use the philosophical term.
Thus we see the benefit as well as the limitations of scientia to study the soul scientifically.  Scientific study of the soul and the mind/body problem are necessary for neuroscience to give assistance to knowing the soul, and to discern the chemical, biological and genetic determinants of brain function which help to sort out the root causes of mental illness and relieve people of suffering which stems from mistaken ideas of responsibility for the misfiring synapses that take a toll on their psyches.  But this scientific (scientia) study of the soul is not, and cannot be, the same thing as knowing the soul. That takes a far different kind of knowing.  The path to knowing the soul passes over the trails of scientia, but does not ultimately find its way by them.  That path to knowing is a journey of relationship that marks its progress by moments of recognition which do not trust in the quantifiable units of scientia for their precision.

[1] S. Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Problema III.

[2] Apuleius’ (c. 125-189 AD) myth is retold marvelously by C.S. Lewis in Till We Have Faces.