The Ruins Of Babel

(Originally posted 21st April, 2005)

I should start by saying it feels good to be back on the air again. It’s been a very long time since I sat down to write one of these, or even felt like sitting down to write one. Please accept my apologies for that; sometimes life just gets in the way of thinking.

But hey, sometimes life has to get in the way, just to give you some more stuff to think about. Maybe that’s a column in itself for another day.

But not today. Today I want to talk about something that’s been lurking in the back of my mind for a very long time indeed.

I’m sure all of us have heard the tale of the Tower of Babel in the book of Genesis in the Bible. It’s the story that’s always quoted as to why there’s so many languages on Earth.

It starts out saying that at one time, there was only one language and everyone could understand everyone else. That’s when some people decided that they wanted to build a tower to the heavens, so they could reach God. Now, God wasn’t really fussed with this idea, so he apparently struck down the tower and caused everyone to speak in different tongues so they couldn’t understand each other.

Now, naturally, because it says it was a tower, people have traditionally got to think that the building physically existed at some point and so people have been running around the Middle East for centuries, looking for the ruins of this once mighty tower.

Thing is though, I don’t think that is a story about a physical tower at all. I think the story of the Tower of Babel is really a metaphor for human understanding.

Several hundred years before Christ was born, a Chinese sage named Lao Tzu penned the now famous Tao Te Ching, which went on to become the basis for Taoism and probably a bunch of other things besides.

Now, the Tao Te Ching is a collection of poems, containing some amazing wisdom. But it has always been the very first line that piques my interest: The Tao that can be written down is not the true Tao. To me, that always says that as soon as you try to describe something, you automatically miss parts of it. You can explain most of it, but if someone just read what you had written, they wouldn’t have a full understanding of whatever it was you were writing about. It wouldn’t be until they had experienced it for themselves that they would have a real chance of understanding, and they might not even understand it then.
Robert Anton Wilson, in his book Quantum Psychology, talks about the danger of saying something “is” something else. As soon as you put a label on something, it automatically narrows people’s thinking about the thing in question and they can end up missing the point of whatever it is that you’re talking about. They stop looking at it is it really is, and only look at it in terms of the label that you’ve stuck on it.

That’s another problem with human understanding: no two people can understand exactly the same thing. They’re both going to be filtering it through their own knowledge and understanding, which is automatically going to remove some or all of the nuances of what they actually talking about. If the subject is only small and they both have a good understanding of what it’s about, then the differences aren’t going to be big factor.

The problem comes when you’re dealing with a complex and enormous problem. Like life, or even a subset of it, like religion or politics. People aren’t going to be understand a sizeable portion of the subject matter and because of the reality of human nature, that’s going to lead to differences of opinion, which can lead to ideology clashes – or worse.

That bring us back to the story of the Tower of Babel. Like I said, I don’t think they were trying to build a physical tower at all. Instead, I believe it much more likely that they were trying to define and codify what God is. They wanted to make sure that everyone was on the same page, so to speak. But remember what good old Lao Tzu said about the written Tao: it’s not the real thing. Even worse than that, people are going to have differences of opinion about such weighty matters and sooner or later, they’re going to dig their heels in and not budge on a particular topic. Once that happens, it’s game over, kids. Whatever thought structures you’ve created to help define your topic are going to come crashing down like a house of cards – or the Tower of Babel.

To me, that’s why we have so many religions on Earth. If you can set aside your prejudices and look honestly at several of them, you’ll actually find a large overlap in what they believe. There’s a certain subset of beliefs that’s common to just about all faiths across the world. They just differ in what you do with them, or the precise nature of what a worshipper is supposed to do. With humans being what we are, we get all caught up in the differences and miss the underlying commonalities. As soon as that happens, you get religious wars.

Go to any big meeting in a corporate environment where issues are being discussed. Or go visit any level of government or the United Nations. As soon as people start arguing over details, they’re picking through the ruins of Babel again.