The Simple and Tiny Flea, Knowledge, Truth, and Reality: An
Investigation That Failed But Discovered The Truth
The inter-connectedness and complexity of knowledge, truth, and
reality is not often appreciated, even by philosophers.
Leibniz’ monads, so minute as to be immeasurable, had a
“pre-established harmony” with every other monad in the
deconstructionists and dedicated analytics try to break down
reality into its smallest components, but every atom, nay, every
sub-atomic particle in the universe is related to every other
particle. That the
whole functions at all requires the “pre-established harmony” of
Leibniz’ God who is the God of the Scriptures and Creator of the
What follows is the philosophical pursuit of a simple task
involving a very small insect, but an attempt at understanding
everything that is involved in the project results in the abandonment
of an attempt of what can only be called “omniscience.”
It was originally entitled, “Letter from a Graduate
Student,” but I have re-titled it to fit more with its theme.
It is used with permission of Peter Leithart, the author
of the website where I found it,
have done some minor editing.
Following is a transcription of a letter found in the archives
of a recently deceased Professor of Philosophy at a major
American university. The original was written in a childish
scrawl and was almost illegible. For reasons that may be
obvious, the provenance of the following letter is best left
unstated, and any names have been changed or suppressed to
prevent embarrassment to the parties involved.
I have only a few moments before they call me in. It's still
chilly here, not nearly so warm as Florida. I asked them to
bring me a pen and some paper. This may be my last chance for a
while at least to try to explain what happened. After last
week's affaire de plume, they've put me under heavy
Mother has told me that you were very upset when she told you
that I had abandoned my dissertation. I want you to know that I
did want to please you. I don't know if you'll ever understand.
I guess the best place to start is the afternoon that Prof.
Russell and I went out for a beer to discuss my dissertation
project. It's strange to think that was over a decade ago now.
That was the first time that I explained my plan to him. I'm not
sure he ever caught on entirely. I told him that I wanted to
present an epistemological proof of the non-existence of God by
a study of John Donne's "The Flea." By providing an exhaustive
treatment of that poem, the existence of God, at least of the
Christian variety, would be disproved.
My reasoning went like this: Christian theism is grounded, as
you know, on a strict distinction between the Creator and the
creature, a distinction that reaches to epistemology. God's
knowledge is absolute, exhaustive; man's knowledge is limited,
relative, not to mention mixed with error. The Christian
position entails the conclusion that man cannot comprehend fully
even the smallest fragment of the creation. To know anything
fully would be to know it in all its relations to every other
thing. And to know anything in relation to every other thing
would require omniscience. Since only God is omniscient, man can
never know anything in the creation, much less God,
exhaustively. Everywhere man attempts to penetrate, he meets a
wall, and beyond that wall is inexhaustible mystery.
That being the case, I convinced Prof. Russell that the way to
disprove the existence of such a God would be to provide an
exhaustive discussion of a single event. If I could understand
and account for Donne's "Flea" exhaustively, the Christian view
of God would be impossible. I thought it would be easy. How
difficult could it be to provide an exhaustive account of
something as simple as a woman crushing a flea?
I started with studies of Donne, trying to determine whether or
not the event of the poem actually took place. I concluded that
Donne was describing a real event. A seventeenth-century woman
crushed a flea and got blood on her fingernail. I thought my
work was nearly done.
Then came what I think was the key meeting with Prof. Russell.
He was in kind of a peevish mood and ready to attack anything I
said. I told him that my work on the literary history of "The
Flea" was nearly complete. He sneered. You remember
that sneer, don't you? And said something like, "All you've done is to
describe the event itself. What about the transformation of that
event into the poem? How did Donne arrive at his image of the
flea as his marriage bed?" And so on and on. Endless questions.
I was stunned. Through some kind of fog I heard him say, "You're
going to have to do some work in neurology and cognitive
science. Linguistics too, I suppose." He talked for another five
minutes, but I didn't hear much of anything he said.
Someone just looked into the room and gave me a "five minutes"
sign. I've got to hurry. Sorry for that. It's the best I can do.
Over the next eight years, I worked in neuropsychology,
cognitive science, metaphor theory, linguistics,
psycho-linguistics, socio-linguistics, semiotics, everything
that might give me a handle on the interaction of brain,
language, and art. Combining insights from a connectionist
account of categories and inference with a quasi-Chomskyan
linguistic theory (somewhat along the lines of Lakoff and
Johnson), I had arrived at what I thought was a pretty
reasonable model of how the brain formulates and connects sense
data and experience to produce a linguistic pattern like a poem.
I was mentally exhausted, but I was willing to stick it out the
I broke after my final conversation with Prof. Russell, only a
few weeks before his suicide. After I explained my model, he sat
for a moment, and then said, "You've completely forgotten
something." He must have seen the terror on my face; I think I
saw a little glimmer of a smile cross his face as he said, "What
about the flea? Have you considered what it experienced? Did it
feel pain? What was it thinking? You said you were going to
provide an exhaustive description. An exhaustive description
can't limit itself to the human participants." I stammered
something stupid like, "What are you telling me?" He flickered
that bit of a smile again and said, "I think you need to do some
work on insect neuropsychology."
They're calling me in. I wish I could write more. I'd love for
you to be here for the baptism, but I understand that you don't
go for that kind of thing. Brother Thomas wants to give me a few
months to settle in, and then he says we can talk about the