Big questions aren’t anyone’s area of specialization. Some might claim they are experts in the Big, but they aren’t. Religious leaders sometimes make such claims, but ask a question or two, and you’ll soon hit a qualifier, something like “according to my tradition.”
A few weeks ago night I was lost on the UCLA campus and asked a group of guys how to find the faculty guest house. The students live and work here, but they didn’t know. But the guys were quick. Two whipped out their cell phones. “What’s the name again?” Soon they had the answer, “Down that street, then on the left.” They didn’t know, and didn’t need to know, but they knew how to know.
The next morning I had a discussion with a broadminded acoustical engineer who studies sonic resonances and collaborates with an art historian trying to understand how sacred sounds bounce around the insides of some church buildings, creating something participants are likely to interpret as the voices of angels. (It helps if you are contemplating holy images on the walls or altar screens). I asked the engineer whether his university (not UCLA) had a program in visual anthropology. He didn’t know. Then he joked, “You know how engineers are, we just hole up in Engineering and ignore the rest.” In response to another ignoramus question from me, he said, “That’s not really my area specialization.” He was being modest. Another time he gave the same answer, and I thought, ah, this time he’s dodging.
I had to ask myself: When am I being humble, and when am I dodging?
Doctors, lawyers, scholars, not to mention cab drivers, cleaning staff, and cooks specialize: I’m a urologist, I’m a dessert chef. We all specialize. Sometimes our job descriptions say so. Parts of the brain and body also specialize. Humans need specialization for survival. We can’t attend to everything, so the brain selects sensory data on the basis of its physiology and what it’s learned before.
But what about the glue—the stuff that connects brain parts or cities or departments of medicine? Big questions are about the connective tissue, the whatever that holds the whole kit and caboodle together. Maybe there is no “whatever,” no “kit,” no “caboodle.” Fine, how do the parts cohere? Gravity? Electronic attraction? God? What’s the glue? If “glue” makes the universe sound stuck, but we know that the universe is moving, fine, what’s the “dynamic force?”
You’re asking me? I don’t know. That’s not my area of specialization.