Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Knowledge

I have written quite a bit here about epistemology, including this rather odd post called The Epistemological Foam, and a happily somewhat less creative follow-up simply entitled Truth. Then there is this more technical take on philosophical arcana in which I express more affinity with Karl Popper than is currently fashionable. I'm not going to belabor all that, if anyone is sufficiently interested in my philosophical dilettantism, I hope you will read these posts.

For present purposes, there are two main ideas I want to emphasize. First, the domain of science, indeed the fascination of everyone who embraces a post-enlightenment world view, is ignorance, not truth. We are drawn to mystery and excited by uncertainty. What we already know obviously matters, for practical purposes -- knowledge is the basis of technology. But for spiritual nourishment, knowledge is most important as the ground on which we stand to explore the unknown. Alas, it is not smooth or stable ground. Most of what we purport to know we only believe, and if we truly maintain the spirit of discovery, we accept that even our greatest verities might just collapse under our feet one day.

I grew up thoroughly immersed in modern culture and it was at a surprisingly late age that I realized that many people simply do not want to live in this world of continual revelation and remodeling of belief. Apparently it seems frightening or much too challenging or just incomprehensible, and so they demand certainty and eternal stability of truth. They demand to be wrapped in the comfort of delusion.

And that bring us to the second point, which has to do with the cultural history I introduced in the previous post. Perhaps I should have identified the cultural takeoff of 50,000 years ago as the first Great Transformation, but as I've already set up my numbering system, we'll have to call it Great Transformation Zero. It took another 40,000 years to get to the beginning of Great Transformation One, which shortly produced not only cities and princes and priestly castes but also the most marvelous, most essential technology behind the Great Transformation, the instrument I am wielding at this moment, writing.

Writing vastly accelerated and deepened the development of human culture by expanding the possibilities for accumulation of knowledge. Our discoveries could no longer be forgotten, our stock of information was no longer limited by the capacity of our brains, its accuracy was now defensible against the imperfection of memory. With literacy a systematic and progressive enterprise of scientific investigation became possible. Unfortunately, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and for those who require absolute truth, writing is equally powerful. It created a new kind of authority, the authoritative text, which unlike the personal authority of a respected teacher or a powerful potentate, was not limited by human mortality but could be congealed for centuries, or millenia, or as long as humans could still read and write.

And so it gave us scripture, which does as much to impede the great project of human discovery as learned treatises and technical manuals do to advance it. If I were to find myself in a strange place, I would begin to explore, to use my senses and my reason to understand where I was and what the place was like. Suppose I came upon a written tract purporting to tell me the answers. I would probably experiment with trusting it, but as soon as I found it to be contradicted by observable reality, I would trust it less. Far too many people nowadays reject that common sense procedure when it comes to scripture.

So, the point of this excessively long-winded digression is that in my view, by far the most important challenge facing us today, our greatest crisis, is the retreat from reason, the rejection of discovery, the mass movement to burrow into the warm nest of certainty, to embrace the comforts of delusion. This reactionary movement, infused with self-righteousness, has given us utterly disastrous leadership at a time of mortal peril. It is the single greatest threat to our future, transcending all of the specific, concrete problems that we face.

For humanity to live, faith must die.