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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Vacuous Knowledge Gap Between Us and Us

Mankind flatters itself that it knows a lot. By assumption, you can comfort yourself in an egocentric way that our understanding is the template for the universe. We compare ourselves to dolphins, the second-smartest living being, and we figure as smart as they are, if that’s our biggest competition then we must be pretty darn smart. By default, we crown ourselves kings of the known universe, and just cross out that nagging ‘known’ part because we should be able to round off, in the absence of other participants who failed to show up when we called roll. We’ll just say whatever we can see is all there is and call it good. It makes for a much tidier equation, and it doesn’t confuse the computer simulations.

One constantly hears in every discipline of study that “we’re just beginning to understand blah-blah-blah…” Oh really? How would we know we’re just beginning to understand a particular thing if we don’t understand it yet? We don’t know how much of it is out there to understand. For all we know, we may be understanding only one one-thousandth of it, but we wouldn’t know how close we really are until there are signs that we’re close, which we might only recognize in retrospect, since we might not know that they’re signs. So to say that we’re just starting to understand a specific thing gives us no context to work with.

I could just be starting to walk over to my neighbor’s house. Or I could be starting to walk from Los Angeles to New York. The fact that a walk is being started tells us nothing about the length or content of the journey. Saying we’re starting to understand something may turn out to mean that we’re still several centuries away from understanding it, or it may mean that we’ll get to the point where we understand about one-tenth of it and then hit a dead end, so it’s a meaningless phrase strangely reminiscent of a sales pitch. And yet it’s so common, because it’s a feel-good phrase. We have this psychological need to desire progress. Whenever we recognize an achievement, it represents progress. Even if we’re moving on a treadmill, at least it feels good to be moving.

It’s curious how mankind always seems to be just on the cusp of these things. How long can you continually be on the cusp before the cusp becomes an illusion?

If we don’t recognize what our current limitations might be as a people, we may think we’ve done more than we actually have and thereby become complacent, settling for something less than we can do. So ironically we have to think less of ourselves so that we can notice that more needs to be done, otherwise we might do less after thinking we’ve done more. Capiche?

We’ve shown a lot of ingenuity, and we continue to amaze ourselves (though if we were smarter we might not be as apt to be amazed?), so it’s evident that people are trying, going in the direction of advancement. But we don’t often take thoughtful looks at the flipside. So I give you…

Things mankind has demonstrated it is lousy at:

Economics
Either we don’t understand global and national economics, or we’re too enticed to ignore what we know in order to apply it honestly. If life were the game of Monopoly, then we’ve lost every time we’ve played it. We ended up mortgaging all the railroads, even though on paper it was a decent strategy, but then where are the hotels? Way to go, people with stratospheric IQs. Economics is tied in to sociology, which is tied in with human psychology, which is where we come in, and there are no signs we’re anywhere near understanding any of these to an appreciable extent enough to where we can say with a straight face and no fingers crossed we have a handle on it.

Government
Why is it that power corrupts? Whatever the reason, we feed the machine by letting money dictate who is in power. We bemoan the lack of rationality in politicians, but most everyone that gets into the more important positions turns into that type of puppet, so it would appear to be the process that is faulty. It seems to be the monster mankind has created. I don’t know if there’s a way to get out of it short of catastrophic occurrences forcing us to, because we don’t seem to be able to change it to any noticeable degree.

Government is a mechanism that grows in a self-serving manner. Rights and property typically aren’t given back to the people once they’re taken away. Once they have a grab, what incentive do they have to give it back if they don’t have to? Altruism? Are you kidding? Government is run like a business and politicians tend to act to keep themselves in office. To stay in business you have to look out for number 1 first and foremost.

So we’re still failing in many respects at having a representative government. Maybe a C- which was saved by the Constitution being handed in as the term paper in the nick of time.

Parking
Before you feel too high and mighty about the intellect of humans, consider how parking has continued to perplex us. Ruminate on that for a moment. Maybe we just got lucky on going to the moon. We invented cars a hundred years ago, and yet we still have nowhere to put them. Wouldn’t solving the mysteries of the universe be at least a few levels above figuring out how to allow enough room for 6x12 hunks of metal?

Of course they say we put a man on the moon and so we should apparently be able to do other things, but it could be that putting a man on the moon was an anomalous accomplishment which makes it appear like we can do most anything. For every great feat such as that, there are hundreds of deficiencies on a lesser scale. Just because you hit a home run doesn’t mean you’re capable of doing it every time you’re up to bat. Just because you had a #1 song doesn’t mean you can do that whenever you go to the recording studio. We reach peaks in all sorts of endeavors. They shouldn’t fool us into thinking that a high level applies across the board.

Social Behavior
While most people behave respectfully and in a non-criminal way, there is enough of a criminal element which is allowed by the law-abiding to greatly impact how society operates.

There’s enough dishonesty to require locks, passwords, barriers, firewalls, computer virus protection, security cameras, barbed wire fences, surveillance operators, security guards, security tags, more highly technical currency bills, receipts, contracts, signatures, attorneys, and his orchestra. We have these things to protect ourselves from ourselves! We’ve gotten to the point that we need more and more to protect us from those of us who can’t be honest. And theft also raises the cost of every item you buy. You’re paying for thieves, because they don’t pay anything for their merchandise.

In my view, the nice people are letting the mean people take advantage of them. The bullies recognize that they can get away with bullying, and so they keep it up. I don’t think punishments for crimes are severe enough, dissuading enough. People who commit major felonies or violent crimes should lose more of their rights. If they can’t be responsible enough to use their rights, then some of them should be taken away. If they can’t live in a free society without willfully sapping its energy, then they should be sent somewhere where such freedoms aren’t available, a la a prison colony, where they can reap the consequences of their acts. As it is, we’re subsidizing them. And they’re using us.

Whatever disincentives are currently in place aren’t dissuading criminals from rampant criminal behavior. As sad as it is, we have to protect ourselves from our own species, because in our existence, it isn’t safe to be out at night in many places, or to go into many neighborhoods. It’s so commonplace that we don’t think much about it. We just accept it as the way it is. We live in two worlds, and we try to forget that one of them wants to eat away at the other.

And while we can’t make people behave well, we can give them consequences to remove their influence from our free society. It’s idealistic to think we should all be able to get along. The reality is there are enough bad influences to make this impossible. Some people have no desire to get along. If we can deal with those influences first, then maybe we can talk about the rest of us getting along.

Time
We’re using a timing system that is impractical. It might have been cutting edge when it was first created, but it’s way behind the advances of the last few centuries. The industrial and technological ages have a lot to be impressed with, but we’ve failed to integrate key elements into them. If we want technology to be successful, then it needs to effect the improvement of other areas as well.

The system of seconds, minutes and hours is cumbersome and impractical. Yet we can’t seem to improve on something that is millennia old. It’s not because we think it’s a great system, but that we don’t have the intelligence yet to improve upon it. All our machines are calibrated to 60, 60, 24, a.m., p.m., so maybe it is the that machines are ruling us already. And only a machine would keep us in the pattern of five weekdays and two weekend days.

Driving
Get in the car for 20 minutes and see how many people have no clue what they’re doing, or many of them who do just don’t have any concept of anyone else on the road. We’re the most advanced species on the planet, and yet we continue to have difficulties negotiating our transportation modules. Chalk it up to impatience and over-emoting. Regardless of the causes, there is a plethora of rotten drivers out there. If Henry Ford had foreseen this day, he might have chosen to invent something a little less self-destructive.

Sitcoms
We’ve tanked. Desperate Housewives notwithstanding.

Health
About 25% of all adults in the U.S. smoke cigarettes. This is an indication that their health is not of utmost concern. About 40% of all traffic fatalities are due to drunk driving, and yet we’re more keyed on whether someone is wearing a seatbelt or not. 15,000 people die a year in the U.S. in auto accidents involving alcohol. That’s about 5,000 more than the number of people who are shot by guns in homicides. We’re gung-ho about regulating weapons because they are so immediate. However, our priorities are clearly not with the health aspect.

Junk food is easier and often cheaper to prepare than nutritious food, so nutrition many times is losing out to convenience. The U.S. in recent generations has become more overweight. Maybe video games, computers and cell phones will reverse this trend. Or not.

Natural Sciences
Not to ignore the achievements of science, but if we’re to be realistically objective about it instead of clouded in a self-congratulatory view, we would also acknowledge the vastness of its deficiencies. It’s true that we know more factually than the people who went before us, but we’re still tomorrow’s fools. It’s hard to acknowledge that, because it’s more comforting to think that we’re at or near the pinnacle, that we’re on that cusp.

Science can’t even accurately forecast tomorrow’s weather. Medicine has made leaps and bounds, although doctors still have to guess a lot and conduct numerous tests.

Religion
We’re not real good at religion either, though religion seems to be the only discipline that doesn’t regard mankind as having superior and authoritative intellect, the only one that doesn’t wield a human arrogance. So in this sense, religion makes fewer presumptions in admitting the deficiencies of humans. This makes it in practice the most realistic and honest approach. Unfortunately, the social aspects of religion have left much to be desired, but doctrinally, religion takes a rather pragmatic outlook.

It’s quite refreshing to have a view which takes a step back and asks more questions without making too many presumptions.

Critics say that religion incorporates all sorts of magical scenarios in its lore, citing claims of miracles being performed, and that such things are outlandish. And yet is the planetary structure of the universe or that of systems within organisms any less ludicrous or far-fetched? Which miracle is more incredible than our immune system, or the digestive system, or the circulatory system, or eyesight?

Conclusion
With increased knowledge should come the recognition of the lack of knowledge present. The funny thing about knowing is that you can only know what you know, but not what you don’t know. So for whatever’s remaining, you can only guess. And we don’t know how much that is. We can paint various scenarios that in theory put us very close to solving the unknown, but there’s nothing that says those scenarios would be any more accurate than the rest.

The fact that we as humans are still collectively incompetent in several key areas would seem to offer a clue that we likely aren’t all that competent in any key area, even the ones where we pour billions of hours of human research. There’s no reason why any discipline should be magically exempt simply due to volume or extra effort. And that’s what religion is doing is making a recognition of this.

For those who would ask regarding the advancements of mankind, “Are we there yet?”, for all we know, we haven’t even gotten out of the garage. But be sure you’re strapped in for when we go over that cusp.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

rusty,

i believe my simpleton brain will never have the capacity to understand the brilliant ruminations within your mind.

my remedial take? "it's NOT all about me." <8-}

SJ said...

You bring up some interesting points in particular about the ideology we hold on knowledge. I got the vibe that you expect rather a lot from humanity, when I believe most would never understand the issues you have outlined. In short, interesting

Jonathon Moxon said...

I like your Kevin Costner quote. And your use of Fastball in your music player.

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