Saturday, April 18, 2009

Knowledge and Polestars

In Josephine Johnson’s Pulitzer-winning novel, Now in November, Grant and Marget come across a snake while walking on the farm. Grant can tell that it’s about to shed its skin. Marget then wishes she knew as many things about the world as Grant does. Then Grant makes a remarkable admission. “I have a fool hopeful belief,” he says, “that the more we know, the more we can come to understand.”

For those of us who are hopelessly addicted to learning new things, these are assuring words. In fact we know intuitively that they are true. Those moments in our lives when the light of understanding breaks through our otherwise clouded existence, it often comes piggy-back on what we already know – in contingencies of previously known facts.

And yet the opposite also seems true. Sometimes the more we know, the more confusing things become. In a recent evaluation of how little we know about nitrogen fixation in plants, G.J. Leigh laments that, “the more we know, the less we understand.” (See The World’s Greatest Fix, A History of Nitrogen and Agriculture, Oxford University Press, 2004, p. 178.)

This, of course, is a common theme in science and is more often expressed as, “the more we know, the more we realize that we don’t know.” This has become an aphorism and a call to humility among scientists for a long time, but scientists don’t normally understand it to mean that the more we know, the less we wisdom we have. On the contrary, most scientists believe that the more we are aware of our knowledge gaps, the greater is our understanding, at least to a degree.

So all of this seems to imply that both statements are true. The more we know, the more we do understand - in an absolute sense (our total amount of knowledge does increase). But it is also true that the more we know, the awareness of our ignorance also increases, such that the proportion of our knowledge, compared to all there really is to be known, becomes less. At least it appears less to us.

In Grant’s conversation with Marget, it is apparent that he wants understanding most of all. Knowledge is just a way of getting understanding. This is certainly a commendable use of knowledge. Many have been the abuses of knowledge for less worthy ends - such as power, prestige, or wealth. But understanding by itself is not free of ambiguity. This is because understanding implies a world view.

Knowledge without a polestar is like plowing a field without your eyes fixed on an immoveable object. You begin to wander in many different directions. The wandering may be subtle or not so subtle, but it is wandering nonetheless. This sounds a bit too subjective for most people - who want absolute facts free of value judgments or preconceived theories. The only problem with this kind of thinking is that we humans aren’t made to see the world this way. The need for a polestar is part of our nature.

Grant’s next question could easily be, “why do snakes shed their skin?” followed ultimately by, “why are there even snakes at all?” the answers to these questions can be very different if one’s polestar sees the creation as a product of chance or part of an intended order.

All of our knowledge, ultimately, is informed by our views, whether we realize it or not. Even the certain laws of mathematics will be pointed in different directions in persons of different polestars. They may be grounded immovably in fact, but the direction they are headed makes all the difference in the world.

The remarkable truth to be gained from all of this is that there is only one ordered universe that accounts for all knowledge – and therefore only one polestar that aligns with all of this knowledge. All other polestars will never be able to account for everything – there are simply too many contradictions.

Think of a million ropes (representing a million bits of knowledge) all tied to the ground and measured precisely to hold a giant hot air balloon high above the earth. When working as they were designed to, each rope is securely fastened to the balloon and carries an equal share of the weight. Any other balloon anywhere else in the world would leave many ropes unused, or twisted and out of proportion. Our balloon – that is, our world – is clearly not this way. It is an ordered world.

Instead of a twisted laws, or no apparent laws at all, we experience systems that work with great precision together in ways to foster life. Many of these systems – in fact most of them – we are ignorant of. There is a lot of knowledge that we will never have. We can therefore be forgiven for this ignorance, at least in part. Our choice of polestars, however, is a different thing. Our understanding depends on which one we chose. It seems obvious that we should choose one that is ordered the best. To me it seems obvious that this is a created order.

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