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Knowing, Believing, Learning

December 7, 2011

Not knowing whether Homeland Security Watch’s domain would come back to life in time for my weekly rant had a soporific effect on my thinking about what to write. Then I read Chris Bellavita’s reflection on complexity and came back to life — a little.

One commenter called Chris’s post a fugue. I rather liken it to a comic opera though. That is to say: not depressing or morose. I found it entertaining in the sense that it shed light on foibles we all share.

Chris’s effort follows the common thread of complexity as weaves its way through our lives and unravels them in unexpected ways. His analysis suggests, as Carl Sagan put it, that our ignorance of science or at least scientific principles renders us vulnerable to disaster.

For years now, I have been intrigued by a very different argument about the root causes of the dilemmas Chris’s examples illustrated so aptly and which now confront us in abundance. That view, put forward by Canadian economist and political philosopher John Ralston Saul, argues it is not ignorance of science but a misplaced faith in science or the scientific method that has led us to the brink of environmental, economic, and political catastrophe. Saul is less concerned with knowing (or not) than with believing.

I am sympathetic to both arguments for different reasons. As Chris notes, those who don’t understand science can satisfy themselves that someone else does. Those who do understand science, or think they do, are all too willing to assure us they know more than they really do. So, which is more dangerous, not knowing or trusting too much?

Several months ago, I posted a link to New Zealand political scientist Bronwyn Hayward’s brief video on resilient citizenship, which argued something I think bridges the apparent gap between Sagan’s argument (the one articulated by Chris) and Saul’s. Hayward argues among other things that resilient citizens have a strong sense of and a connection to the natural world.

This connection may or may not include a detailed understanding of plant biology, cosmology, quantum mechanics or physical chemistry, but it must allow for a innate understanding of the cycles of life and death, ebb and flow, accretion and decay, chaos and order. Awareness and acceptance of these dichotomies requires a very different mindset than the one that sees the world in terms of  black and white, good and evil, pass and fail, profit and loss.

Natural dichotomies make us aware that most of our time is spent somewhere in between the extremes, making our way from one point to another and back again. The lucky and happy among us learn to enjoy the journey.

Too many of us though become fixated on one destination or the other at one time or another. The most desperate among us live this reality all the time, enjoying each brief respite at their preferred destination less and less as time passes, yet nevertheless clinging to the hope that something better and more complete awaits them at the end of their next journey.

A few of us are confused enough to believe it would be better to stop anywhere rather than continuing the journey regardless of where we end up. Stasis, or at least the longing for it, is to them anything but a fate worse than death.

The complexity of our world, as Chris pointed out, lies not so much in the reality of the world we live in but the way we choose to embrace it. If we are willing to accept this complexity neither at face value nor as something unknowable, but rather as something worthy of our attention, if not intellection, then we can find solace if not agency in our engagement with that world and those with whom we share it.

As 2011 comes to a close, the world faces many challenges and opportunities. Individuals with different mindsets will see in the same situations very different circumstances. As we wonder what it all means, we would do well to ask ourselves not what we can do about it, but rather what we can learn from it.

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