Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Contemplating Folly

Originally posted on January 21, 2015

One of the problems with consciousness in our own era is that knowledge is expanding much faster than any even small collective can keep up with. Curiosity, the awareness that there is so much more to know, is not keeping up with our rapidly expanding horizons. There is a natural inclination towards inertia, which means that there is an illusion of sufficiency in what we know. Variations include the illusion that what needs to be known is known and written about in a book somewhere. The sense that somebody must know what’s going on around here is an immature transference, a secret wish that our parents know and all is well. It’s intolerable to most minds to imagine that there are tons and tons of things that nobody knows! Just because it offends human egocentricity and pride does not mean that something is untrue!

This intolerance of conceiving of our own limitations is another facet of overweening pride, what the ancient Greeks called “hubris.” Hubris gives us a sense of entitlement to knowing—and if it’s not we personally who know, then at least it’s the duly appointed experts who should know—we pay them enough. In the olden days we attributed wisdom to the wise old man with a beard, a long beard. Archetypes proliferate. The point is that ordinary consciousness resists the idea that nobody knows. Even so, humans can get a glimmer of what there is to know—we can contemplate the horizon and wonder if when we get there one can see off in the distance yet another horizon. Such thoughts are conceivable, but not widely welcome.

Perhaps the remedy is to create a norm of our correct size in relation to the cosmos, and our correct level of what-we-know also in relation to what we suspect there is yet to be known. That’s my solution at this point: To establish a set-point that draws us forward rather than fosters our wallowing complacently in our own limited lives.

Psychology is advancing! All horizons are advancing! The more we know the more we discover that there’s so much more we don’t know. It forces us to let go of claims to final answers, manifestos, utopian tracts. It also invites us to learn about our intolerance of ignorance.

This is in part an individual tendency: We feel insecure considering that, first, maybe our parents don’t know; then, the tribal elders; then, our tribal myths might not have all the answers, however hidden. Knowledge expands beyond our ability to conceive of knowledge—again, this rubs against our innate tendencies to feel insecure in the face of the unknown. This insecurity drives the unconscious mechanism of denial: It cannot be. Surely someone must know. Ideally, someone in power, in government. If they don’t know, they’re wise enough to hire consultants who know.

For example, an one example of myth is the idea that government is powerful enough to be way more clever than we are. A counter myth is the idea that government by definition is too bureaucratic and unwieldy—like a giant—that it cannot do anything right.

For the first meaning, we are tempted to attribute to “Government” the illusion that they can find those who are clever enough to know, and to hire them. If not big government, then a political party that believes in big business. The point is that there is a subconscious belief that such people exist, people who can know, can figure things out, are not stupid, and they can be found, identified as really knowing—versus all those who pretend to know. Such people who can or do know exist and can be found and hired. If they’re not being hired, that’s a political problem: Pay them enough and they will do it. This underlying myth is that there are specialists who know and who know ways of finding out.

I’m sorry to remind you, but there were people, psychologists, who convinced those who held the purse-strings that they could find the truth by using enhanced interrogation—torture — although they didn’t find a worthwhile truth that justified using torture…, well, that’s a poignant illustration of the myth of knowledge.

The idea that nobody knows, and that we don’t even have the basic tools to know—now that is both obviously true on one level and unacceptable on another. It’s as if you were to tell a young child that her mother doesn’t know anything!

The fancy-shmancy name for the philosophical inquiry of what can be known is “epistemology” and my point is that this whole realm is in fact subject to rather primitive, infantile, egocentric, grandiose motives that get rather sullen and feel entitled and offended by there being all that stuff out there that people can’t begin to understand.

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