Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 7, 2011

Knowing, Believing, Learning

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Mark Chubb on 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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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 7, 2011 @ 2:18 am

So is it not what we know, or what we don’t know that is the problem, but what we think we know that we don’t know that is the problem?

Personally I have always believed that mankind’s fascination with tools, from the 7 basic tools [pulley, inclined plane, lever. etc.] up to those now in existence is the problem. An interesting book is entitled “The Axemaker’s Gift” wherein the author wonders how the future looked to the first axeman using that tool to fell the first tree, and the axeman’s vision of technological fallout. Jared Diamond repeats the narrative in his book the “Collapse of Civilizations” when he speculates on what the person cutting down the last tree on Easter Island was thinking as he/she did so.
Well mankind seems driven by more and more complexity so perhaps back to nature can resolve some of the modern dilemma. A mankind driven by his/her need to know when perhaps that drive can lead one over the cliff to destruction. Perhaps cause and effect is the great disaster of Western Civilization.

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 7, 2011 @ 12:03 pm

Bill, I think our problem lies in both our tendency to rely too heavily on reason in some situations and too heavily on faith in others, often without regard to the quality of the information available to us. It seems to me that the right balance is for one to inform the other (and vice versa).

Most of us have no scientific knowledge to support our belief that the sun will rise and set each day. But we have faith that it will, whether we’re alive to see it or not.

Some people take that belief a bit further. They believe one day the sun’s light will be extinguished. Of those, some have a scientific insight into the life cycle of stars that informs their assumption that that day will not come anytime soon. Others believe something very different based on their faith in a creation narrative that suggests imbues a supreme being with the power to determine the sun’s fate. They assume that the sun could cease to shine at any time despite abundant evidence and lack of experience to the contrary.

The extent to which experience informs these divergent perspectives is what I’m interested in. We learn from others and our relationship with the things we find complex what these things mean. We can decide whether to take an open- or closed-ended view of them. We can decide whether to accept new information as evidence of the need to amend or update our perspective.

Clearly, the ability to make tools arises from this capacity. But so too does the knowledge that we must use them carefully lest we cause harms that we cannot correct.

Comment by Christopher Bellavita

December 7, 2011 @ 2:53 pm

Mark — which one of John Ralston Saul’s books would you recommend as a way to start understanding his perspective?

Comment by Mark Chubb

December 7, 2011 @ 7:32 pm

I started with Voltaire’s Bastards: The Dictatorship of Reason in the West, but a later work, The Collapse of Globalism: And the Reinvention of the World, might be a better place to start. Another work of his, On Equilibrium: Six Qualities of the New Humanism looks interesting, but I haven’t been able to get my hands on a copy. His website: http://johnralstonsaul.com/, contains a great deal of information on all of his fiction and non-fiction works.

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