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Indigestible Knowledge

from Richard Ostrofsky of Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed) June, 2011 I have written before about our current glut of knowledge what Otto Rank described as "an over-production of truth that cannot be consumed. In part this is a matter of sheer volume. Knowledge today is produced at such a rate that even specialists are hard-pressed to keep up with major advances in their own (increasingly narrow) fields. But there is another problem as well, more serious as I believe: Not just specific items of knowledge, but the whole character and basis of modern knowledge has undermined our conventional wisdom and 'common sense.' The situation is not just that experts know more than the ordinary man or woman in their special fields rather that the worldview of the scientific experts now contradicts traditional common knowledge. It is not simply that people do not know what the experts know, but that they fear and prefer to avoid full awareness of the general character of current knowledge. They have reason for this fear, but it is dangerous nonetheless. In previous writings I have described the overproduction of knowledge in general terms, and dealt specifically with (what I see as) the tremendous paradigm shift now occuring from a top-down, designed and ordained world to a bottom-up self-organizing one. In this piece, I'd like to review the indigestibility of current knowledge in somewhat broader, but still fairly specific terms: the areas of modern knowledge that directly contradict our society's tradition, conventional wisdom and/or common sense. I want to take a brief inventory of current 'toxic' knowledge that's proving so difficult to assimilate. We might begin with the overthrow of classical, Newtonian physics by relativity and quantum mechanics. Fundamental physics has been a mess for some time now, but one thing it has shown clearly enough is that our physical intuitions, spelled out by classical mechanics, only apply on the human scale, to medium-sized and slow moving objects. In the realms of the very small, and/or the very fast those intuitions break down completely, and nothing fully coherent has been found to take their place. The cosmos just doesn't seem to work the way we expect it should. Modern biology is still more troublesome because it touches us more directly. The theory of evolution caused a scandal when Darwin finally

dared to publish it because it contradicts the common-sense idea of distinct life forms that are forever what they are. Both from the fossil record and laboratory experiment, it is completely clear that life forms change and evolve much as Darwin described, but even those (like myself) who fully accept this finding still have trouble with its consequence: that humanity is in no way central to the order of things, except in our own eyes; that we are a recent, largely accidental phenomenon, and quite possibly just a temporary one a mere blip in the 'Big History' of the universe, and even of this one planet. Where does that leave us exactly? What are we to do what our lives, knowing that this is the case? So much has been clear at least since the beginning of the 20th century, but two recent findings are even more unsettling. The first of these, already well known, is that our Earth, given current technologies, is actually a very small planet. By vidcam telephone, you can send your voice and image around the world almost instantaneously. You can fly from Ottawa to Beijing by commercial airline in about 13 hours just over half a day. The space shuttle orbits the whole planet in an hour and a half. Whatever goes around, comes around. Everything goes somewhere. Nothing just goes away can really be disposed of when no longer wanted. Somehow, we will have to make the painful adjustment from the 'cowboy economy' of a wide-open prairie to the 'spaceship economy' of a small world, as Kenneth Boulding bluntly put it. Everyone knows this now, but no one knows how to do it. Most people with real power still don't really want to. Finally, perhaps most disturbing of all if one takes the point seriously (as few people as yet seem ready to do), are the findings of neuropsychology. Cartesian dualism is dead. We are not conscious, moreor-less rational minds, "made in the image of God," operating and catering for the needs of our animal bodies. Rather, our 'minds,' our consciousness, our whole sense of what we are, is a construct of the workings of our primate brains. 'Thought' is a shifting pattern in the mutually triggered firings of about 10 billion unintelligent neurons. Learning happens through a kind of evolution: a competition and 'natural selection' of those patterns as guided by the feedback of experience pleasant, painful and coloured by emotion in various other ways. Try getting your head around that. The 'culture wars' in the headlines today should not be surprising. They can be seen, I think, as a collective thought process on a global scale, trying to digest on one hand the ineluctable pluralism of the world today, and this new, disturbing knowledge on the other. Since ancient times, the consciousness of societies have been divided between cosmopolitans and ethnic purists, and between the exploited who hope for change and the privileged who want to keep things much as they are. To these historic rifts has been added this new one: between people basically comfortable with the new paradigms and knowledge, and the people who feel disturbed

or uprooted by them, sometimes to the point of denial that anything of importance has been learned since their holy books were written. Some can accept that 'truth' is an evolving construct of human discourse. Others insist that Truth (with a capital 'T') must be singular, universal, permanent and God-given. Except through massive intellectual dishonesty, such truth is no longer available. We know too much now and the technologies that 7 billion people are trying to live by now depend on this new knowledge.