Let’s assume there’s a fear of the unknown or not understood. “Primitive” cultures create mythologies about the reasons for things, like the sun rising and setting, and why people from other cultures are so weird. These mythologies fill the void of the unknown (e.g. creation myths are a universal components of all societies) and create the illusion of understanding—or at least fill the void.
When science comes along with explanations that can be tested and proven, the body of scientific knowledge grows, displacing mythologies. To use the metaphor of the earth covered with water, the rocky surface of the earth represents everything that is knowable and verifiable, with those things that are known being above the surface of the water, and those things that have yet to be discovered are currently obscured below the surface of the water. In this model, as scientific knowledge increases, the water level drops. In this model the possibility exists that certain subjects will remain permanently under water, say for example, what happens after you die. Because what lies beneath the surface of the water is unknown, the submerged space can potentially contain an infinite surface area (since it is unknown, it cannot be disproved), therefore, even though the body of scientific knowledge is increasing, the space below the water can contain always contain an infinitely growing body of mythologies. We can always make new stuff up about things we do not know!
As we strive to reduce our fear and create understanding, others are doing the same in different fields and in different places. This creates a conundrum. As we work to increase our body of knowledge, that which we know individually decreases in proportion to all that is known, thus increasing our awareness of stuff out there that is unknown (to us personally).
Time for another metaphor:
If we as individuals are bodies moving through air (like racecars or airplanes) the wind resistance represents the current knowledge we are gaining. For individuals who become resistant to new technologies or ideas, forward motion stops. In this model, the air around us represents our personal body of knowledge. We can grow (increase our knowledge) but that growth is finite: we cannot know everything. Carrying this metaphor further than it needs to be, the air in our wake is knowledge that is lost. At one point I replaced the push rods and rocker arm assembly on my Volkswagen. I wouldn’t have a clue how to do this on my new Ford Ranger. As new electric devices come into common use, fewer user serviceable inside parts exist. Knowledge of the provision of basic human needs like growing food, weaving cloth, and providing a shelter with heat and light have been delegated. There’s the old question, “If you were thrown naked into the wilderness, would you be able to fend for yourself?” Now there’s a scary thought, fraught with many potential unknowns!
One possible solution to dealing with the vast amount of information in the world is to order and classify it: group similar things together, use metaphor to extrapolate the known into the unknown. Thus we can make sense of the world to the finest point and detail. It almost seems comforting.
On a daily basis, folks spend their time becoming experts in the minutia and sub-specialists: Entomologists become Lepidopterologists, Mechanics become Automatic Transmission Rebuilders, and Historians become Etruscan Art Historians. The only thing lost is the big picture.
And of course we have a solution for that: some yet-to-be-discovered Grand Unifying Theory of Everything, an equation where we can plug in everything from unfair labor practices, ocean current dynamics, to gay men’s sexuality and get the right answer. Because GUTE has yet to be discovered, we can create mythologies around it ad nauseam.
April 3, 2006
Sent into cyberspace by mbuitron at 8:46 PM