Knowledge and Illusion
by Mark English
Writer’s block it is not. The problem – if it is a problem – is more along the lines that the sorts of topics and themes I know best are not (for various reasons) all that interesting to me, or only in a negative way. And most of the topics that I am interested in exploring I don’t really know well enough to write about (with any confidence, at any rate).
Though the sorts of things I know best are not for the most part scientific, I have a scientific view of the world, firmly believing that scientific knowledge belongs to all of us, not just to the individuals whose job it is to develop and expand that very important body of knowledge.
Attempting to point out the errors or misconceptions of others – even if one admits to having shared these errors and misconceptions at one time – is an unattractive option. This kind of negative critique no doubt has its place but it is both intellectually limiting and socially problematic.
It is intellectually limiting because it involves going back over old ground. Once one has moved on intellectually, it seems more healthy to look ahead and cultivate new knowledge and understanding rather than to keep returning to issues and questions associated with positions which are no longer live options for oneself. And, of course, the people whose views one is critiquing – who have not “moved on” in the way one sees oneself as having done – are not necessarily going to appreciate a critique directed at their most cherished beliefs. In fact, they will probably see such a critique as mean-spirited, arrogant or condescending (or a mixture of these). As I said, the results would be socially negative and, frankly, I would prefer that others shouldered this particular burden.
After all, I may be wrong. I may have a fatal blind spot and be missing something of vital importance. It goes without saying that I have “coping illusions” of my own, and these could well be distorting the way I perceive the beliefs of others.
Even assuming that my confidence in my general position is not misplaced, does it really matter if other people see things not quite as (I think) they are? Life is hard. Illusions are necessary. Western literature is full of salutary tales of worthy people who come to grief when their illusions are exposed either through their own efforts or by the (often well-meant) intervention of others.
There are, however, illusions and illusions. Personal illusions are often coping mechanisms, and it’s dangerous to mess with them. I am more concerned with the sorts of illusions which are shared with others and are associated with identifiable institutional structures.
My targets would probably be mainly religious, political and – not least – academic groups and groupings. I realize, of course, that religious denominations and political parties, etc. often help to define and support personal beliefs of one kind or another. Institutional and personal elements are inevitably intertwined, but my own observations and reading strongly suggest that the actual beliefs of individuals who share an institutional affiliation are in no way guaranteed to be similar or even compatible.
In respect of academic groupings, it is hard to talk in general terms but I would suggest that, in assessing these groupings as academic disciplines, one needs to focus not so much on what one personally might value or enjoy in terms of intellectual or similar activity, but rather on general questions concerning the nature of knowledge and expertise and on how the discipline in question fits in to the knowledge-building process.
And how one understands the nature of knowledge, it seems to me, will depend on how one understands the fundamental nature of the universe. Are there, for example, parts of reality which are in principle not accessible to ordinary or scientific observation and reasoning?
I see the natural world – the world of physics and biology – as given. It is as it is. The sciences have allowed us to develop a very sophisticated, communal understanding of this world of which we are a rather special part. Life is rare enough, but we are certainly the only highly-intelligent species in our cosmic neighborhood (and possibly beyond).
Science tells us how this world is, mainly by extending our understanding of various processes and phenomena. It tells us that our universe has a particular (13.8 billion year) history and also about its likely future.
Less than two decades ago, it was discovered that the expansion of the universe – driven by so-called dark energy – is speeding up. Our universe began in a state of very low entropy and is moving inexorably to a very high-entropy (featureless and lifeless) state. Entropy is all about information, and increasingly information is being seen as a central concept of physics and probably more basic than matter and energy.
How our universe fits into a larger picture is still very unclear, but there are now good scientific reasons for believing that it is just one in a vast, possibly infinite, complex of other universes (the multiverse).
Crucially, these stories are quite different from the (often incompatible) stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in non-scientific contexts. To put it simply, the latter – while some narratives are certainly more plausible than others – tend to proliferate in an uncontrolled manner. The sorts of constraints and criteria that allow a scientific consensus to form over time do not apply to the humanities, for example, except in a few areas (such as textual criticism).
What most of us are concerned with, of course, are human problems and not abstract or overarching scientific questions. It seems nerdy and rather silly to be too preoccupied with the latter. Whenever I find myself referring to cosmological matters, for example, I think of a well-known scene involving Alvy Singer as a child in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. He became depressed and lethargic when he found out that the universe was expanding inexorably. He stopped doing his homework. As Alvy’s mother asked in desperation: “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.”
But the main point I want make here is that this general scientific understanding of the natural processes that led to our being here inevitably affects the way we see ourselves, even in human terms. For example, what we see – both in the manifest processes of the living world and in the more sophisticated theoretical understanding of how these processes unfold which cosmology and evolutionary theory provide – is a totally amoral system and quite unlike the kind of system (shot through as it was with divine symbols and infused with grace and implicit moral lessons) which medieval thinkers elaborated.
Yet somehow the medieval view or something like it persists in intellectual circles. I am thinking here not just of various forms of neo-scholasticism in philosophy but also of attempts by scientists to interpret their work in essentially moral or political terms. It happens all the time, unfortunately, and especially in areas like evolutionary theory which has long been a moral and political battlefield.
If ideological intrusions into science are significant and troublesome, they are even more significant and troublesome, I think, in certain areas of the humanities. As I suggested, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in non-scientific contexts are relatively unconstrained. In personal contexts, I embrace this. But in academic contexts there is a danger that ideological factions will form which impose their own constraints and taboos. This is in fact what has been happening in many areas of the academy; and it is demonstrably worse in areas in which generally accepted empirical and/or formal constraints do not apply, so that academic activities are reduced to a naked power game with little relevance to the sort of genuine knowledge or learning to which academic institutions ought (in my opinion) to be devoted.