Don Rogers: Anxious limits of understanding
Here’s what I know:
There’s what we know and know that we know.
There’s what we don’t know and know that we don’t know.
There’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so. (Thank you, Mark Twain, only we don’t know that he actually said that.)
And then there’s what we don’t know what we don’t know, the most common variety of don’t know. Complete ignorance.
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I think I know this much, at least.
Mostly, I know there’s a lot of reason for humility in the face of all that we don’t know and all the ways we don’t know it.
Here lies the root of wonder and awe. So much we don’t know, not me and not you. Just go outside at night. The moon. The stars, so many, and so many more out of our range of sight, even past the Hubble Space Telescope’s range.
Here, too, is a first cornerstone for creating faith out of thin air, imaginings told as stories for centuries before being written down, perhaps informed directly from the higher powers they espouse, perhaps not so much. These become scripture.
As solid as religious faith is atheism, given as little as we know or can know of reality. A few of my friends are almost militant with their disbelief in whatever can’t be proven empirically. Now there’s a most rigid faith, if you think about it, since our sensory receptacles see almost nothing, even with how much we’ve managed to enhance our vision — to such lengths as CERN, to Voyager and beyond as Moore’s law marches on.
But someone must know what we don’t, right? We know this to be true, to a point. Scholars know their specialties, pilots their controls, dancers their steps. Experts, authorities all. We learn more from them than diving into what they devoted their lives to understanding.
Of course, this is how we pool our knowledges in such a complex society as humans have sewn, nearly 8 billion of us now, growing exponentially far longer than any pandemic we have ever known.
At some point we lock in what we think we have learned, presuming now to know. A few of us keep going, try to remain fluid, unfixed, minds open and willing to take in more to integrate and recalibrate.
But all that requires energy, hard thought under a stark realization that we don’t yet know. And a lot of anxiety is born of not knowing. We’re wired this way, I think.
To function, we must tuck away, categorize and assume or at least believe we know a million little and large pieces of input, let’s say.
We should know better, yet still we invest our faith in authority. Preachers, politicians, CEOs, generals, all manner of charismatic leaders. They know this need, and some have learned how to harness it.
When our knowing comes from skimming at the level of what authorities and experts in their fields tell us, as it must, we become vulnerable to what we’ve decided to trust. I suspect the evil seeds of partisanship are buried here, the nadir of knowing for sure what just ain’t so.
We crave knowing. So much so we’ll fool ourselves about what’s knowable and how much we do know. So much so we throw our faith even irrationally into authorities we believe should know, and that they somehow know more than they’re able to know.
Uncertainties with the pandemic, the economic disruption and now the protests brim over. Life, livelihood, social order. Our foundation suddenly feels a lot shakier.
People have leaned further into their faith, religious as well as Scientism, a faith of its own in authority figures and quite different than the messy practice of science itself.
The underlying connection here is faith in what we don’t understand ourselves, though many of course believe they do know. Listen to their certainty, so full of not knowing what they don’t even know they don’t know. This, of course, is the basis of racial prejudice.
Meantime, antidepressants are in shorter supply than toilet paper as mental health joins the casualties of pandemic, lockdown and loss of income, along with the risks of foregoing medical attention generally.
The world’s gone crazy. I think we can say we know why.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at email@example.com or 530-477-4299.
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