Why are we rejecting knowledge?
A child cries, throws a tantrum, demands whatever it knows you won’t give it. Enough pressure and you give in. The child rejects what it has just acquired. You thought it wanted what it was asking for. You were wrong. It was asking for something it couldn’t have. Now it wants something else it cannot have. It doesn’t know what. What will you give it?
As a species we have been seeking knowledge since we first stood up. We wanted knowledge to extend our lives and make them more comfortable. Knowledge enabled us to become clever, to command other species as well as our own. ‘Uber alles’ was not only a German wish. The Germans just incorporated it earlier into their anthem.
We acquired knowledge, bit by bit, lesson by lesson, degree by degree. Suddenly it was universally available, free. The struggles of the past were over. One click and we could know. We should have become happy. But we haven’t. We have become greedy – a word you seldom hear these days. We demand more than knowledge. We call it freedom, satisfying wealth, long life, happiness (how vague can you get?), contentment. We don’t understand what we want.
As with a child, if we looked at what we’ve been given, studied it, nurtured it, developed it carefully and lovingly we would learn that it is priceless. It can transform our lives, is capable of producing ‘heaven below’. We don’t exploit the knowledge we have been given, we skim it for fleeting thrills, for transient titillations. We speak of ‘post-truth’ in a way we might speak of a panacea. Truth is hard; shallowness is easy. We are becoming shallow.
When the President of the United States decides to be as shallow as his supporters he lowers our human stature, makes a mockery of high ideals, trashes our spirit. Knowledge was tangible. What we think we want now is not. Maybe it has an element of spirit about it that we are not used to. Some societies are turning ‘spiritual’ which would support that idea. Our species has an element of spirit that other species have not yet developed.
But when spirit means occult it takes us backwards not forwards. It denies the spirit we have right in front of us, especially when we look in the mirror. The spirit we need we already possess. It is the spirit of humanity and we are denying it. What should we do to stop what looks like an uncontrollable rush to the edge of a precipitous cliff?
First we need to understand that knowledge is not just an assembly of facts. It is like the pieces of a Lego set, only making sense when put together in a meaningful way. At present we summon facts to support a thesis. While knowledge is evidence at one level it is much more valuable at another level, as the pieces of an artistic jigsaw. Making a wonder from what we know is a creative act.
Second we must discover today’s purpose of society. Art, in the sense of making something from knowledge, is that purpose. This is not art in the narrow sense of pictures, words, music, sculpture, although these are wonderful manifestations of it. It is the art of using what we know to provide what our spirit desires.
Third we need everyone to contribute to making something from knowledge. The proportion of the population making this contribution has declined in my lifetime in spite of the dramatically increased spread of education. No good blaming the educators for that. They provide what parents demand. That has become increasingly materialistic and decreasingly cerebral.
As work moves from humans to robots the need to understand society’s purpose increases. Leaders – political, social, economic, moral – have a duty to encourage and define this. Instead of taxing robots (a daft idea) we should be ‘taxing’ brains. I put the word in quotes to distinguish it from the shallow fiscal exercise of extracting money.
Pause and ponder. We have all we need to be great except the will to become great.
Can we generate that will?