Thursday, January 22, 2009

When stark outlines get fuzzy

This is the first in the series of philosophical essays I promised under the very broad and probably too self-important sounding banner of Toward a 21st Century Ethos. Because I don't want to write chapter-length posts, I'm skimming the surface on most of this. I hope what's under-treated will be fodder for the comments.

I admittedly chose to start with the topic that has only recently begun to shape itself in my mind. The outlines of my argument may appear vague and shifting, but that fits well with the subject I'm trying to tackle here.

The human mind seems to have an obsessive compulsion to neatly order the universe. We place the objects around us into tidy classifications, perhaps in order to convince ourselves we've mastered the world we live in. We especially like to stick these everyday things, and even each other, into numbered boxes. The problem is that sometimes the objects don't fit very easily, and we have to shave off a layer or two of truth in order to get them to squeeze into their assigned compartments.

Take as examples some very simple categories that are widely accepted, even though improved science and more accurate measuring devices have proved their inaccuracy. From childhood we learn there are nine planets; five senses; twenty-four hours in a day; and 365 days in a year.

Working in reverse, the precise measurement of a day (one earth rotation) is actually 23 hours, 56 minutes, and 4.2 seconds. That's not an amount that can be captured very easily on the face of a clock, however. This error in our neat 24-hour rendering of a day of course ripples through the measurement of our year, and we tack a leap day onto our calendars (not exactly) every four years to even things out.

The number of planets that wheel their way around our Sun might actually be eight, as some have demoted Pluto to asteroid status. Or it could be as many as eleven, if you insist on including the maybe-asteroid and its brethren in the Kuiper belt (see the Wikipedia summary of the controversy).

As far as our senses, without even raising the possibility of ESP, some scientists believe we should include proprioception (a combination of self-orientation and location) as a sixth. There are also those who are actively working to hack the ways we receive stimulus from the world, so one day we could, for example, see with our taste buds (see Wired Magazine article Mixed Feelings).

Beyond such accounting tricks for worldly things, we also like to label and define each other. We group people and stereotype them, and kid ourselves that we can "know" them based on such superficial characteristics as occupation, gender and ethnicity. If I remember my Jean Paul Sartre correctly, and I probably don't, part of it arises from a frustration over not being able to ever fully understand what's in the mind of the other. Unable to accept that reality, we distort it and reduce the other person to a parody of themselves.

The human mind is, obviously a very complex thing. Not only are individual personalities much messier than any categories we can hope to try to group them into, they can also contain traits that we normally view as contradictory. The idea that two opposites can co-exist in a single entity is a particularly challenging one for most of us.

It's much easier to come to terms with an unsubtle universe of clear divisions; constructing a worldview based on black-white, either-or, right-wrong, and us-them paradigms. The more nuanced conception that multiple, sometimes contradictory traits can exist in one person seems to threaten our too-secure sense of who we are, and how we fit into the world.

This may seem a bit of a leap, but what if we take the concept even further and extend it beyond the physical realm to that of ideas. The literal and the metaphorical, for example, are always treated as contradictory, but what if Genesis and evolution weren't viewed as mutually exclusive truths? It's a subject I tried to delve into in one of my very early posts here: The Serpent, the Tree of Knowledge and Evolution? What if hidden within the poetic imagery of the forbidden fruit is a seed of truth about how our consciousness actually evolved?

Can Science and religion on some level be reconciled? What about the teachings of the various religions we view as contending for a single truth? What I'd like to suggest is that these "opposing" truths haven't been reconciled not because they can't be, but because it requires us to extend ourselves beyond our usual comfort zones. It means putting aside the petty desire to prove one "side" superior to another, and instead do the hard labor necessary to win a fuller understanding of reality. It means putting our common humanity above serving any narrow ideology.

It might seem like I'm making an argument for a relativistic truth, but that's not quite accurate. What I am trying to say is that we, the world and the universe are so immensely complex that our limited mental capacities aren't able to wrap themselves around the entirety of it all. Individually, in fact, we may only be able to grasp a small piece of that complexity.

Uniting those billions of pieces collected by each of our receptive minds, however, gets us much closer to a comprehensive view. As technology allows us to link up more easily and gather these fragments into a whole, that becomes a very real possibility. That's a discussion for a future post.
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