Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Abandoning Our Superstitious Beliefs About Knowledge

I've been on a Wendell Berry thing.  He promotes the agrarian lifestyle in the most eloquent way.  I love to read his essays, but even more I love to listen to him talk!  His voice seems to reflect the calm, thoughtful way in which he lives.  Maybe working so close to the land gives him an inner peace that can then flow out through his vocal chords.

Last week I listened to a Wendell Berry interview from 1981, but it was just as fresh and insightful as if it were recorded this morning.  He has a knack for helping you see something from a totally different perspective, usually things that are so endemic to our American culture that we have accepted them without ever considering any other possibility.

Anyway, in this interview, Berry makes the point that acquiring more information is not necessarily a good thing.  That doesn't seem like such a big deal until you really think about how profoundly it affects the choices that Americans make, whether it's to get a college degree or do a Google search or finance a multi-billion dollar research project with taxpayer money.  We assume that the more information we have, the better off we are.  I have unconsciously subscribed to this philosophy and research subjects endlessly in order to make an "informed decision".

So I was rather shocked when he says that "the evidence is overwhelming that knowledge does not solve the human problem.  It probably doesn't solve anything.  Indeed the evidence suggests, with Genesis, that knowledge IS the problem."  (audience laughs)

At that point, I re-grouped and realized what he meant.  He was differentiating between knowledge and wisdom, that same wisdom that used to be one of the ends of education but has now been discarded in favor of knowing miscellaneous facts and being able to pass tests.  Berry makes that clear right away when he says, "Or perhaps, we should say instead, that all our problems tend to gather under two questions about knowledge: One, having the ability and the desire to know, how and what should we learn?  And the other, having learned, how and for what should we use what we know?"

If only we asked these questions!  The questions presuppose, however, that the questioner shares the same moral code as his countrymen.  That is definitely not the case in America, where atheism is given the same respect as Christianity.  Well, actually, it is given more respect.  Muslims probably get the most respect of all.

He continues, "One thing that we do know, that we dare not forget, is that better solutions than ours have at times been made by people with less information than we have."  This statement I knew immediately to be true from my experience with trying to eat real food.  My great-grandparents definitely knew more about how to nourish themselves than my generation.  And they "learned" from their culture.  It was passed down to them, not something they researched.  For a thorough introduction to this topic, I recommend Nourishing Traditions, a cookbook/primer about traditional ways of eating.

The US government has promoted policies that have destroyed the kind of community that passed down knowledge and wisdom.  Of course the most fundamental community is the family.  We used to be a country full of independent family farms.  And those family farms made up tightly-knit farming communities that also functioned as a means to share and pass down culture.  So without a shared culture, we are dependent on the latest research, devoid of any connection to God, tradition, or any loving consideration of future generations.  Without community, we pave the way for the likes of Monsanto.  And Empty Nest Syndrome.

"We know too, from the study of agriculture," Berry says, "that the same information, tools, and techniques that in one farmer's hands will ruin land, in another's will save and improve it.  This is not a recommendation of ignorance.  To know nothing, after all, is no more possible than to know enough.  I am only proposing that knowledge, like everything else, has its place, and we need urgently now to put it in its place.  I will have something later to say about what I think its place is.

"If we want to know and cannot help knowing, then let us learn as fully and accurately as we decently can, but let us at the same time abandon our superstitious beliefs about knowledge--that it is ever sufficient, that it can of itself solve problems, that it is intrinsically good, that it can be used objectively or disinterestedly.  Let us acknowledge that the objective or disinterested researcher is always on the side that pays best, and let us give up our forlorn pursuit of the informed decision.  The informed decision is as fantastical a creature as a disinterested third party (audience laughs) and the objective observer."

One has only to recall the history of eugenics to know that Berry is absolutely right.  This is why separation of church and state creates catastrophes on a worldwide scale.  We must live an integrated life.  There must be limits.  Our choices in what to learn and how to use what we learn must be informed by the Faith.

Let us restore Christendom and quickly!

P.S.  For me, one of the most interesting things about this talk is how Berry applies these ideas to agriculture and marriage simultaneously.  In Part 2 of the interview, he compares purchasing a farm to getting married, and it is at once illuminating and humorous.  Each part is only about ten minutes long, perfect for a coffee break!

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