Deconstructing what I know and what I don’t know

As someone who naturally moves toward generalities—in the name of integration and wider perspectives—I wonder if I am qualified to have an opinion on anything in particular. Or do I ruminate in the meadows of life as a cow digests, then regurgitates, whatever appears before its meandering steps?

Do I ponder the role of Space in making possible all that I know, because I don’t sky dive or climb to mountain tops where sky and distant horizons are everywhere? Do I ponder a greater Time because I am not helping others say alive for another day in an ICU, prenatal care unit, or war-ravaged country? And am I infatuated with the idea that Knowing is intrinsic to life, because I am not acquiring practical skills, mastering the speculations of science, or delving afresh into the classics of literature and philosophy?

Instead of sailing into the horizon, I use the ocean as a metaphor for the human yearning to understand, to feel connected with others, and to feel at one with the vastness of the cosmos. Instead of living in the energy of time–dedicated to activities that create opportunities for others–I lament how a single moment, in lockstep with other moments, is too tiny a cup to hold the potential of life. I critique the very pathway of past, present and future by which others seek to realize their intentions. Instead of studying astronomy and sociology, or steeping myself in the glories of the past, I pick at the edges of such subjects, in order to create metaphors which I then claim express an overarching and intimate knowing—while I largely ignore the babbling stream that is carrying me along.

I am drawn to radical thinkers who assert that conventional wisdom, studied in schools and solidified by society, is fundamentally flawed. For instance, Immanuel Velikovsky wrote several books (notably “Worlds in Collision”) about the planet Venus (which, unaccountably, is hundreds of degrees hotter than its neighbor, Earth, and whose rotation, unaccountably, is retrograde to that of all other known objects in our solar system). Velikovsky examines phenomena recorded in the Biblical story of Exodus (flames and hydrocarbon loaves falling from the sky, the Sun standing still and then reversing direction, Israelites wandering under a darkened sky for decades) to support his theory that Venus was a rogue intruder whose cometary tail swept through Earth’s atmosphere and whose gravitational pull reversed Earth’s rotation–before settling into orbit. I especially appreciate Velikovsky’s trust in the accounts of Old Testament shepherds, tending their flocks beneath a sky they knew much better than do modern city dwellers. But I also have to ask myself why Carl Sagan dismissed Velikovsky’s interpretation. Perhaps, as well as appreciating the direct experience of shepherds, tending their flocks in 15th Century BCE, I should also acknowledge Planetary Society founder Sagan’s superior understanding of modern astronomy.

George Gurdjieff wrote books claiming that human beings are insane but are unable to address the problem, because everything we learn tells us that we are already the pinnacle of life in the universe. (For more about our sole remaining seed of sanity, “a pang of conscience”, see last week’s post: “The Ebb and Flow of Memory”).

Reading Velikovsky and Gurdjieff, I find it easy to accept that conventional theories are mistaken, for the simple reason that I have made little investment in learning the ‘facts’ which such radical views assail. I recently read an astronomer’s newsletter claiming that electrical charges (attractions and repulsions) provide a better explanation than gravity for important cosmological observations. For instance, invisible “dark matter” (presumed to be about ten times more plentiful in our universe than what is visible to our instruments) is required to support the current theory that our universe is expanding. But in a universe interpreted as an electrical field, this undetected matter is not required. And for someone, like myself, who ransacks astronomical knowledge for a telling metaphor, any excuse not to delve too closely into Newton and Einstein, is quite convenient.

New explanations that replace old explanations don’t provide useful knowledge if all they do is persuade us to look no further. When we challenge citadels of “established” fact and theory, what is our motivation for doing so? Is it important for us to be thought knowledgeable and skilled, irrespective of our actual understanding? Do our experiences allow what we ‘know’ to be tested and what we do to be informed? Are we able to open our minds to the margins where we feel a gravitational tug from beyond and an electrical charge connecting us to this beyond?

A good antidote to the feeling of being stuck inside what we happen to already think is to notice how other people have their own surprising skills and passionate convictions–quite different than our own–which allow them to experience parallel dimensions to those that we inhabit. If we appreciate what is unique in ourselves while also appreciating what is unique in others, then this broader spectrum can sharpen our ability to discover things we have imagined and hear melodies we have never heard before.

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