Can We Trust What We Know?

There is a certain kind of knowledge that has risen to the top of the knowledge food chain in our world. This kind of knowledge, in which technology is believed to be the most reliable and useful of all ways of knowing, clearly predominates in our post-modern society. And in other parts of the world, where the convenience of technologically advanced forms of agriculture, manufacturing, communication, transportation and leisure activities are less developed, technology is understandably sought as a ticket to greater comfort and happiness. But I expect that some Ethiopians are glad they were travelling by animal-drawn cart when they heard about the 737 Max that dipped violently up and down several times, before diving straight into the ground, killing all souls aboard.

I don’t think that in the days of sailing ships there was the equivalent of a navigational system taking over control of a vessel and steering it straight onto the rocks. Although such malfunctions do happen in the natural world.

For instance, in the neurological domain, there are diseases, such as Multiple Sclerosis, where the immune system—designed to protect the body from disease and infection—misidentifies its own neurological apparatus as a foreign invader and attacks the imagined enemy (in the case of MS, destroying the myelin sheath that coats the body’s neurons that provide communication pathways for body and brain).

Norbert Weiner, in his book The Human Use of Human Beings, describes the early development of Cybernetics during WW II (which provided the ability to launch a focused barrage of anti-aircraft shells, based on the known turning characteristics of German war planes, thereby creating a net from which German bombers could not escape.

Interestingly, the development of cybernetics, which now pervades every aspect of modern life, brought to light technological glitches in control systems that could mimic biological ones. One early initiative was a system to automatically control the steering mechanism of a ship—allowing it to maintain a steady course under unpredictable conditions of wind and current. However it was discovered that a minor calibration error could lead to the rudder progressively overcorrecting its own changes of direction; resulting in wilder and wilder oscillations that could shake the ship apart.

This technological condition has its equivalent in a human neurological disease (Intention Tremors), where a person, reaching for an object, can’t prevent their arm from flailing back and forth, further and further from the intended target.

When we hear that a product has malfunctioned and caused great harm, how do we react? Do we identify specific culprits who must have–we tell ourselves–shirked their responsibility: perhaps in a rush to dominate the market (e.g. Boeing) or in lazy indifference (e.g. the FAA)? I know I am quick to find such culprits.

But how often do we call into question our culture’s almost exclusive reliance on one kind of knowledge and the problems that seem to have become endemic as a result? How often do we challenge the helplessness that comes along with the belief that we are unable to influence, or even fully understand, the nuts and bolts of technology on which we rely to carry out the activities of our lives?

It seems reasonable to observe that we shouldn’t be completely dependent on the same kinds of thinking that created such run-away systems in the first place.

“Rather than accepting as absolute the model of knowledge that technology advances, we can recognize in the ever changing face of technological knowledge a witness to the possibility that knowledge can be changed at a deep level. Having learned from technology that knowledge can itself change, we can apply this lesson to investigate new prospects for knowing.” Love of Knowledge, Tarthang Tulku, page 30.

As we wait for Boeing to create human overrides to the automated activation of two spiraling death plunges, and for the FAA to examine the resulting systems more carefully this time, we can also, as individuals, pause and look at our own participation in and reliance on systems that mask the reality of our human lives.

These may not be our last days on Planet Earth, but we can always ask ourselves: is this all I want out of life? Was it really a good use of my time yesterday when I switched on a computer game of solitaire, just to relax my creative mind, and was still playing it hours later?

Can I at least open my focal length right now to include other people, other times, and other places—and to recognize my discouraged assumption that I am inadequate to the challenges that face me? Can I learn to treat these challenges as invitations to be more aware of the opportunities being offered in my life?

Today still stretches out before me and I’m having trouble shaking the feeling that I am a wounded bird, unable to summon a belief in his own dreams of flying.

But here I am, alive on this planet, floating in space and spinning in time, trying to catch a rumor, whispering on the wind, that all I have to do is relax and allow the wings of my heart to catch a song of freedom and let it carry me along . . .

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