January 5, 2016

Just Smart Enough To Be Dangerous

Continuing on the theme of Taoism for the modern age...

When we are in elementary school or high school (and for some, even to the end of undergraduate university), we learn the "facts" as known by experts in whatever discipline we are studying, and when we memorize and internalize them, we do well on our tests, papers and exams.  If we do well enough, we congratulate ourselves that we are "smart".

We learn about all the technological, scientific and sociological advancements our civilization has made, and we feel that the world is fully understandable and controllable, if not by us personally, then by some "expert" somewhere else.

Some of us reject  these "mainstream" experts, but put our faith in some other kind of expert: alternative medicine,  pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, religious beliefs, etc.  But this boils down to the same thing: the belief that we can understand and control the world, by some means or another.

The problem is that, if you study any subject area deep enough, you discover that the nice little story you learned at the novice stage is basically a massive simplification of the truth, and there are a lot of unanswered questions, and problems too complex to reduce to an understandable and controllable system.

If we look at just quantum mechanics, a well-studied field with real consequences for many modern technologies, we find that even after almost a century of study, a basic, universally-agreed-upon understanding of what it even means is still elusive.

And this seems to be true of every field I have ever examined: any system we invent to understand, predict and control things, while it may be very useful in specific ways, ultimately collapses in the face of the effortless complexity of the world.

Given that the biggest threats to our existence ( climate change, destruction of the ocean ecosystem, nuclear annihilation still lurking off to the side, etc. ) are the direct result of our over-confidence in our own intelligence, perhaps we need to work on our humility a bit, and pay attention to the actual workings of the world around us right now, beyond the narrow confines of our various disciplines and theories.  Because as remarkable as our technological accomplishments are, it is starting to look like we might be just smart enough to be dangerous. 

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