The Crisis of Knowing How We Know: Introduction

The Atlantic Monthly’s July/August edition is labeled “The Ideas Issue.”   When I took the Marcus Buckingham “Strengths Finder” test, ideas and “ideation” (the process of thinking) were at the top of the list of my results.  I love ideas, love to think about them, and celebrate when a supposed new one crosses my path.  When I was younger, the notion that “ideas have consequences” suddenly made my thought-life meaningful and my creative life critical.   And somewhere along the way, as I sought to find “truth”, competing ideas about what it means to actually “know” something began to joust.   And the cluster of major questions that would dominate my life both in the short-term and in the long-term looked something like this:

How do I know? How do I know what I know?  How do I know that I know?  What is my responsibility to find the truth of the nature of things, and how will I know that I have found it?

Reading through The Atlantic Monthly yesterday, I was struck, as I often am, by how vital this question is today.   Post-modern thought left us stranded in our own subjective frameworks, built by genetics, families of origin, exposure to rapidly expanding media culture, and the constant, inescapable need of our brains to construct sensible stories out of whatever physical, psychical, and spiritual material we might have at hand.  Science is in hot pursuit of humanity’s essential nature, splaying brain imaging everywhere, chasing the life of emotion, healing, and mind-body connectivity down into the smallest micro-structures currently accessible to researchers from all fields.

Philosophers call it epistemology.   What is knowledge?  What kinds of knowledge can actually be known?   The discussion touches on many street-level conversations taking place in the public square.   Belief, reality, rationality, imagination, logic, instinct, imaging…all of these “thought-life processes” are constantly humming across our human grid as we face the responsibility of engaging with and creating worlds.

And we end up shouting at each other in the most absurd ways, creating protest placards in metaphor and actuality that declare that we are correct, closest to the truth.  Judgment runs in all directions.  Those in opposition to a given point of view are accused, at best, of being poor listeners, sloppy thinkers, and misguided folks that with the right amount of argument, experience, and if necessary, bullying, will come around to the prescribed way of thinking.   At worst, the accusations are more malicious; those who disagree are moronic, bigoted, and damned to hell.

My perspective is that we are too often interested in winning whatever ideational or story-telling skirmish we’re in, because to win means I keep my world mostly intact, under control, and sane.  But (I can hear the pushback now)…aren’t there moments in our life and death struggles where winning really is the thing that matters?

This week, I want to address some of these issues, not in a carefully built, logically structured essay that hopes to wrap up my ongoing churning about these issues, but more along the lines of a planter needing to turn the soil to prepare for new planting.   I don’t have time to chase that metaphor as far as I could, but what I’ll say is simply this: knowledge of what makes crops grow has been around for a long time, yet we all know that the battle to discover what’s best for humans to ingest and digest, and everything that supports said ingestion and digestion, is still being fought.

Tomorrow:  let’s talk about this cluster of thoughts from David Eagleman’s Atlantic Monthly article, “The Brain on Trial”.  Obviously, I’d encourage you to read the article.  It’s not short, but he makes some very important points about how brain research is impacting the way we think about criminal and deviant behavior, and the need for change in how the criminal justice system responds to our growing understand of the human mind.

“Many of us like to believe that all adults possess the same capacity to make sound choices. It’s a charitable idea, but demonstrably wrong. People’s brains are vastly different…Along any axis that we use to measure human beings, we discover a wide-ranging distribution, whether in empathy, intelligence, impulse control, or aggression. People are not created equal….While admirable in spirit, the notion of neural equality is simply not true.”  (Empahsis mine.)

Looking forward to the conversation…

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