Monday, September 10, 2007

The Dichotomy of The Pursuit of Knowledge

One would think that education and knowledge should be the primary goals of civilization but looking back on our culture and literature, that's not always the case--or the lesson we teach our children.

In one extreme, we have our Lovecraftian horrors, the idea that there are some things "man was not made to know". Yet in Western literature, this idea did not begin with Lovecraft but draws on from something much older: The Bible. As a child, I always wondered why The Tree of Knowledge would be the source of sin. Wasn't knowledge a good thing? Scholars might argue that's not the moral of the story, that Adam and Eve were punished not for gaining knowledge but because they gave in to the temptation of the serpent. Yet I think the story in Genesis has insinuated into our minds that to be knowledgeable means to lose one's innocence (and in many ways, losing our innocence is one of the ways to learn more about the world). A faint echo of this is the idea of contentment. I often hear the phrase "if it ain't broken, don't fix it" yet this clearly goes against the idea of innovation. As archaic as this mentality might seem, it's prevalent in the present. On one hand, there'll be the people who'll claim that science ruined us all and that corrupt research gave birth to the likes of the Atom bomb, even as they benefit from the comforts of nuclear technology. On the other hand, there'll be the type that are more selective, perhaps agreeing to better health care but disagreeing when it comes to the topics of stem cell research, cloning, or mapping the human genome.

On the other extreme is the idea that we should embrace knowledge unconditionally. I forgot which SF author I was reading at the time (I think it was Isaac Asimov) but he said that the reason we fear something is because it remains in the realm of the unknown. Once we dispel the mystery, we begin to understand and with that understanding comes acceptance instead of "irrational" fear. I think in many ways, this is a hard idea to accept. Perhaps the influence of the other mentality is stronger than we think and an unconditional acceptance of knowledge is beyond our comprehension. In the same way that we want to know where money came from when it's offered to us (be it our boss, our relative, or a complete stranger), we also want to find out where certain pieces of information comes from (Was it from the Russians? The Iraqis? The Chinese?) and perhaps more importantly, where it'll lead to (which is impossible because that's the point of research and application). Some people fear that military intervention might lead to the next Atom bomb but many fail to realize that most of our present comforts can be traced to military research and development, everything from the microwave to the Internet. Religion is another subject matter that is hard-pressed when it comes to the accumulation of knowledge for many fear that with better understanding of the universe comes less faith and devotion. (I find it interesting that even the most scientific and modern of countries still have a "national" religion. Perhaps the fear of religious fanatics is unfounded, that even as we come to accept the theories of Darwinism, there'll always be room for the Creation myth.) Even philosophy takes a hit and while Douglas Adams jokes around that the discovery of whether there truly is a God or not marks the end of philosophy and dialogue, in a world where everything is certain and factual, is there still room for debate? Not that the latter should matter. There are those after all who believe that the accumulation of knowledge will never end, that for every question answered, several new questions pop up. If that's truly the case, one can't help but wonder whether there's a point in research. If all we have left and more questions and more mysteries, what's the point of discovery? Will we never reach the end? But I think that is too much of an oversimplification. Awareness that the sun is the center of the Solar System might not have changed life for the common man directly but it certainly has paved the way for the exploration of space and artificial constructs like satellites and the transmission of radio waves.

Literature I think will tackle this idea in one of two ways. Horror movies and novels tend to stick to the realm of the unknown, that awareness gives birth to buried horrors. Science Fiction, more often than not, uses curiosity as a tool for salvation. (In many ways, the science fiction movie is related more to horror than actual science fiction. Robots gone berserker and aliens on a warpath are trademarks of the genre. Movies like Contact are the exception rather than the norm. Even concept movies like Gattaca tend to be dystopian and bleak.) That's not to say science can't be used for evil ends. The reality is, knowledge is just like any other tool. In irresponsible or misguided hands, it can wreak much havoc. In the hands of a master artisan, it can be used for good. But most people in my experience don't take note or forget that fact. They label knowledge--and science--as a blanket moral (whether good or bad) instead of making a judgment based on the people involved in the research or the corporation funding them. Just look at people's approach at nuclear technology. Ever since Chernobyl, people have grown to fear nuclear power. That's not to say nuclear power is full-proof but there are certainly fail-safes which can be applied to make it a safer and more efficient power source. But rather than ask who's managing the power plant or where it's situated, people's blanket reactions are a loud cry of denouncement.

Perhaps one thing people overlook is that with knowledge comes the burden of responsibility. Irregardless of how smart you are (or how not smart you think you are), everyone in my opinion is charged with making the most of what they know, whether it's seeking further knowledge or making the right choices based on their current state of mind. Perhaps the most pathetic of excuses one can hear from somebody is not that they are ignorant but that they are unaware of their ignorance.

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