Sunday, May 01, 2005

Understanding the World

After writing that last post, I realize what exactly feels so incomplete about people with strong convictions about what the world is like - cynics, activists and optimists alike - that don't have a global focus. How can you claim to understand the world when all you've ever bothered trying to understand is a small part of the world? How can you be so sure when you're basing your conclusion on a small, rather arbitrarily selected part of the world and part of all possible human experiences? You may of course restrict your claim to the subset of the world you did consider, but I have yet to meet a person who does so.

To some extent it is human to assume everyone is like us - and on some levels, they are. Everyone can be happy, sad, melancholy, hopeful, distraught, anxious, scared, delighted, humorous, cynical, whatever. The chemicals running through our brains give us a lot in common. But as everyone knows, that's not exactly the end of the story. Circumstances create large variances in what being a human can be like. It just seems like this is a mistake we've made so many times that we should have learnt to spot it by now.

White, straight American men often write as if their experience is the human experience. Then white, straight American women point out that the white, straight American men are forgetting that being a white straight American woman isn't like being a white straight American man. And then black, straight American women point out that being a black straight American woman isn't like being either a white straight American man not a white straight American woman. And so on and so on, ad infinitum. Shouldn't it be obvious that after a few examples like this, you can see a more general pattern? What the world is like depends a great deal on who you are and who you were when you were born and where you were born? And therefore, making a claim to understanding how the world works without having at least tried to consider the range of human experiences is just silly?

Personally, I see the answer to how the world works as a piecewise solution. The differences in human experience are too great to say something in general that is valid for everyone, but if you do it piecewise (maybe groupwise is a better term here), you can have some hope to getting it all in, and different people can explore the different groups. Then when we've gotten the different pieces, we can put them together into some sort of overview, and probably go back to revising our first theories and so on. But the point is that every one of us only experiences one small slice of what being human is like - so how can anyone think they have it all figured out based on their own experiences?

Personal Belief System Belief #2

Knowledge is not power in itself, but it is the root of power.

If you don't know what's going on, you can never be anything but a pawn at best. Controlling a situation requires understanding what's going and why it's going on as best as you can. Including when the situation you're trying to control is your life situation. If you don't know why things are the way they are now nor how you can change them, you have ceded control of your life to other people, entities and chance.

There is no such thing as too much knowledge or too much thinking. Thinking may not be easy and may be painful, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be done.