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1110 Digestion of Knowledge

1110 Digestion of Knowledge

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Published by Richard Ostrofsky

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Published by: Richard Ostrofsky on Feb 17, 2012
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The Digestion of 'Indigestible Knowledge'
from Richard Ostrofskyof Second Thoughts Bookstore (now closed)www.secthoughts.comquill@travel-net.comOctober, 2011Readers of my columns over the years may have noticed that 'indigestibleknowledge' is a hobby horse that I ride from time to time – most recentlyin my piece of last June, on just that title. My obsession with this problemstems from a remark by Otto Rank that I stumbled on once, quite a longtime ago. In 1933, in a letter to a friend, he said, "For the time being, Igave up writing. There is already too much truth in the world – anoverproduction which apparently cannot be consumed." In my ownwritings, I have used the metaphor of 
digestion
instead.In that June piece I wrote, "It is not simply that people do not knowwhat the experts know, but that they fear and prefer to avoid fullawareness of the general character of current knowledge . . . The 'culturewars' in the headlines today should not be surprising. They can be seen, Ithink, as a collective thought process on a global scale, trying to digest onone hand the ineluctable pluralism of the world today, and this new,disturbing knowledge on the other." It was the bottom-up paradigm of evolution – or more generally, of self-organization – especially as appliedin current psychology and neuropsychology and social theory, that I primarily had in mind.But looking back over these columns, I find that I have never saidexactly what 'the digestion of truth' would mean. We have to ask: For current scientific knowledge to be fully and comfortably digested bysociety at large, what would be needed? For today's culture wars to end innegotiated tranquility, what would it take? Two personal thoughts follow.My first thought is that our habit of using metaphysical argumentsabout the existence of God as weapons in the discussion of public policy isa disaster both for policy and for thought. Laws on abortion, recreationaldrugs, stem cell research and other contentious matters must reflect thecurrent state of the body politic as a whole, not the beliefs of the factionthat happens to be in power – or to have captured the votes of those in power. Compromise and "spreading the discontent" are not sell-outs, butthe essence of any working political system. Policy need not really please
anyone
, but must appease
everyone
sufficiently to keep the body politicfrom coming apart. In politics more than anywhere, "the best is the enemy
 
of the good," because a polarization of society on competing visions of 'the best' makes sensible compromise impossible.Likewise, confusion on this point renders clear thinking impossible.The famous dictum of Augustine and Anselm that 'one must believe inorder to understand' approaches, but turns away from a deep truth: Tounderstand anything – to approach the matter in a way that will provideunderstanding – some paradigm, some point of view, must be deployed indoing so. That one accepts and uses such a paradigm is indeed an act of faith, to the extent that other paradigms and points of view are possible.But one has to start somewhere, and inevitably from the place where oneis already standing. This is as much the case for the scientist as for theChristian saint. Augustine was honest and correct to note that his faith hadled him out of existential confusion to coherence and a degree of clarity.But the choice of paradigm, of starting point, need not be the same for everyone. In fact, thought makes better progress when it is not bound to asingle paradigm – when the elephant of Truth can be approached, usually by different people, from different angles. It's a mistake to confuse theworking faith that underlies and sustains any kind of serious effort withthe belief that one's assumptions are universally
true
.Clear thought demands the background of a good paradigm, embracedin ironic awareness that other paradigms are possible – and might even be better than one's own, especially for some other purpose. Good policydemands not the victory of some viewpoint over the others but a generalwillingness to live and let live. Society could 'digest' the diverging paradigms that trouble it today if this point were generally understood.In particular, nearly all of the current conflict between science andreligion would go away if twin concessions – one from each side – weremade and widely accepted: Religious types would have to concede thattheir beliefs are constitutive
myths
rather than factual
truths
. As Carl Jungunderstood and taught, the intent behind every myth is to constitute ahuman personality. The purpose of religious faith and practice is – andalways was – to constitute first a community, and then a whole society. Bycontrast, the purpose of the scientific faith and its practice is to learn whatwe can about the world and how it works. These purposes are necessarilyantithetical, because research and critical thought will often call inquestion or refute religious beliefs that have been taken too literally. Yetthe adherents to one or the other of these
'magisteria' 
(as Stephen JayGould called them) need not be enemies.For their part, science-minded types would have to concede the radicalincompleteness of critical reason as a basis for human lives. This may bedifficult temperamentally, because critical reason is as much an existentialstrategy for those who cling to it as faith is for the true believer. But it's aconclusion that science itself – especially the sciences of psychology andanthropology – demand. Adult minds need myths as much as children do,

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