In them we trust?

Editor’s note: The documentary, “Particle Fever” with its giddiness about applied physics and the overwhelmingly positive response it received from critics inspired me to write this post.

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These past few years I’ve learned a few things about carving wood. Through trial and error, I found it best to spend time on each of the rougher stages of making a spoon or other implement. First, I cut a smallish log of wood in half and then using a hatchet to provide the approximate shape of a spoon. Next, I use a sharp carving knife to refine the lines and curves of the spoon’s shape. Last comes the long, boring job of sanding, which begins with coarser sandpaper and ends with finer sandpaper.

How have I gained knowledge about carving wood? Well, by carving wood. And from friends who carve wood.

Today, many scoff at this sort of knowledge, a knowledge by doing. Most put faith in a type of knowledge that is not graspable by lay people, a knowledge by trusting. Ever see how a climate model works? Have you seen with your own eyes the Higgs boson? Have a chance to tour where the Higgs was discovered: the Large Hadron Collidor at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN), a massive complex which straddles France and Switzerland? Even know what a Higgs boson is or how it functions? No need to really “know” such things – these are questions handled by a caste of specialized scientists.

The whole dynamic is funny, because although most scientists are atheists, they resemble early Mayan priests. Early Mayan culture set up a hierarchy (not unlike today’s Roman Catholic Church) of “professional” clergy. Like modern priests, these high priests enjoyed special access to the deities. They were the keepers of knowledge about how the deities lived, what they desired, and what they foresaw in the future.

With today’s scientists, we have our very own “high priests of knowledge.” Or as David Abram put it, we’re embedded in a “cult of expertise.”  

It’s not that knowledge gained through advanced technology is useless. Witness the breakthroughs in food production, medicine, ecosystem functions, among many other valuable things made possible through biotechnology.

It’s that like our universe, the distance between most of us and knowledge about our world is expanding at an ever rapid pace. In order to access knowledge in any scientific field, we must blindly trust the “high priests” or keepers of the fields’ knowledge. Want to know about the Higgs boson? Trust what the high priest physicists say. Want to know how much the word “pedestrian” was used in books since 1800? Trust our techie priests at Google.

A prevailing myth is that knowledge-through-technology is the only valid way to learn about our world. Yet I find this a “senseless” knowledge. Living is something we feel and understand first and foremost by our animal senses.

I propose that we revitalize a knowing rooted in soulful dwelling on this earth. Let’s recognize the high priests’ contribution, but place less faith in things knowable only by these privileged few. Let’s champion a knowledge graspable by all.

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