Notes for the Book: Hierarchy of Knowledge and Human Affairs

[updated 8 Jul 2020]
[updated 26 Jun 2020]

  • Everything you need to understand the reality of the world, as discovered over centuries, and especially in the past century and past few decades, is out there, available to you. All the mysteries of the ancient world have been explored, and many solved, if not always to the satisfaction of the primitive mindset. This knowledge is not hidden. It’s more easily available to the average person than it has ever been in all of history. It’s there–perhaps haphazardly, on Wikipedia; it’s there more authoritatively (if not in as much detail on many topics) online at Encyclopedia Britannica; it’s there in tens of thousands of books available from Amazon and in libraries, books written by sincere people who have dedicated their lives studying history, biology, cosmology, and dozens and hundreds of specialty topics, examining the world as it is and not how primitive people thought it was. It’s there in online courses, in the great museums, in TED talks. You don’t have to attend university (though that helps, to channel your studies). To ignore this vast collective knowledge and discoveries of the human race, or renounce it in favor of the religious myths of ancient tribes who thought the world was flat, is to be at best intellectually dishonest, at worst to renounce the heritage of the species.
  • As writers like Sean Carroll and Alex Rosenberg have pointed out, we know virtually everything there is to know about how the world works, at least at local levels, in terms of physics and biology and chemistry. Any new discoveries will be at the fringes of our perceptions, and won’t overthrow what is known to be true at local levels, e.g. how physics can predict eclipses thousands of years in the future, or allow us to fly and navigate spacecraft among the planets, to pinpoint accuracy. And in turn, how physics explains chemistry, chemistry explains biology, and so on. No undiscovered magical forces are needed to explain these things. And conversely, our knowledge of physics rules out undiscovered magical forces that would be required for telepathy, or astrology, or whatever to be true; for them to work (or for an incorporeal “soul” to exist), the physics we’ve established thus far would have to not be true. It’s like knowing where all the states are in the US, and knowing therefore you’re not about to stumble upon a previously unknown state on your cross-country drive. The science-deniers and conspiracy theorists would tell you there’s some unknown state, that’s being denied by the authorities, that “they” don’t want you to know about. (Or that some place you’ve never been to actually doesn’t exist. This has happened! About Finland: https://www.google.com/search?client=firefox-b-1-d&q=finland+doesn%27t+exist.)
  • The irony—perhaps—is that most people don’t care, and don’t need to. Living a life as a functional human being, raising a family to propagate the next generation, being a citizen in the society you live in, has nothing to do with understanding the reality of the world outside your immediate experience. And in fact, most people are woefully uninformed about basic science, history, civics, even current events; see the man-on-the-street interviews by late night talk show hosts (for example, by Jimmy Kimmel: https://time.com/5200561/jimmy-kimmel-lie-witness-news-street-interviews/). People claim knowledge of things they don’t actually know; some of these quizzes ask about fictitious terms, and a certain proportion of people will claim familiarity with things that don’t actually exist. The average person is unclear on the difference between a planet and a star, a moon or a planet, a comet or an asteroid, a galaxy or a nebula—despite the prevalence in recent decades of science fiction franchises like Star Trek and Star Wars. What do the flat-earthers think about those adventures in the stars? And yet, all these people, even the flat-earthers, manage to get along with their daily lives, do their jobs, raise their children.
  • To the extent that some people do knowingly reject the accumulated human understanding of the world in recent decades and centuries in favor of the naive cosmologies of ancient holy books, and analogously reject the growing world’s evolving moral standards in favor of the strictures of those ancient holy books, it’s because doing so makes life so much simpler.  No need to think, or learn; no need to adjust to a changing world as you advance through life; just put your faith in your favorite holy book with the calm assurance that it provides all the answers to life’s questions (pretty much any answer you wish, given the many contradictory passages of these books.) “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.”
  • It’s now well understood, increasingly so over the past three decades, why people perceive supernatural things and why they prefer supernatural explanations to scientific ones. And, as Rosenberg points out, it’s ironically due the very same evolutionary processes that the supernatural partisans don’t “believe” in. (This is all about perception of agency, the tendency to detect cause and effect where none actually exists, and how we live our lives as stories, all of which evolved as shorthand heuristics to support the survival of our species.)
  • The understanding of the world the average person has is derived from social and religious conventions. The numerous religions have a vast, centuries or millennia long, momentum, of parents inculcating their children, generation after generation, into the beliefs or superstitions of ancient tribes, that cannot easily be overcome, and may never be, by education. This religious “knowledge” serves to bind families, communities and tribes, but has little to do with the actual reality as revealed by the systematic investigation of centuries. Further, virtually no one examines the evidence for every fact about the world independently; rather, each person learns whom to trust, whose expertise or authority to accept. Perhaps a problem of the modern age is that the internet (especially YouTube and Facebook) make fringe theories, many of them mendacious, others just dimwitted, easier to circulate. Thus adherents to such fringe ideas (formerly isolated in their towns as the local loonies) can now easily find compatriots on the internet to reinforce their views.
  • The discoveries of the modern age that are most resisted by those who defer to ancient teachings are those that impinge upon psychological biases. People more concerned about purity and contamination are more inclined to resist vaccines, and then use motivated reasoning to lawyerly justify their instinctive bias. These are matters where the evidence and conclusions can seem counter intuitive. People more concerned with hierarchical relationships and authority resist the idea the humans are related, over evolutionary eons, to all life on the planet, and then use motivated reasoning to lawyerly justify their instinctive bias. There is no conservative resistance to the idea of teaching cosmology; there are no right-wing institutes devoted to undermining geology. Because these studies don’t impinge on human vanity, in the way that evolution does.
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