Monday, October 5, 2015

Man’s Ignorance and Misplaced Pride©

"Not upon mind, but upon morals, is human welfare founded. 
The true subjective history of man is not the history of his 
thought, but of his conscience; not that of his inventions, 
but of his vices and his virtues."
Charles Kingsley.

We live in a wonderful post-industrial society. We live in the age of technology and information.The computer and Internet have changed everything. Everything, except perhaps the nature of mankind. Even here, the computer, Internet, and information can help, but we must not be too hasty in our positive evaluation.

As a society, certainly American, but perhaps even world-wide culture, worship’s at the feet of human intellect. There are many manifestations, but perhaps the most obvious are the home-spun ones. What is it which parents are most proud of in their offspring?  The discussion isn’t usually this direct, but it isn’t difficult to discern the answer. Notice how often parents want others to know how “bright” their children are. Oh yes, they are excelling intellectually, getting straight “As” or have a schedule filled with AP and CE classes. Child prodigies quickly become international phenoms, their YouTube videos go viral with millions of hits. The word “genius” is bandied about to the extent it has almost lost its meaning.  Older children, we are told, are going to the best schools--Harvard, Stanford, Yale, or the "highest ranked school" for a particular discipline.

Add to this anecdotal evidence, that of grandparents! Where do they worship? At the feet of the “brightest grandchildren” on the planet. Two and three-year olds who read like sixth-graders, or who are “whizzes” with the I-pad, I-pod, and I-phone. They seem to come “hard-wired” for using technological gadgets, we are told by fawning grannies and grandpas.“All my grandkids have graduated from college, three have master’s degrees, two are doctors, two are attorneys, and two have PhDs!”  

Another evidence that parents and grandparents worship the intellect is the great amount of stress given to children by many to get good grades and excel intellectually. In this day of grade inflation and “nobody is a failure” we tell our children over and over how smart they are. Is it any wonder many of them believe it and become proud? “You are the brightest girl in the 7th grade, dear.” “I know, mom.” 

Ask yourself how many parents you know who place priority on the mind and “talent” who give much emphasis to “being good,” of having a sterling character, or being a man or woman full of integrity. Or, for Latter-day Saints, most important of all, of developing true spirituality? We let our children and grandchildren play games on their personal electronic devises by the hour, to the point that device almost becomes a nanny, but would we spend time helping them read scripture, memorize scripture, really learn how to pray, to serve mankind, and to have great spiritual experiences with anywhere near the amount of time or regularity of playing games?

This is not just a phenomenon of the parents and grandparents of the world. We Latter-day Saints, with the tremendous emphasis we place on education, may be the worst offenders of all.

Think about this. We are born into total ignorance. We know virtually nothing at birth. Yet, somehow we think if we spend eight, twelve, fourteen, or sixteen years in school we have something of which to be proud. If we could conceive of a finite amount of knowledge (which we probably can’t), we could liken it to all of the grains of sand in and around all the oceans, seas, lakes, and deserts of the world. How much of that knowledge does one gain through a high school education? Not even a teaspoon full. How about a bachelor’s degree? A tablespoon? Probably not. A master’s or PhD? Maybe a tablespoon, but I doubt it.  In 1995, one well-informed speaker told his audience  that there are more than 100,00 scientific journals which annually publish a flood of new knowledge coming out of the world's labs.  He went on to say:
There is much more ahead.  We barely understand the human brain and its energy; and the endless horizons of space and the mysteries found in the great depths of our seas are still virtually unknown to us.  Our science is indeed a drop, our ignorance remains an ocean.(1)
Consider a few examples of the growth and extent of knowledge. I have been studying temples, temple theology, and practice for ten years. In that time I have collected a bibliography related to temple studies which has over 8,900 entries and which fills over 700 manuscript pages in WordPerfect. I have been fairly diligent in my studies, but I have not yet read 10% of that information. A similar thing could be done with nearly any gospel topic such as the plan of salvation or LDS Church history. I have read a lot of Church history, but nowhere near what is available, and it is being produced faster than most who are experts in the field can keep up with. It is almost impossible to buy and house all the books available on Mormonism, and as the Church grows in membership more and more are writing about their faith.

Another example: you would be amazed at the amount of archaeological information which has accumulated from digs in Israel largely since the 1967 Six Day War (not to mention archaeological research around the world). Reports of the finds are published in several dozen or more professional journals as well as in monographs and multi-volume studies. There is so much information generated from this work that it is impossible for one person to find it and read it. Even archaeologist are specializing in specific areas of the field because the accumulated information is so vast.

These are just fields I am somewhat familiar with, but consider other disciplines, such as history. You can specialize in many, many areas of history as a student. Areas such as the history of various regions of the world, Europe, Asia, Africa, South America and the United States. But just take the United States; you can spend a lifetime learning about the Revolutionary period, the early national period, the Civil War, westward expansion, slavery, and two World Wars, not to mention the crash of the stock market and the depression, or the economic, social, and intellectual history of any one of these things. The possibilities are literally endless.

Think about medicine. Doctors spend many years to learn human anatomy, physiology, and the treatment of disease and injury. Many specializations exist in medicine and new ones are emerging as we continue to learn more. The proliferation of drugs and how they effect the body requires physicians to have information on these drugs available electronically just because they cannot know all of them or keep up with new ones. If we concentrated just on the eye as an illustration of the entire field, research is ongoing about its anatomy and physiology and one can learn for a lifetime about treatment of diseases of the eye or correcting its malfunctions and injuries. What do you know, what does the most knowledgeable expert know about how the images the eyes perceive are transferred through electronic signal to the brain for interpretation of size, shape, color, texture, distance, and so forth? What happens if you only have one eye? And we could go on with issues and questions seemingly indefinitely.

While you are thinking about the transfer of signals to the brain, stop for a moment and reflect on the ear, and about the remarkable transfer which sound waves make in the transition to physical vibration on the ear drum, which transfers it through the inner ear, then back to physical vibration of a small bone in the inner ear, then to the cochlea where the following happens:  "The cochlea is filled with a watery liquid, the perilymph, which moves in response to the vibrations coming from the middle ear via the oval window.  As the fluid moves, the cochlear partition (basilar membrane and organ of Corti) moves; thousands of hair cells sense the motion via their stereocilia, and convert that motion to electrical signals that are communicated via neurotransmitters to many thousands of nerve cells. These primary auditory neurons transform the signals into electrochemical impulses known as action potentials, which travel along the auditory nerve to structures in the brainstem for further processing." Yet, we hear and interpret the sound almost instantaneously!

Or ponder cancer. For fifty years and more thousands of scientists around the world have been looking for a cure. Progress has been made on many fronts, but no cure yet. Many types of cancer have been cataloged, sometimes multiple variations of one strain. It seems like none of them act the same or respond the same to various therapies. There are now specialties in certain kinds of cancer; few would consider it possible to be an expert on cancer generally.  All this effort has not been in vain, however, because it has produced extensive knowledge, not only about cancer, but about genetics, chemistry in the cells, cell reproduction and mutation, and a score of other things I know nothing about and probably couldn’t pronounce. I venture a guess that the available knowledge about the various cancers and their treatments is so extensive that one individual could not read all the books and articles or master all the studies which have been produced during this half century. Need I say it?  We are talking about one disease, or perhaps more accurately, one category of disease!

Astronomy and space science are subjects that provide yet other good examples. The Hubble Space Telescope has been in operation for twenty-five years. It cruises around the earth at the altitude of 340 miles and at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. It is used by scientists all over the world, who have to schedule time for their work. Here is the amazing thing, it downloads over 140 gigabites of raw scientific data every week! Even with computers to analyze the data, there is so much that one wonders if it is possible for a team, or many teams of scientists to process it, understand it, and make it intelligible and meaningful to humankind. Add to this the many other satellites which monitor a wide variety of activities from weather to algae production at the Amazon’s estuary, to lightning strikes and wild fires around the world; all which stream the data back to earth twenty-four hours a day. We have at least three mechanical robotic machines now on Mars sending back photos and other scientific data. Two of them have been operating since 2004, much longer than anyone anticipated. The analysis of the data received from these three machines alone will take an unknown amount of time to process. Add to this a number of space probes that have been sent through the solar system, some of which are still on duty, and the amount of knowledge being generated is difficult to imagine and impossible for one person to assimilate. These kinds of statistics, these patterns exist in most avenues of study and learning.

It is because these examples can be multiplied for every area of knowledge of which there are tens of thousands, that I say that getting a PhD is hardly a tablespoon of knowledge compared to the sum total of knowledge available.

Where, then, is there room for pride of intellect? The blessing of having a superior intellect is not something to be proud of or to give cause to be judgmental of others. It is a gift with a substantial responsibility attached to it. The responsibilities which come from possessing a mind, even an average one, include at a minimum, the constant development of that mind and humility before an omniscient Creator. That responsibility is not the priority, however, but a concurrent obligation with that of developing sterling character and genuine spirituality.  It is time to place the emphasis on a new priority.
Our knowledge of science has already outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science and too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Man is stumbling blindly through a spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death. The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants.   --Omar N. Bradley
Let’s think together again, soon.


1.  Max Kampelman, “Democracy and Human Dignity: Political and Religious Values,” speech at the 300th Anniversary of Christ of Church Philadelphia, 14 November 1995, in Vital Speeches of the Day 62, no. 16 (1 June 1996): 483, emphasis added.