Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Knowing What You Know

How do you know who yo' daddy is?
'Cause yo' mamma told you so.
-old axiom

How do you know who yo' mamma is?
-logical next question

I've had two insights recently into the concept of what we know. Specifically, what each one of us knows, as individuals. I'm fascinated by the concept of "knowing" things, especially since oftentimes - most of the time? - this "knowing" is central to our identity. To wit:

A book I'm reading by Roger MacBride Allen details the confounding experience of Admiral Koffield. Adm. Koffield is charged with (bear with me, here) protecting causality and preventing paradoxes as "time drop" ships use wormholes to travel across the universe. Through a disastrous series of events, he is forced to blow up a wormhole "station," and is subsequently blamed for the slow death of the planet Glister. Much later, a native Glisterian is provided with evidence - hard, irrefutable evidence - that not only was Koffield not the monster he'd been taught since childhood ("Horrible Anthon made Glister die…"), but in fact it was someone else entirely who blew the wormhole. Get it? Everything - everything! - the Glisterian was told about his world…turned out to be wrong. Factually, provably incorrect.

Second example. I was listening to a recent This American Life podcast of an older show, wherein the "storyteller" was relating the classification of homosexuality by the American Psychiatric Association. Before the 20th Century, being a homo was, quite literally, considered to be an unnatural aberration, its "practitioners" labelled as outcasts and freaks. Beginning in the 1900's, the APA officially classified homosexuality as a definable pathology. In other words, being a homo literally meant you were "sick," and could be "cured." The psychiatrists who worked under this definition of homosexuality published papers, treated patients, and based entire careers' worth of study on the "disease" of homosexuality. Only to find that, by the late 20th Century, commonly accepted views of homosexuality had changed such that the earlier work of these psychiatrists was now quote-unquote wrong. Worse than wrong, even: now, these hard-working men and women found themselves looked upon as pariahs, cast out by the very people they had spent their lives trying to "help." They received death threats. They were castigated, censured by their younger colleagues. Can you imagine? To spend your entire life building a career and a body of work that you were told was scientific, only to have the rules changed at the end of the game? Naturally lots of these psychiatrists pushed back, insisting until their end of days that their work was legitimate, one doctor still claiming that he had "treated" and "cured" 45 homos throughout his career.

Turns out that, almost all of the time, we know what we know because of what we're told. And when what we're told turns out to be wrong, we're told something different. "The world, she's-a flat!" Nope. "Earth is the center of the universe, and everything revolves around it." Nope, again. Makes me wonder what will happen in the next few centuries, as things we KNOW today are slowly (inevitably?) proved wrong, and then we'll KNOW something else. Sort of makes everything seem ephemeral, no?

I remember once, years ago, my then-girlfriend and I were staying with my uncle & aunt around Christmastime. My young cousin - maybe 4 at the time - was just learning the Jesus story, and she proudly told my girlfriend that "The baby Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes!" My girlfriend, herself a PK, slyly asked "What are swaddling clothes?" My poor cousin was taken aback, but only for a moment; she got a big smile, and said "They are what the baby Jesus was wrapped in!" 'Round and 'round we go, only knowing what we know.

This only serves to amplify the awesome responsibility I owe Roslyn. Namely: what do I make sure she "knows"? Ten years from now, will she "know" that health care became a fair and just system in this country, over the objections of Conservative obstructionists? Will she "know" that a bankrupt national government tried to socialize health care by way of a few extreme Left nutjobs, and The People rose up in protest? The things she "knows" tomorrow will undoubtedly be the things I tell her today. Whoa. THAT'S power!

"Knowing" things. "Facts." "Truth." Such firm beliefs, yet such slippery surfaces. I wonder…is there a bedrock layer of "knowing," beyond which the "Why?" question cannot drill?


Blogger Jenn-Jenn, the Mother Hen said...

The awesome responsibility of parenthood hangs heavy upon one's shoulders, doesn't it? And it only gets worse as your child gets older.

Now that I'm done completely bumming you out, you can rest secure in the knowledge that, in about a decade or so, your child will have decided to ignore everything you ever taught her, because parents know nothing. This absolves you of any responsibility for what she *knows* as an adult. ;-)

3:15 PM  

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