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Mind the Gap

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Marco M. Pardi

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Mind The Gap       by Marco M. Pardi      mpardi.com

"If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?" T. H. Huxley, "On Elementary Instruction in Physiology." 1877

All comments welcome.

When I was growing up the term "know-it-all" was a pejorative.  Of course, God, being omniscient was a know it all, but that didn't count. Nonetheless, I wondered what is so wrong with knowing it all, and is it possible. What do people do when they don't know, what's their "fall back"?

I recently caught a few minutes of Morgan Freeman's excellent series, Through the Wormhole. This episode addressed these questions.  The essence of what I gleaned from the episode was that we have islands of what we know separated by oceans of what we don't.  Hence, the phrase "connect the dots".  But on what does that connection depend, and is it merely a leap of faith?  Many people are inclined to take that leap, often in subconscious ways.

I used a simple device to illustrate this in my classes.  On the whiteboard I drew a series of large, curved lines.  The end of each line terminated somewhere near the beginning, but not touching it.  When asked what I was doing, the majority of answering students said, "Drawing circles." I then denied drawing circles, saying I was drawing only curved lines and pointing to the gap in the line. Some may find that picky, even obsessive; but a circle is a circle, and it is so only when there is no gap in the line.

The point of the little exercise was not to embarrass anyone, but to show how commonly we leap the chasm in our everyday lives leaving us vulnerable to the next time someone challenges with, How did you get there from here?  I dreaded that question in early math classes; I could intuit the answer but not write out the formula.

But without concrete and verifiable data do we just stand on the island we know and not stretch over the horizon?   

My initial questions were not new.  Plato addressed them and concluded the universe is governed by mathematical laws which are outside the universe itself, thus making access to the laws themselves impossible and leaving us only to infer their existence from their effects.  That's pretty unsettling to a mind which desires concrete, knowable "reality".  But, that is the state of much quantum mechanics today.  Like what is said about Enlightenment, the common saying here is, "Those who say they understand quantum mechanics do not understand quantum mechanics."  Einstein summed it up by coining the phrase, "Spooky action at a distance."

The idea that the principles of ultimate reality are outside the arena we think of as reality is similar to an idea I have proposed elsewhere.  That is: If one is so inclined, one can analyze and  discover the ultimate meaning of one's life ONLY when one is certainly and irrefutably at the very end of one's life. In practice, only when there is certainty that all data (life experience) has been gathered into our journal and no more input is possible can we examine the story and decipher its meaning.  Unfortunately, too many people can't, or won't do that.

But what about the meantime?  Most of the greatest advances in my knowledge have come from realizing what I don't know, how small my islands are, how vast the ocean is.  All too commonly people say, science knows, or science will one day find out. Without actually looking to see if science has found out, if it really is known, this is an act of belief: Faith in science - scientism.  I just can't go there.

Anthropology, properly taught, touches on every aspect of what it is to be human: Astronomy through zoology.  When I began college teaching that reality really came home to me; students were asking questions related to other subjects they were taking. While it may at first seem flattering to be the Final Answer, I was fortunate to have an extraordinarily liberating moment as I, for the first time, said, "I don't know." And in that moment I realized why I disliked the term "teacher" when applied to college faculty.  The term is acceptable for K-12, but presumptuous and condescending at the college level.  I prefer the term Facilitator.  Those of you who have helped a child learn to ride a bicycle know you cannot teach a child to ride.  You can encourage, you can remove the training wheels, you can facilitate the experience by providing a safe venue and safety gear as needed.  But the discovery of successful mind/body interaction is the child's own experience.  In the same way, the college student should be encouraged, the training wheels removed, and flexibility for alternative learning styles - within understood and agreed parameters, applied when necessary.  Admittedly, this works better in some fields than others.  Nonetheless, facilitating how to learn is better than teaching what to learn.

And so we again stand at the edge of the gap, the edge of the great void of the unknown in which our knowns, our facts, taunt us like rocks across a stream, daring us to make the leap.

I first saw Mind The Gap in the London underground.  The use of mind as a verb reminded (pun intended) me of my English grandmother's habitual opening words of any advice she gave: "Mind you..........".  I secretly imagined her advising someone before drinking, "Liver you....", before someone sitting down to cabbage and beans, "Colon you....".  But I soon realized she was speaking not to a physical entity like the brain or the liver, but to the intangible, ultimately unknowable entity we refer to as someone's mind.  She was, in effect, addressing the matrix of the mind and the gap.

Again, it is certainly not new but more attention has come recently to the proposition that the universe is an ultimately comprehensive consciousness - a "hive mind".  This has nothing at all to do with the simplistic folly of a personalized god.  Rather, it seems in many ways the logical outcome of learning how macro-reality and micro-reality are simply manifestations of our choice of which end of the looking glass to peer into.  Space/Time is unmasked as the relative perceptions arising therefrom. We are in our context; we are the context for our context.  If we view the Gap as a simple void, as space was so considered until recently, we completely miss the overwhelming body of in which we exist, we miss the fabric of our context.

For millenia the traditions of Buddhism have used Koans and other devices, mistakenly called teaching tools.  They are not. They are devices to help us to realize our training wheels are off,  to realize we are living in the gap.  Unlike any teaching system, I know of no truly Buddhist system which presumes to give Final Exams, measures of how close to or how far away we are from Enlightenment.

For those interested in these thoughts I've included a link to an interesting talk.  For me, it's time to Mind The Gap.  It's always time to Mind The Gap.

Donald Hoffman: Do we see reality as it is? | TED Talk | TED.com

           


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