Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Of Perfection And Ignorance

"In every generation, and now more rapidly than ever, the things which it is necessary that somebody should know are more and more multiplied. Every department of knowledge becomes so loaded with details, that one who endeavours to know it with minute accuracy, must confine himself to a smaller and smaller portion of the whole extent: every science and art must be cut up into subdivisions, until each man’s portion, the district which he thoroughly knows, bears about the same ratio to the whole range of useful knowledge that the art of putting on a pin’s head does to the field of human industry. Now, if in order to know that little completely, it is necessary to remain wholly ignorant of all the rest, what will soon be the worth of a man, for any human purpose except his own infinitesimal fraction of human wants and requirements? His state will be even worse than that of simple ignorance. Experience proves that there is no one study or pursuit, which, practised to the exclusion of all others, does not narrow and pervert the mind; breeding in it a class of prejudices special to that pursuit, besides a general prejudice, common to all narrow specialities, against large views, from an incapacity to take in and appreciate the grounds of them. We should have to expect that human nature would be more and more dwarfed, and unfitted for great things, by its very proficiency in small ones."

- John S. Mill, Inaugural Address Delivered to the University of St. Andrews, 1867

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To this end, I am reminded of the problems that the practice of reductionism causes. The whole is, more often than not, greater than the sum of its parts. Reductionism simply strips meaning away from what each part was meant to contribute within its roles and functions.

Take, for instance, an obsession with wanting to figure out what love is all about. Rigorous reductionism will reduce love to chemical reactions in the brain. Does that tell us anything at all in the end? Economics is blatantly guilty in this sense too. Everything eventually can be boiled down to the outcomes of cost and benefit weightage. While it might be true that that often pans out in reality, the sanctity and virtues of the actions of agents are totally stripped from the equation. One thing that always gets to me where reductionism is concerned is food and eating. A few decades ago scientists thought they had revolutionized methods to achieve good health by fragmenting food right down to its constituent nutrients and calories, riding on the assumption that if you consume the good chemicals and remove the bad, people will be better off (somewhere along the lines of being healthier). But is that true? Nutritionism has completely taken the fun and joy out of eating, and we've observed all sorts of nutritional obsessions that are still largely unfounded, such as calorie-counting, adopting all sorts of diet plans (carb-free, Atkins, etc) and consuming pills that can supposedly supplement or even replace one's meal. Are people healthier? Maybe. Are people happier and better off? No. Social activity and bonding from eating proper and good meals are on the decline. A multitude of eating disorders has arisen from these nutritional obsessions, such that books and policies are starting to spring up to encourage a return to more primitive and wholesome ways of eating.

This also calls to mind an idea I had discussed sometime towards the later part of 2008, where our existence in a world obsessed with instantly gratifying specifics and accuracies makes us forgo thinking about the "inconvenient truth". We are more concerned with the next decimal point than what infinity is all about.

By and large I think this might also cultivate the self-centredness and self-obsession that afflicts many individuals today, because of various consequences of living in a modern and advanced capitalist world. Capitalism and liberalism necessarily entails specialization, which fragments communities as people are plucked out of their social groups and made to know, as far as possible, how to do only one thing and do it well. To facilitate this, widespread pluralism is encouraged through tolerance, as liberalism holds that every opinion should be given equal weight and standing, so no one position is prioritizable over another. A form of subjective elitism results, as everyone then holds on to positions they belong to and believe what they hold to be true or right. And of course they do believe so; every position has its own history and story which validates its existence. But where then is the bridge between these solidified positions? What we see in the world today is a distinctive inability to come to terms with various conceptions of truth, as everyone holds opposing views that could be equally right. A failure to connect and engage in real argument and debate, resulting in assertions and counter-assertions with no real resolution to (important) issues, reflects how disconnected we are from each other in the world we live in today.

Can there be any more wonder as to how much distasteful political correctedness has grown because of this desire not to offend, when in the first place offensiveness can only be function of not understanding where the other party is coming from and not knowing fully the situation that befalls all parties? Bringing it right back to the opening point, it is a condition that is encouraged, during education, by the replacement of general understanding with specialization.

1 comment:

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