Monday, June 19, 2017

Learning addicts?

I am currently pondering the (a?)morality of learning, thanks mainly to the addictive and enlightening Sapiens.

The connection between humanity's woes and its obsession with knowing more, knowing everything, has always intrigued me. Our intellects can make us really miserable and yet being 'smart' is nearly always what we desire.

In the book, Harari discusses knowledge as power: the successful colonialists were those who learned most carefully about terrain and culture. Knowledge has given mankind mastery (great word!) over its world.

In my faith tradition, the founding myth concerns (wo)man ingesting more wisdom than was her lot. The curses that follow are: painful childbirth, female dependence, hardship in labour, conflict between man and animal, divorce from a God-ordered world. Such demonstrable realities help make a case against the pursuit of too much knowledge.

According to Harari, there is little or no evidence to suggest people are happier now than they were in their less well-informed hunter-gatherer days.

But ... the direction of cultural travel is always towards increased wisdom and education. Can we condemn this? Admitting to and wanting to remedy areas of ignorance has led to much good stuff - like huge reductions in child mortality. Or breathtaking excellence in innumerable fields, that bring joy to many.

If someone (individual or corporate) tries to stop you gaining knowledge or self-advancement, or rails against society doing so, they are usually suspect; motivated by self-interest.

It is also worth asking how bad was Adam and Eve's behaviour? Genesis doesn't neatly condemn their attempt to gain divine wisdom. Read Chapter 3: 1-7 and you'll be surprised by the lack of judgement. We add, or at least enhance, that tone with hindsight, to help us wrap our instinctively judgmental and insecure minds around the difficulty of the story.

Our pursuit of knowledge as a means of mastering our world is certainly problematic. I suspect it is also a part of human nature we will never escape. You can argue that the 'morality' of learning depends on the motivations but you don't clear up the problem. Motivations are almost always mixed. We all at once want to understand someone else better because we care for them and because we want to control them. Flowers and weeds grow together.

I suppose it is good to consider our own relationship with the pursuit of knowledge. We can think about learning more of what really makes us and others happier, rather than what we feel driven to know by fear. We can avoid using our learning to control or belittle others - or puff ourselves up.

And, if the one maxim that Knowledge is Power is true, we do well to consider the other, Know Thyself. In my busyness, distractedness, susceptibility to believing life is best spent gathering more, I can get trapped in a state of real ignorance about my true identity. I might spend a bit more time learning who I am and what I have to offer, and a bit less scrutinising and judging others / the world for what they lack.