Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ignorance and Equality

The United States is heir to a long and wonderful tradition that probably is best described as the fulfillment of practical democracy. In America we have unbelievable liberties, rights, freedoms, and opportunities. We are the first on our planet to enjoy them, and perhaps the first to misplace them. Our country is beset by problems no one in the past had ever heard of, much less grappled with on a daily basis.

Some of our symbolic statements hint at the problems. E pluribus unum, for instance; does it mean "One out of many" or "Out of many, One." What does the other motto, Annuit Coeptis mean? There is no subject, so it must be inferred: "[Providence] favors our undertakings" or is it "[God] favors our undertakings"? Perhaps it is best rendered as "Our undertakings are favored." Certainly Americans think so. And the rest of the Great Seal on our currency: "Novus ordo seclorum," means "A new order of the ages." (!) The Founders certainly had a sense of themselves!

Isn't there something in these mottos that suggests a little whistling through the graveyard? Is there not a suggestion of pious hope, a fervent wish, a slightly hollow braggadocio? And, is there not a ring of brash truth, too? America was the first deliberately secular state; the first to organize on rational principles, contemplated by really first-rate minds ... rather than by a succession of priests, popes, princes and kings endowed by their Creator with a small chances of brilliance and quickly subdued by the shades of intrigue and avarice.

The United States is predicated on an interesting idea that all men (and subsequently all women and races) are endowed with inalienable rights. This means that whatever these rights are they cannot really ever be detached from the person of the individual. We learn later, of course, that some rights can be "suspended" because of bad behavior, or because of really bad behavior the person terminated.

But, even before the inalienable rights we declare that all men are created equal. (In the next phrase the idea of Creator is introduced to establish efficient parallelism and total ambiguity as to who or what the Creator might be.) The point of Equality is made, though. We now understand this to mean "equality before the law," that is, that no person because of lineage or position or IQ or musical talent or beauty or ugliness or any other factor, that no person has a leg up or down because of those inherently unequal characteristics ... before the law!

We know, however, that inequalities exist that are difficult to ignore. Some people are good spellers, some bad; some are good readers, others are illiterate; some believe in ghosts, while others have dispensed with explanations without evidence; some willfully commit crimes, while most do not, or at least confine themselves to infractions of minor rules and regulations. Among the kinds of things that are unequal between us are education and wisdom, (which are not always given in the same package). Some Americans pass their SAT exams with perfect scores, while others drop out of high school before attempting them, usually because they are unsuccessful at most things that schools provide.

One of the things that schools and education provide is knowledge about knowledge, that is, information about what constitutes real knowledge and what is merely speculation or what is merely a belief system. The mark of educated persons is that they understand the limits of their understanding and the various points where they rely on the knowledge of others or on their own belief systems. They may not drill themselves daily on these points, but when pressed by someone else they will generally say, "Well, I have not been to space myself, but I believe that the televised pictures of the Earth from the Moon were authentic and these pictures clearly demonstrate the spherical nature of our planet."

Or, they might say, "It is a shame that their baby was born without arms, but my understanding is that the mother was given Thalidomide during the pregnancy, and that drug has been implicated in studies I read about conducted by scientists and doctors over at the university." Some might say, however, "The deformed baby is a sign that this family has lost favor with God." Such a statement relies entirely upon the judgment of the speaker and his vast experience with the moods and whims of his own deity, which he assumes is the universal deity (despite endless circumstantial evidence to the contrary) and, therefore, the irreducible sole source of such tragedies.

We have many people in our society that think like this. It raises the question of whether or not the practice of democracy can evolve further when the premises and postulates of the various "equal" members of the society are at such odds. In fact, I believe that most Americans now believe that the idea of "equal creation" is entirely theoretical, and that in reality people are not "equal" in every way that matters!

The jarring proof of this assertion is found in the daily news, two items of which I will mention. One, was the Terri Schiavo case (the brain-dead woman kept physically alive for 15 long years while her brain tissue atrophied and was replaced by cerebro-spinal fluid) and the other was George W. Bush's recent declaration that "Intelligent Design" should be taught as a science of human origins. Both situations show a clear and horrifying lack of understanding about knowledge and how to think about knowledge.

In the case of Terri Schiavo the parents held hope above evidence and held it so strongly that eventually they ignored the real scientific knowledge of the medical doctors who were trained to understand situations like these. The parents and everyone, including Geo. Bush, Jeb Bush, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and thousands of other persons whose world-views include a special kind of personal relationship with "deity" displayed a horrifying ignorance of knowledge and a complete breakdown in their ability to cooperate socially because of it. They were on that issue completely autistic, completely isolated in their compass of the world around them, stolidly flat-earthers, not one second evolved over their ancestors 50,000 years earlier.

The second item was President George W. Bush's assertion that "intelligent design" be taught as a scientifically responsible rendition of the origins of human beings on planet Earth. First, Bush has no idea what "intelligent design" purports, for he has never studied it. He does not know, obviously, that while inferences can be made from the amazing display of variety and complexity in the biological world that inferences are not evidence. Yes, scientists make inferences, but they always seek and usually find evidence for, or if they do not find evidence, they abandon their inferences. Inference is a scandal of epistemology for one might easily infer a general conclusion from one instance of something. Or, there may be thousands of events and one chooses ten or a hundred as examples. It was long ago proven (by John Stuart Mill and others) that inference is notoriously incomplete. Scientists now understand this and maintain a healthy skepticism about virtually all of their provisional ideas.

The two items mentioned above call to attention not only the ignorance that seems to pervade our society, but also call into question an "educational system" that perpetuates this sort of ignorance, including the ignorance of ignorance. The educational system that produces men and women who cannot distinguish their hopes and beliefs from the facts is inadequate to the New Order we undertook over two hundred years ago. It makes of our Many not One, but a Chaos, a body politic bent on self-destruction. Such an educational system is clearly not favorable to this undertaking, this vast experiment we call America!