The uncertainty of knowing

By The Columbia Chronicle

Consider before Kepler, Copernicus and Newton, contemporary science taught that the Earth was the center of the universe and before that, it was flat. This very fact of the development of knowledge over time is at the heart of the collision of fact, faith or whether either one accurately describes human knowledge.

For example, high school educator Danny Pennington is a staunch supporter of creationism in biology curriculum, a practice approved by the state legislature earlier in the year as part of “critical thinking” legislation. His belief is that the factual case for Darwin was faked due to a set of 19th century drawings made by Ernst Haeckel, describing the development of a human fetus through various animal stages until it reaches human form.  From this, Pennington has been angrily stating to the press that he feels he lied to students.

I do not know any ethical educator, regardless of their ideology, who believes that they would willingly lie to their students. However, we live between two problems—that fact develops with new innovations and that there is no empirical basis in faith.  Education from current knowledge is by no means falsehood, but on the other hand, that does not mean one can rely on information without empirical evidence as anything other than anecdotal.

In many ways, this makes science look like a pseudo-religion, and religion in the place of comparative theory.  Neither work, such as the unproductive dichotomies put forth by Plato in considering mind/body dualism and C.P. Snow’s segregation of the arts and sciences. As recent studies in physics and cognitive sciences suggest, our selves and our universe are far less polar than thought. Quantum entanglement shows that objects can be affected at a distance and our consciousness is tied to our bodily form and structure. The either/or, right/wrong, fact/faith binary breaks down as our knowledge of the universe continues to develop.

However, the problem of the apparent opposition of fact and faith, and forcing of the subject, is the insecurity of not knowing, but it is also no excuse for irrational behavior. It may seem “old school” to say that I have fallen back to a Zen-like mix of postmodern uncertainty and Enlightenment reason as an antidote to my challenges in the classroom and with the misperceptions with the public. That is, I still have some hope that objective evidence from a multitude of sources, mixed with an informed position based on the sciences and humanities, as well as exposure to numerous ideologies and cultures, will hopefully create a person who can make their own decisions.

It appears that humanity is trapped in the glacial dialogue of history that has seen many cultures, governments and religions (the old ones now called “mythologies”). It will be for history to say whether we were right or wrong. Beyond this, the metaphysical and the supposed “fact” of any religion are incomprehensible for me, that “fact” being that more than a millennium ago, the world was flat. Perhaps in 3009, the world will no longer be round, but that is not to say that we have lied, as we have entered into this enterprise in good faith.

With this said, there may not be any opposition between fact or faith as both have their unsure points. However, without acting with insight, reason, caring, fear, ignorance and unreason may surely devour us.

Patrick Lichty is an Assistant Professor in the Interactive Arts & Media Department. He’s a technologically-based conceptual artist, writer, independent curator, animator for the activist group The Yes Men and Executive Editor of Intelligent Agent Magazine.