Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Limits of the mind, science and society

Why is it we feel that we can "solve" all of the problems before us? I am sure you know about Einstein's saying that basically states that we can't solve problems with the same mindset and capacities that have created those very problems. How much and what do we need to know before we have all of our problems solved? We continue to feel that by just gathering more data, by investing just a few hundred million dollars in some technology, we will see breakthroughs that will allow us to continue our lifestyles, and will encourage others to change how they live so they can be more like us. Unfortunately, we cannot "solve" all of our problems through research.

Most problems are created because, given our limited capacities to envision and know what effects and side-effects, we just have no way of knowing how something that is being implemented or introduced into our world (consumer products, for example) will necessarily change and affect it. The scales of complexity explode when we start to factor in how a certain chemical will not only affect humans, but also how that might affect the fish and algae downstream, or the bear that eats the fish.

There was a wonderful episode of Radiolab (actually, they are all wonderful. Listen to them all.) on limits - limits of the body, mind and science. One segment of the show talks about a computer program developed by a couple of people from Cornell (Dr. Hod Lipson and Michael Schmidt) that can deduce mathematical relationships in nature, through simple observation. But the answers to the problems we tell it to evaluate are to questions that we haven't even asked yet, or don't have the mental capacity to understand.

I contend that we know all we need to know to address the issues facing us. What are needed, more importantly, are the humility and responsibility to accept that we are wrong, and that we are letting precious time slip by in trying to find "solutions," which will introduce their own problems. We must reduce our dependence on data and live with an understanding that the data don't help, that what is needed is more compassion for everything around us (for example, we've known all we needed to know about issues like climate change many years ago; but we can wave goodbye to Mauritius.), that we live with an understanding that whatever we do given our current ways of living has a negative impact on our air, water, relationships, land, sentient beings and non-sentient beings.


  1. Amen, brother. Only when one realizes his limits, and the sheer extent of what he does NOT know, then he can start thinking with a little bit more clarity.

    That philosophy goes all the way back to Socrates, and still rings true today.

  2. That is such a great Radiolab episode. The Wendell Berry novel I just finished alluded several times to this obsession with research and - incidentally - how it often takes us away from home.

  3. Your 2nd and 4th paragraphs seem to conflict in one sense but in another do not... I found this Berry quote I'd jotted down a couple of weeks ago that echoes the former paragraph and also evokes another issue you raise - though we think we can conquer and understand the world by breaking it down into parts and studying it, this artificial subdivision actually makes it impossible to know. I think it's from "Life is a Miracle":

    "Even now, after centuries of reductionist propaganda, the world is still intricate and vast, as dark as it is light, a place of mystery where we cannot do one thing without doing many things, or put two things together without putting many things together."