Knowledge, Understanding, and Love II: Ignorance and Information Technology

Remembering vs. Reminding: Fit

In the previous post on this issue, we ended by asking why we should blame technology for our strange (but organic) mix of arrogance and foolishness. Why not simply suggest that people are just not as nice and humble as they should be, and so we should try to be nicer and humbler? In this post, we’ll reflect further on Plato’s Phaedrus and begin to see how the claims in that brilliant dialogue relate to the warnings of C.S. Lewis’ The Abolition of Man, and, of course, Scripture.

To begin, let’s look at the problem that Socrates, in his telling of the myth of Thamus and Theuth, suggests arises from writing: The loss of the ability to remember.

This problem might seem the most obvious: When we have all the information at our fingertips, we concern ourselves less with memorization. But why does that matter?

Consider those things that you best remember as opposed to those of which you must be reminded. What is the primary difference between these two? Well, a host of things can make you remember things—significant pain or pleasure linked to the experience of remembering or simple drilling and repetition, as well as other activities. But those things that are easiest, or most natural, to remember are new pieces of information that fit with what you already know and augment one’s grasp of how things work or how they really are. It is like finding that puzzle piece that settles easily into the empty space. My wife describes her experience of getting a degree in business after having worked in business for some time in this way. She barely needed to study, despite learning new things, because those new things complemented so well what she had experienced. They just fit.

Perhaps the beginning of understanding is in recognizing that all the knowledge one has must be put together like a puzzle, while knowledge qua knowledge is the possession of discrete pieces of information without any awareness that or how they need to be put together. This difference between understanding and mere knowledge is why someone who has a host of fancy degrees may struggle like a novice in a new job when compared to the high school dropout who has been working that job for ten years. Experience gives a sense of where all those numbers and figures and ideas and skills fit together in the real world.

When we know where things fit, we remember them. When we do not know where they fit, we need to be reminded again and again. And when we can be reminded again and again, we no longer feel the urgency of seeing how things fit so that we might remember them. The omnipresence of information technology encourages a mind full of fragmented facts, which in turn results in a worldview that is itself fragmented (i.e. lacking cohesion, coherence, or even containing contradictory elements).

The Ethics of Understanding

Experience doesn’t merely help you understand where things fit, it shows why the things you learn matter. There is a close relationship between understanding where/how things fit and why they matter. In fact, why they matter may be the very thing that makes them fit.

This issue of the “why” gets us to the heart of Socrates’ critique of writing. In the myth, Thamus says the following: “[T]hey will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own.”

This statement at first appears simply to describe the difference between relying on a written account as opposed to memorization. But, if we examine more of the Phaedrus, as well as other writings of Plato’s corpus, we find that much more is being said here. Let me explain.

Immediately upon telling the story of the origin of writing, Socrates criticizes written speeches. He complains that a written speech “roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.”[1]

This problem is not unfamiliar to us. Think of that time you wrote something on social media, were interpreted wrongly, and suffered a deluge of unjustified criticisms. When someone who cannot properly grasp the meaning of something reads the information and misuses it, we see the failure of information access for many. What does Socrates propose instead? Discourse, or the dialogical pursuit of knowledge called “dialectic”: “The dialectician [as opposed to the written speech] chooses a proper soul and plants and sows within it discourse accompanied by knowledge—discourse capable of helping itself as well as the man who planted it, which is not barren but produces a seed from which more discourse grows in the characters of others. Such discourse makes the seed forever immortal and renders the man who has it as happy as any human being can be.”[2]

Dialectic between one who knows and one worthy of dialogue results in an ongoing discourse within both of them. That discourse then grows and gives birth to new discourse—new questions and ideas and awareness of areas in one’s life in need of growth. And if you know where it fits and so see its importance, it will develop a discourse within you, so that this idea ceases to be an external idea that you have to struggle to remember. Rather, it becomes a discourse within you that touches all of life and begins to (in)form the way you live. All new information that relates at all to this bit of knowledge will add new levels of questions, new ideas or new development of old ideas, and, in general, a richer and more beautiful way of living in the world.

What is the hallmark of one who is worthy of dialectic? Anyone familiar at all with Plato should know the answer to this: The realization that I am ignorant—far more ignorant than I usually recognize.

On the other hand, what is the hallmark of almost every argument today, particularly in light of access to the internet, the most easily accessed bit of information technology in history? An insufferable know-it-all attitude. Written speeches versus written speeches. And no understanding arises, no meaningful dialogue, no discourse. Nothing that could possibly be mistaken as making a person “as happy as any human being can be.”

Rather, given our arrogance and pursuit only of that information that supports the position we already have, we rarely have discourse with others or within ourselves, and so become “difficult to get along with, since [we] merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”

But how could one come to recognize one’s own ignorance when one in fact has access to so much information? Indeed, how could Socrates who seemed capable of out-arguing almost any person he spoke to declare his own ignorance? Even more, am I arguing that Christians should consider themselves ignorant in order to have better discussions with people? Recognition of one’s own ignorance sounds a bit like “humility,” but we Christians possess the truth, do we not?

We will dig further into these questions in the next one of this series. But perhaps reflect on this idea: It is perhaps more correct to say that the truth (or perhaps better, Truth) has possessed us, rather than that we have possessed the truth. Believing the latter leads to pride; the former, humility.

[1] Plato, Phaedrus 275d.

[2] Plato, Phaedrus 276e-277a.

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