I’ve occasionally mentioned my wife, an attractive, intelligent senior executive whose pragmatism is pretty close to mine. Even though she was a cheerleader in high school, many of her friends were geeks, a fact she reminded me of on the occasion of telling me I was something of a geek. Mind you, something is the operative word and I have high-functioning social skills. So it was a surprise after sharing with her the first episode of the new version of Carl Sagan’s famous series Cosmos, this time with Neil deGrasse Tyson, to hear her say to me, why does anyone need to know this stuff. I was at a rare loss for words.
How could my pragmatic wife, who likes geeks, even ask such a question. As I considered this, I heard myself explaining that knowing the history of our universe, our solar system and our planet puts everything in perspective and explains so much. She agreed this may be true, but it wasn’t necessary for her to know or care about any of it. It wasn’t knowledge she actually needed. Not needing it, I noted, assumes that the concepts inherent in this knowledge don’t provide a valuable matrix upon which to place life’s issues and big questions. Ignorance, superstition and mysticism are not going to do better.
One of the differences between us is that I am extremely curious. She’s noted many times that I have more questions than anyone she’s ever known. “Your poor mother.” Hmm…how are questions a bad thing.
The phrase “there are no stupid questions” is meant to encourage learning. The same can be said regarding the quantity of questions. Some of us are more curious than others, and others lack curiosity at a level I find hard to understand. It won’t be surprising that I share website links via email (I never use share links on web sites) if I think someone I know will find a topic interesting or helpful. But I’m highly selective when doing so. I consider whether the potential value justifies sharing — a lot of information is of dubious value, if only for its triviality.
Here’s an example of information that, to me, meets the trivial threshold: It is estimated that each year the world’s population produces 6.4 trillion liters (1.65 trillion gallons) of urine. Of course, it’s possible that this information might be useful to someone, and it turns out that when urine flows through microbial fuel cells, it can create sufficient current to charge mobile device batteries. So it might be possible to use this technology in undeveloped parts of the world without electricity. But, otherwise, not really information anyone else has need of. Which is to say, the value of information is largely its context, and context should determine both our world view and how we interact with that world.
Information is life blood for pragmatists. It forms the basis of the search for truth, for determining reality and for problem solving. Even life’s most profound questions can have answers in information. Finding, sorting through and synthesizing conclusions from information is the challenge. Hence the need for questions, which lead to answers and then more questions. My inherent skepticism of religion from a young age was confirmed — for me — by everything from cosmology and physics to evolutionary biology and plate tectonics. There was no place for a deity or prayer, particularly when it turned out the whole genesis story was a retelling of the same story of creation from other preceding cultures.
Which brings us back to deciding what we need to know. Suppose we change need to want — because need is really the expression of want. One can want information to learn how to do something, but one can also want information to understand something…anything…and thus create more context. If you look at the fundamental premise of this blog, found in About at the top of this page, it’s really about how everything is relative to everything else — a huge context matrix. Whether it’s the meaning of life, keeping secrets, making realistic choices, solving difficult problems or whatever, context is a fundamental factor. We apply context so often we don’t even think about it.
And this was my point to my wife about the knowledge in the Cosmos series. It provides context on a vast scale upon which we can see ourselves and our relationships to everything else. Scale and relativity give us perspective. Years ago a close friend, a professor at MIT, noted how the students arriving there were the smartest fish in their high school ponds, but now found themselves surrounded by many equally smart or smarter fish in the much bigger MIT pond. This realization and the consequent adjustments to it provided a life-changing lesson in scale, relativity and sense of self.
Not everyone likes or can accept a pragmatic viewpoint. They prefer political ideology or religious dogma, which start with answers and then apply them to life without context. The attraction is certainty of principles and values, but the unacknowledged flaw is how meaningless the “answers” are without context. And the lack of nuance and balance so essential to reality make these answers even less relevant. In the real world, ignorance is not actually bliss but instead intellectual failure with negative consequences. The only way to know what one needs to know is by wanting information first and then being open to what it might say to us about our own contexts.