Saturday, November 10, 2007

Getting to the Truth of the Matter



Demythologizing and Demystifying

These are two words that have long appealed to me. Some people, especially experts in their own fields, often like to baffle and befuddle others; to weave myths and spells in an attempt to convince others how much they, the experts, know and consequently how little we “the uninitiated” or “the unwashed” ignorant masses really know. I remember in UCD many years ago a certain “learned” mathematician, a professor no less, who shall remain anonymous, sought constantly to baffle, befuddle, befog, confound and mystify his hearers. He was teaching us complex analysis or fundamental analysis which is the foundational theoretical base of the calculus. I remember absolutely nothing of his course except how stupid I felt myself to be. I could not understand how I had managed to get through the first two years of my degree course in maths without considerable effort (though I had to work very hard at mathematics as I was not necessarily a natural mathematician, but I had managed to achieve honours at higher level in my Leaving Cert.) and now with this particular man I was confused, confounded, baffled, befuddled and mystified. Then one day, a good friend who was studying both Irish and Maths with me, one Lorcán Breatnach, informed me that Professor X was a deliberate mystifier. I have since become adept at identifying this not so rare species.

Over the course of my life I have attended four different colleges and have been lectured by many scholars. I have always found the best scholars to be the clearest. I might not have understood everything they said, but I always left their classes knowing more, not less; having had a little more light thrown on the subject and definitely not cast into the almost absolute darkness of confusion. As a child I was always overawed by teachers whom I worshipped almost as gods of sacred knowledge. Needless to say I ended up as one myself. Since then I could say that my awe of them has long since ceased. Teachers and teaching has, as it were, become demythologized and demystified. The intrigue and the magic have died as it were. I’m sure it is the same for every other profession. In like manner I have studied theology and have spent some three years many years ago as a student in religious life. Those years helped to demythologize and demystify the church and priests and religious of all hues. In other words, what we once thought of as special, magical, somehow wonderful states of being, or wonderful states of privileged knowledge have been rendered “ordinary” again. And, indeed, this is no harm. Let’s not put ourselves on pedestals. We are all ordinary mortals and no one of us has a privileged access to the truth or truths. As readers of these pages will attest, I prefer the plural to the overused and much abused singular use of the term “truth.”

Let me return momentarily to Mlodinow’s wonderful book again (i.e. Some Time with Feynman) which I discussed at length in my last post. Dr Leonard Mlodinow, neophyte member of the Faculty of Physics at Cal Tech also learns the above outlined lesson. Let us listen to his words here as they are timely as regards how we look upon knowledge and especially the “privileged” possessors of that knowledge: “People picture scientists in white coats. Physicists, at least, don’t wear them, but in a way, I subscribed to the same basic misconception: that scientists were somehow different from other people. I read about their theories in the tight logical development that comes only long after the fact. I knew nothing of their insecurities, their false starts, their confusion, their days in bed with bellyache. Even as a graduate student I never got to know any faculty members as people …everyone is just stumbling through the fog…” (op.cit., p.45) I love this last metaphor for our search for truths in what ever shape or form we find them. We are all truly stumbling around in a fog attempting to find our way. Well done, Dr. Mlodinow – or Tim Quinlan or whoever we are - welcome to the human race – poor fallible puny beings are we who set ourselves upon a pedestal, if not of divine power, certainly of scientific knowledge. After all knowledge is probably the real power in the world, or rather the real avenue to exercising it, at any rate.

In a way the whole gamut of enterprises – I refer here to the whole gamut of subjects taught in all the universities on our little planet - to find these so called “truths” is a compendium of games engaged in by human beings to make a better life for themselves and their kith and kin and in the final analysis to pass the time well and in so doing have a little fun without harming life in any of its myriad forms. We must seek to make our jobs our passion if at all possible. As Feynman remarked to the young Mlodinow about science as a career, “Remember, it’s supposed to be fun!” (0p. cit., p. 119) In other words, there’s never any room for mythologizers and mystifiers, those who seek constantly to baffle, befuddle, befog, confound and mystify rather than enlighten, inform, clarify and point out all the possible ways on the human journey through life.



Above I have uploaded a picture of Auguste Rodin's wonderful "Le Penseur" which I took last week when on my midterm holidays in Paris. La Musée Rodin is really well worth visiting!

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