The definitions for this word have a surprising beauty. They lead from a fairly concrete example to ideas that are far more ephemeral:
- A way or track laid down for walking or made by continual treading
- The course or direction in which a person or thing is moving
- A course of action or conduct
There are a couple more, but these will do nicely. Movement along a path is usually imagined, seen in the mind’s eye, but a path of conduct may require the individual to remain immobile, mind cleared, thinking only the thoughts that come without thought.
Whether consciously or not, we all describe paths during our time. We also define many more paths than we “walk.” We define a path to becoming a physician, but somehow become a lawyer or a laborer. We define a path to becoming a pro bono environmental lawyer, but do patent work. We define a path towards perfection in all of our professional work, but end up cutting corners and doing less than we know we should. Some of us don’t expect much of ourselves, but end up surprising the world. This is sort of like the Yiddish proverb “man plans and God laughs.” I wonder how many of us, if all humans were polled from the past, present or future, would say, without prevarication “I did exactly what I expected to do when I was five years old and everything that happened to me – everything – was just as I expected.”
Let us imagine a perfectly spherical object that we will call human knowledge. Let us imagine this object when humans first came into being. By this, I mean when the first *human* memories started accumulating and the first *human* experiences were had and then passed on to children. I place “human” in asterisks because it is doubtful to me that we will ever know for a certainty when memories and experiences were first translatable across generations or perhaps species. Did pre-sapiens humans have memories and experiences that were somehow passable to our immediate Homo sapiens antecedents? It’s worth wondering about, but no answer will probably ever be found in the bones.
Back to the object: the perfectly spherical object is tiny and represents all human knowledge when we first became “wise (sapiens).” From that early, imaginary, perfectly spherical object radiates a huge number of imaginary lines – vectors – out from the object. The lines are the paths that describe the potential for knowledge growth, each in a very specific “direction.” One line may be a line for learning the long “A” sound for human speech. Another may be for learning various ways of walking. Another may be learning to differentiate edible plants from toxic ones. Another for learning types of rock – flint, chalk, marble, granite, limestone, shale, mica, etc. Another for watching the stars at night, another for observing living things growing and changing, day after day, another for watching tides come in or waves break. As those early humans learned more, stored memories about these observations, passed their knowledge on to their elders, peers, partners, progeny, communities, imagine that tiny sphere bulging out ever so slightly in the direction of the vector we have imaginarily assigned to that type of knowledge. As we continued to roam the earth, grow families, watch them die, hunted, planted, gathered, farmed, fished, slept and woke and told stories to each other, as we continued to query our world and the sky and stars above it, as more knowledge accumulated, our knowledge sphere grew, unevenly, in fits of lumpiness, but along these imaginary vectors out towards the possible terminus of each vector that represented absolutely everything that could ever be known about any thin slice of the overall possible sphere of human knowledge. In those early days, the lumpiness grew out along the vectors for communal interaction, subsistence, group and self-protection, some kind of language (or languages – we’ll never know how many there were), but the lumpiness did not grow at all in the direction of vast distances – like how far the stars were away – or in the direction of minute phenomena – like microbes and molecules and atoms. The lumpiness grew along the vector for passing whatever knowledge was deemed worthy, through what were considered facts and what were less facts and more fictions, through speculations regarding what was completely unknowable to our antecedents tens of millennia ago. The lumpiness did not bulge along the vector for semiconductor design or organic synthesis or n-dimensional mathematics or computer programming – or along a vector for writing stuff down! So many other directions were ignored for those long, early millennia in our existence, not out of malice, but from ignorance that there was any there there (apologies to both our antecedents and G. Stein).
But the sphere, not so sphery anymore but a post-spherical collection of asymmetric protrusions with vectors of various finite lengths poking out like spines on a pufferfish or quills on an annoyed porcupine, keeps on growing in fits and starts as knowledge and communal memories and speculations and stories are built and exchanged and kept alive. The paths, the vectors are subsumed in the new skin of the growing post-spherical shape of “all human knowledge.” There are also webs of interconnections between the vectors, but let’s keep our metaphor simple for now and recognize that the metaphor attempts to illuminate something far more complicated.
During this process, facts crystallized: “a smooth, round stone makes grain into a powder;” “a long, strong stick can be sharpened and used to hunt;” “one cycle of light and dark is followed by another;” “some people are friendly and others are not,” and so on. While the facts are accumulating, so are the mysteries: “what makes the sky dark and light?;” “what makes the thunder and lightning?;” “why was my village destroyed and my friends killed when the river rose?;” “why do so many children die?;” “why are we here?;” “what is ‘here’ and how did it come to be?” Not all of these facts are, of course, passed along as new humans are born. Some facts are learned, or not, as the need arises. Utility of a smooth, round stone, making of a spear, proper use of a plow are complete mysteries until they are taught afresh and as humans have developed technologies over the millennia, it is far more likely new children will learn the use of a tablet computer than a smooth, round stone from their community.
So the lumpy sphere (1) starts small and symmetrical with every new child and is comprised of purely autonomic and genetically proscribed (pre-scribed?) abilities and (2) is fashioned by the needs of the child’s community as they grow. A young fellow growing up in an isolated Amazonian tribe or in New Guinea will develop their sphere quite unlike that of a child in suburban North America, but each will start with a sphere of possibility and develop their knowledge along vectors as they need to. The isolated child can learn just as much about contemporary particle physics as the suburban youth and (perhaps) the suburban child just as much about shimmying up trees and fashioning tubers into a wholesome meal. The suburban kid can spend their lives learning about a whole series of video games or about the lives of the suspiciously rich and unduly famous or they can grow their knowledge to grasp a vast array of skills and lore. Thermodynamic laws and their corollaries as applied to noble gases – and all the accompanying knowledge necessary to comprehend what that entails? Done! Coding in an ever-increasing armamentarium of languages, plus appropriate knowledge of their use in accompanying hardware? Absolutely? Cooking organic vegan Asian fusion meals using only locally sourced foods? Covered! So can the kid from a place that almost no one (except them and their family) knows about do all of the above? Yes they can! The small sphere of no known color prickly with vectors of possible knowledge can grow in any way it is trained if its owner, the seat in which it will function, makes the necessary effort (although perhaps some of us are better at learning some stuff than others are – but that’s another matter for another potential post).
For some reason, the human mind answers questions with stories – in the fictional sense – when no answers seem obvious, seem easy to grasp. Some of the mysteries listed above are now well-understood, at least by folks who embraced rational inquiry. What animates us? Let’s call it a “soul” or a “spirit.” How did the universe come to be? There was nothing and “god” made everything to fill the void (earth-wide, so many “gods,” so let’s keep the name in small letters until we visit the topic later on). What keeps the earth suspended in the sky? Why, it’s turtles, turtles all the way down!
The problem with these and other stories is that they blithely attempt to answer complicated questions as if the answers were known to a certainty. They presume to represent human understanding, going as far back as stories were passed between members of communities, as infallible. “We understand perfectly all questions posed to us,” say some humans to all that inquire. In fact, we are all on a path to understanding each line, each vector of inquiry in our shared, global, lumpy, not-so-spherical, not-so-symmetrical collection of knowledge. When our observations and our analyses have run out of plausible hypotheses and theories and laws, at least until new means of observations and data collection can be contrived, then it is time for the communal “us” to say “I don’t know.”
I stress the communal “us” for a few reasons: (1) we are social creatures (or are wired that way); (2) none of us individually can know everything that has ever been understood and documented by the greater “us;” (3) knowledge, both rational and irrational, has been a cumulative phenomenon for as long as stories, oral and written, have been documented.
Let’s take one of these imaginary vectors, lines, paths and talk about what progress along a knowledge path “looks” like. First of all, I’ve made the diagram below, but it does some things quite poorly. First, it breaks up the transitions from black through various shades of gray in a way that cannot accurately portray the transitions. The labels are more useful, but also imply absolute ranges for the knowledge that might fall within each one.
In general, though, the diagram suggests progress in a direction – along a knowledge vector, if you will – and the labels are:
- Knowledge within common reach – this is knowledge that will come to most people as they work with people in their community, including parents, peers, community members, teachers, etc.
- Knowledge to be gained through some level of study of precedent learning – this is knowledge that will only be gained, with or without teachers, if the “pupil” reads the work, works the problems, does the experiments, develops their own insights into the precedent work, pursues a career thinking about the matters studied on a regular basis, or pursues an avocation that has the same effect. For brevity’s sake, this can include mastery of a skill, science, technology, etc.
- Knowledge to be gained through de novo observation, data analysis, hypothesis testing – this is knowledge that has not yet been achieved, but can be through additional investigation, experimentation, innovation, novel data analytics of new or existing observations, engineering, etc. It may be achievable in one year or ten or one hundred, but persistence and insight will result in new information added to the sum of all previous knowledge.
- Knowledge most probably beyond reach in perpetuity – this is knowledge that is highly likely to be unknowable given our place in time and the tools we may be able to create in area 3 for anything like the foreseeable future (vide supra). This may include items in the past (e.g. exactly how long did the saurian extinction take and between what BCE years (this is the problem of specificity – we know the extinction took place, but completely accurate dating and duration are beyond the pale); was there a universe before our universe? (this may be a problem of data collection – all existing models of universe age can only “see” back to what is hypothesized to be the start of our universe, but was there something equally as huge before our universe?) or it may be items in the future (e.g. exactly when will we be able to measure with certainty dark matter and/or dark energy?; are there practical ways to travel between interstellar distances that have the effect of exceeding the speed of light?) or it may be matters that lie within us (e.g. exactly how does the brain/mind work?).
My proposition is this: we would all do better in this world if we paid more attention to vectors 2 and 3. Progress along vector 1 will be achieved if our parents, peers, community, teachers, etc. take care of their responsibilities. This happens a lot of the time, but it does not happen 100% of the time – and this needs attention all by itself. We can all work together to ensure that every child born in every country progresses successfully through vector 1 to (at least) vector 2. Progress in vector 2 requires nurturing, encouragement, resources for the child/young adult to achieve what they can, but it also requires hard work on the part of the child/young adult. Not everyone will choose vector 3 as a path for their lives – and that is okay. It is a personal choice, but if the previous achievements were fulfilled, at least vector 3 can be addressed partially, if not completely.
But vector 4 should not claim our time or energy. The first stanza of the poem attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr is helpful in this regard, although I like demystifying it:
“Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other.”
(There is a dispute that what we have come to know as the serenity prayer was actually penned by Niebuhr, so I use this version because it seems more likely that he did.)
Another way of saying this, although also by a person with a theistic bent, is found in the opening lines of “An Essay on Man: Epistle II” by Alexander Pope (1688–1744):
“Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;The proper study of mankind is man.”
While Pope viewed this path as the only proper way of dealing with the certainty of a divinity, I view it as a very similar (and wise) caution as Niebuhr’s: pay attention to matters that can be addressed by “you,” human! It is, in its way, a very Buddhistic perspective as well: we all suffer and the desire to control matters beyond our ability leads to much of this suffering. Sounds like Niebuhr, hmm?
So, take a path (you will take many simultaneous paths (a course of action or conduct) – and that’s a good and inevitable thing) – and follow it (them) through as far as you possibly can (or not – it’s your life and your decision). But when you reach the place in the path where it fades into nothingness, do not presume to know what lies beyond – unless you can communally create the tools to go further. It is okay to say “I do not know what lies ahead.” It is not okay to make stuff up and speculate wildly what may lie ahead. Attend to the wisdom of Niebuhr and Pope. Attend to the words of the Buddha. When you arrive where the path fades, say “I do not know” and work another path. There is some joy, some happiness in letting go of what you cannot control and attending to that which you can influence through hard work and insight.