Thursday, August 2, 2012

Indiscriminate knowledge

In The Periodic Table, Primo Levi talks of a contrast 'which is inherent in the human condition, since man is a centaur, a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust.' It is hoped that education will suppress the Mr. Hyde in us and allow our Dr. Jekyll part to flourish. But occasionally the devil gets out to the shock and bewilderment of everyone. Such is the case with the recent Colorado shooting where the suspect is said to be a brilliant science student.

Many educated people seem to do incomprehensible things. Mohammad Atta, the leader of the gang that flew a plane into the WTC in NewYork, was an engineer. Al Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda is a medical doctor. I read about a person employed in Google and earning a lakh of rupees a month who was arrested on terrorism charges.

The more science learns about the brain the more complicated it becomes. In a course on Human Behavioural Biology at Stanford University conducted by Robert Sapolsky, there is a session on individual differences where various brain malfunctions are discussed resulting in people doing bizarre things bringing into question the concept of free will (unless you are a believer).

Compared to other areas of the world, the US seems to have more of the wackos who suddenly shoot people to alleviate their existential angst. I suppose it has something to do with the environment. After all much behaviour is a result of interaction between genes and the environment. In The Trouble with Testosterone, while discussing the case of the Unabomber, Sapolsky concludes with a nice story:
There is a wonderful Russian story that takes place at the gates of heaven, where the newly arrived are judged.  A dead murderer is on trail, fresh from earth where he was shot by the police after his umpteenth murder, the strangling of an elderly woman for her money.  A panel of deceased judges sits in session. And where does God fit on the scene? Not as a judge, but as a required character witness. At some point in the proceedings, he shambles in, sits in a magisterial decrepitude born of the weight of infinite knowledge, and in a maundering, avuncular way, does his best to defend and explain the man - "He was always kind to animals. He was very upset when he lost his favorite top when he was a small boy." ("My red top, you know about my red top!?!" The murderer leaps up, suddenly awash in a torrent of memory. "Of course I do. It rolled down the storm drain on Zlonty Street. It's still down there," God answers with complete affectless knowing.) Finally, the judges tire of God, who is in fact tiresome in his knowledge and forgiveness, and coax him off the stand.
When science brings us something new and startling, when there is a breakthrough that opens new vistas, there is often talk about us acquiring godlike knowledge, and the tacit assumption is that this is a good thing, But the God of this parable is useless, has been shunted aside by the indiscriminateness of his knowledge. Knowledge, familiarity, understanding, must not ever lead us to a detached indiscriminateness. The danger of Olympian knowledge is that you then look down on things from an Olympian height, and from that telescoped distance, things seem equivalent - like a lost red top and a strangled woman, or perhaps an awkward adolescence that produces an awkward adult and an awkward adolescence that produces a murderous one.
But there is a difference.

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