Nov 162018

Evanston RoundTable, Nov. 15,2018

I’m obsessed with knowledge. I want to know everything. Well, not everything, of course, that’s impossible, but the big things: quantum physics and plate tectonics and macroeconomics and…all the stuff I didn’t get around to studying in school because I was too lazy or preoccupied with other, more important stuff, like getting a date.

But that’s problematic from a number of angles. For starters there’s an almost infinite number of big things to know and very limited time—a mere lifetime—to get to know them.

For another the effort of gaining total knowledge involves a certain amount of hubris. Who am I to play God? Because only God can know everything. Or even all the big things.

The problem was addressed in the Bible. God forbids Adam and Eve to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. Some scholars consider that to mean all understanding—not just good and evil but everything in between. Forbidding that knowledge would make sense, because to know everything would be Godlike. But if Adam and Eve did indeed munch on  the apple, how come we’re so short of knowledge today?

Another interpretation suggests that after the irrevocable bite, good and evil became confused, introducing moral ambiguity.

Two millennia later Goethe and Marlowe took up the theme. In their Faust plays, the title character is brilliant but unprincipled. Dissatisfied with his limited understanding, he trades his soul for perfect knowledge, worldly power and “all voluptuousness.”

Since then numerous Faust symphonies, ballets, operas, movies, TV and radio programs, songs and novels have been written. The concept is, after all, intriguing. Would we too make a “deal” for greater understanding?

When I was younger I didn’t worry about it. What knowledge I needed seemed always sufficiently at hand. Then, as older people generally do, I got more curious about things. How does gravity work? Why does evil exist? What’s the weird baby signify at the end of “2001”?

In response I started reading more widely. It was like a drug: it seemed to lead to ever more reading, almost to the exclusion of everything else. The problem of unlimited information and limited time became onerous, then impossible. All one could do was explore a smattering of the world’s knowledge, the thinnest topsoil of the depthless earth.

In view of the challenge, how should one proceed? Some people take the “hedgehog approach,” studying deeply in a narrow range of subjects. Others, like the proverbial fox, range across a broad field of knowledge.

But either way, there’s no good strategy to attain omniscience. The best we can do is study assiduously, listen to smart people (through conversations, lectures, podcasts, CDs, Ted Talks and the like) and think carefully about the big topics: why are we here and what can we do to make life better?

That’s the next best thing to perfect knowledge.

Note: This is the online version of the column, which varies slightly from the print version.

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