A Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing

My studies in Tai Chi have placed me in an unusual, and disturbing, position. I have only had about ten hours of class instruction at this point, and my knowledge is very basic. At the same time, I can do things with my energy now that startle me profoundly. Unfortunately, my ability is undisciplined, and hampered by my profound ignorace of the theory behind Tai Chi. For the first time in my life, I am painfully aware that I can do harm as easily as good with my skills, simply because I do not know enough about them.

This feeling was brought home last week when my heart began to ache whle I was practicing the forms. On Sunday, my professor had to adjust two of my energy lines: one was just to the left of my heart, and the other was halfway down my left thigh. The idea that I could be damaging my body when I do the forms is a bit worrying, and I still do not know what I did wrong.

In retrospect, however, there is no reason why this general feeling should be so new. I have learned many things over the years which, when used improperly or clumsily, have the potential to cause harm of one sort or another. Improper first aid can make injuries worse; rhetoric can make the most terrible ideas seem plausible. Why then has this feeling never hit me with such immediacy before?

Part of the answer, I think, has to do with the "Modern" attitude towards human knowledge, and how it has shaped the popular mindset. Through most of human history, people understood that human knowledge was incomplete, and that relying on human intelligence was in many cases dangerous, and should be done cautiously. The Moderns, on the other hand, were convinced that Knowledge and Science were reaching a point where humanity could subjugate nature itself, and find permanent solutions to the problems of the human existence.

This was expressed in many ways, but I think the experience of Karl Marx can be instructive. He believed that the advent of industrialization had created a whole new problematic of history, which needed to be solved with Communism. Secure in the validity of his premise, he then took steps to bring it about, launching one of the most horrible ideologies to crawl across the Earth. Unfortunately, Marx disdained the knowledge of the ancients; had he listened to the warning of Kohelet that "There is nothing new under the sun," he might have perhaps realized that Plato had proposed a form of Communism thousands of years before, which was decisively rebutted by his own student Aristotle in the Politics, for all of the reasons which have become common knowledge to liberty's exponents today.

This recklessness, and unwillingness to consider the limitations of human ability, seems to have crossed over into the popular realm. Children are encouraged to aim for the stars, not to proceed carefully and with trepidation. Partly this is no doubt due to human arrogance. It is far easier for a person to believe himself omnipotent than limited by his own ignorance (and I include myself in that as well).

In pseudo-intellectual circles, the flaws in this position have been identified, if not internalized; academics are just as capable of arrogantly asserting mankind's ignorance as mankind's knowledge. The pseudo-intellectual response has been Deconstructionism, the idea that nobody can really know anything (this is a gross simplification, admittedly). Of course, those who realize that they know nothing are a step ahead of the game. Modern academics aspire without admitting it to be like Socrates, who was wise because he knew that he was ignorant; yet they do not truly believe themselves ignorant, or else they would hesistate before arrogantly inflicting such ideas on the world, where they have caused unimaginable misery.

This refusal to confront the limits of your knowledge is much easier in the intellectual fields. An electrician would realize very quickly how little he knows when his wiring explodes. More generally, any field which much produce tangible, verifiable results would tend to discourage such arrogance, especially if there are severe consequences for errors.

(Of course, here I am arrogantly claiming to be superior to academics because I realize how arrogant they are...)

I think the world would be a much better place if people would leaven their desire to leap off into the unknown with an appreciation for the dangers they can find there, and perhaps unleash on the rest of us if they are not careful. One should truly understand a thing and its consequences, as much as possible, before it is used.

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