Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Ivory Cubicle | Information Overload (Part 2)

As some of you may know, I have declared war upon Smartphones (like in part 1). I have called them “blasted little devices of infernal technology,” accused them of “fusing our brains to the interwebz” and “ensuring that nobody will ever again complete a family meal without developing the glazed-over, absent-minded state of one who has checked out of legitimate social interaction.”

Shortly thereafter, my sister sent me an article entitled “In 20 Years, We’re All Going To Realize This Apple Ad Is Nuts,” which made more or less the same point (the ad is in the video below). I rest my case.

This week, we’re climbing to the top of the Ivory Tower in a post which Jeremiah has described as “quite philosophical” and “a bit difficult to get through.” Whoops. Sorry. I’ll give you a cookie if you get to the end.

Theory and Practice

Last week, we talked about the ability to know stuff. We determined that information exists as raw tidbits of fact and data which bombard us on a daily, hourly, even minute-by-minute basis. Knowledge, on the other hand, involved the ability to craft that information into a unified understanding of a topic and begin making value judgments. Knowledge is theoretical, it involved composing a cohesive theory of reality and using it to discern how one ought to act.

But there’s a third level above both information and knowledge. Classical philosophy has long talked about a point of knowledge in which theory and practice intersect. This point of intersection is called praxis, and requires both a knowledge of what goodness, truth, and beauty is, an ability to see how it affects one's life, and an act of will putting it into practice.

Plato was the first philosopher to stress the importance of this praxis. See, Plato thought that the human soul was composed of three parts: reason, spirit, and appetite. Reason is the logical part of the human soul, the part that seeks goodness and truth. The spirit is the tempermental part of the human soul and is the source of courage, zeal, and passion. The appetite is the pleasure-driven part of the soul, and it seeks food, drink, sex, and other things.

Justice in the soul, according to Plato, consists in properly ordering the three parts of the human soul, so that reason governs the spirit and the appetite. The spirit ought to be aligned with reason and the carnal appetites held in check by both. The trick, though, is making sure that the rational part of the human soul is aligned with truth, goodness, and beauty. In short, you need the intersection of knowledge and practice.

There's another intersection I think we're at in our culture, and it's the intersection of information and practice. Let's call it dyspraxia, an old term Aristotle used to refer to bad praxis. If praxis involves taking good knowledge of something and applying it practically to life, then dyspraxia involves taking a bad knowledge, or lack of knowledge, of something, and applying it to life.

There’s a couple of ways that dyspraxia can occur. The first is, of course, being wrong. The second is an inability to come down anywhere at all, and I think this is where the information age comes to be problematic.

The world is competing for our minds with a deluge of competing philosophies, with short, snippy blogs on atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism, and whatever-the-heck-ism, recent scientific studies on who knows what, and all-present, ever-cynical news coverage sensationalizing tragedy after tragedy. The philosopher today can rattle off a series of philosophical ideas, outlining the Buddhist, Muslim, Christian, Hindu, secular humanist, and existentialist approach to any given topic, but is incapable of coming down anywhere for himself. Why? Because Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity are worth no more than stats on a baseball card, to rattle of in sequential manner. Because we don't have any notion of objective truth to judge between them. So they fail to become a part of our reason, and a soul without governing reason is simply the appetites given full reign. Or, even worse, perhaps we decide to believe one of those systems because we want to believe them, instead of because they're actually true. Maybe the secular humanist answer to anything gives us an easy justification for indulging our appetites in sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Of course, this is presuming that people actually construct a unified worldview. Chances are they don't. Chances are that they instead scan the internet, see a random study that says “scientists discover gay gene” and conclude, unthoughtfully, “well, that settles it, then, homosexuality is legit.” Or perhaps they discover an article saying that atheists have found a “god-box” which simulates religious experience, and say, “well, that settles it, must be that God doesn't exist after all.” And then they go look up cat videos on YouTube, so as to avoid the nagging feeling that perhaps there is a deeper meaning to existence.

Aighty. Questions. Comments. Concerns. Etc. Also, check your browser’s cache for the promised cookie.

Posted by Nick Barden


  1. I agree 110%. Way too many people nowadays define their lives by the latest cute cat videos. I see it all the time on Facebook...someone posts a thoughtful opinion on some controversial topic, and every time there's that joker who comments "can't we just post cute cat videos and all get along?" And it is instantly the most popular comment.

    As tempting as that sounds, I refuse to believe that human existence is that shallow and meaningless. It seems to me that the real crisis lies in the fact that people have largely given up on the possibility that their life has a meaning and purpose at all. They do not pursue knowledge or truth because in the end, they don't believe life has any purpose beyond their own hollow amusement.