We can’t know what we don’t know however we can know that we don’t know or as Socrates taught us the recognition of our ignorance is the beginning of wisdom.
The society and civilization in which any human lives and operates is like water to a fish. Something they move around in, something they need to survive, it is also something they don’t even notice. If we wish to understand the world in which we live we need to realize that the civilization which serves as our support and framework is based upon vast amounts of knowledge those who fill its ranks give no thought to whatsoever.
It is also necessary to understand that civilization isn’t something consciously created by man. Civilizations build up over time by humans interacting with and attempting to modify their surroundings. As such our civilizations are more accretions than structures.
What our civilization is today is no more the conscious product of some master plan than the course of a river. Life flows into the channels of least resistance and is moved by forces that act upon it. We can no more predict what our civilization will look like in a few generations than one of our 17th century ancestors could have described the lives we live today.
What will be invented tomorrow that will change the future in ways we could never imagine? Thirty years ago in 1983 who would have thought we would all walk around with minicomputers we call cell phones? Or that there would be hundreds of television stations? Or a worldwide internet that can cross-pollenate thought at the speed of light? What may be around the next corner is anyone’s guess. One thing is for sure, thirty years from now we will live in ways we never imagined today.
This is the foundational problem that undergirds and eliminates the possibility of success from any of the utopian central-planning schemes that litter History and of the ones we are trying today. The planners cannot take the place of masses of people living, innovating and creating. No one person or group can substitute their decisions for the independent decisions of everyone else without short circuiting the system and causing civilization to stall out. No one is as smart as everyone.
If two minds are better than one how much better are 100,000 or 1 million or billions? Over and over those who think they and they alone are intelligent, far seeing or inspired enough to shape the future have grabbed the reins of power and tried to impose their vision on the world around them. Sooner or later reality comes along and teaches them that it just won’t work. We have people trying to guide trillion dollar economies who know nothing of economics, and people trying to guide History who know nothing of History. We are surrounded by political savants who know how to get elected and not much else. Some even have the hubris to list running a campaign as a life skill that qualifies them to run the lives of everyone around them.
What is even more bizarre than this is that people believe them and vote them into office based on such sketchy experience and vague promises as hope and change. Then when the Rube Goldberg plans they devise fall apart and everyone is worse off than before the savants say, “You just didn’t give us enough power to accomplish the task. What we need now is more of the same.” Time after time civilizations have fallen for this siren song of perfection. And time after time civilizations have fallen because they did.
Why does this destructive desire to trade freedom for the promise of utopia always fail? Because it’s based on the erroneous idea that humanity created civilization and therefore it is possible to alter its institutions, operations, and mechanisms whenever and however we please.
This assertion would be valid only if we had created civilization deliberately with full knowledge of what we were doing while we were doing it. In a way it is true that humanity has made its civilization in that it was not brought here by some aliens who placed us in it like animals in the artificial habitat of a zoo. Civilization is the product of the combined actions of hundreds of generations living their lives, making choices, succeeding and failing, rising and falling. This however, does not mean civilization is the conscious product of human design or that any one individual or group can completely comprehend all of its functions or what is required for its continued existence.
The very idea that humanity sprang from the earth with a mind able to conceive civilization and then proceeded to systematically create it does not fit the anthropological or historical record. Our minds themselves are the product of the constant adjustments we make as we attempt to adapt to our surroundings.
Is it nature or nurture is an age old debate.
The reality is that it is both. Our minds are what they are, unbelievably intricate bio-computers able to think in symbolic terms and extrapolate beyond what is known to what is imagined. They are the wonder upon which civilization is built; however they did not design and then initiate civilization. If they were, all we would have to do to reach a higher plane of civilization is imagine it and then make it happen. The fact that civilization has advanced by fits and starts shows that some things work and some things don’t. It is the constant adjustment that moves us forward.
Believing the lie that man is the measure of all things is the trap the utopians fall into: that man in and of himself has the capacity to control History. It seems so enticing and yet it never works because that isn’t how civilizations grow. They grow by the friction between our present conditions and our dreams. They grow by the incessant revision of what is into what we want it to be. Our current experience shapes our course deviations in so many ways that cannot be foretold leading in a zigzag fashion from the present to the future.
The weathermen who have a hard time accurately predicting what the weather will be like five days from now seem ever ready to tell us what it will be like five hundred years from now. The economic forecasters who are surprised every month by what the economy did last month have no problem making absolute statements about how actions today will guide our multifaceted economy for years in the future.
Man knows not his time and we cannot know the future. In other words we can’t know what we don’t know. About the best we can do is know that we don’t know.
Dr. Owens teaches History, Political Science, and Religion. He is the Historian of the Future @ http://drrobertowens.com © 2013 Robert R. Owens [email protected] Follow Dr. Robert Owens on Facebook or Twitter @ Drrobertowens / Edited by Dr. Rosalie Owens