Posted by: Alton | April 3, 2009

Of Foolishness and Wisdom

Translation is always a treason, and as a Ming author observes, can at its best be only the reverse side of a brocade,—all the threads are there, but not the subtlety of colour or design. But, after all, what great doctrine is there which is easy to expound? The ancient sages never put their teachings in systematic form. They spoke in paradoxes, for they were afraid of uttering half-truths. They began by talking like fools and ended by making their hearers wise. Laotse himself, with his quaint humour, says, "If people of inferior intelligence hear of the Tao, they laugh immensely. It would not be the Tao unless they laughed at it."

-The Book of Tea, III. Taoism and Zennism, by Kakuzo Okakura

Recently I’ve been reflecting on this recent blog post by Dr. Eades, regarding critical thinking and ‘Nutritional Intelligence’. Posts like his frustrate me, because they always seem ridden with this undercurrent of frustration at “Those who would not know”- blaming individuals for a perceived willful ignorance so pervasive that they’re considered ‘non-thinkers’.

I don’t really want to dig into the ideas underlying critical thinking, and how we absorb and apply information and experience- otherwise I’d be typing an outline for a college course, and you’d be reading for weeks. But I think there’s a subtle hypocrisy here that merits exploration.

All substantive thought and reasoning loses something in the simplification process- this blog post being no exception. The broader you generalize, the more you betray your own ideas by demonstrating an errant sense of the texture of a thought. Contextual awareness, and self-awareness combat this tendency to hyperbolize with a modesty of expression. Eades references this necessary self-awareness in his excerpt referencing it as a major element of a divide between “two Americas”. Yet as used in this context, it serves more as a self-righteous finger-wagging, and full of recriminations, than anything else.

It is easy to take for granted the steps taken to reach a level of awareness where we can contextualize and criticize information as it is presented to us. Yet for all the dexterity and robustness of thought on certain subjects, there are many others in which our ability to dissect ideas as we receive them is poorly limited- and we accept and tacitly take for granted things that with full knowledge, we ought not. In this case, similar to Geoffrey Rose’s doctrine of preventative medicine, the end result (right reasoning, and healthy living) seems to motivate a desire to shortcut the necessary and natural progression from a state of ignorance to a state of wisdom.

The frustration is natural, to be sure. In many ways, we –are- a culture of sheep. But the sheep are complacent because they have a large stake in the status quo- and given the addictive nature of certain stimuli and dietary elements, it seems perfectly reasonable people would be resistant to the type of cognitive dissonance it takes to make the leap from high-carb to low-carb. But the ignorance isn’t willful, or deliberate.

So how is it reasonable to resent people for their inability to jump to the right questions from the start?

We need to develop a sense of patience. There’s an imperative here to inform and to create wisdom where there is none, to be certain. But some perspective must be kept about our audience. They’re not a “Second America”, or a bunch of mindless sheep who don’t question things. Rather than bludgeon them with negativity and statements that they’re wrong about nutrition, we should show them what questions to ask. Join in their investigation and curiosity at –their- level. Don’t presume to know- start from a position of ignorance, and through excitement at discovering the truth and from an honest sense of wonder at the amazing way our bodies work, explore the answers together with them. But you can’t get people to drop their self-assurance unless you approach them in a way that doesn’t automatically put them on the defensive. Start at the very beginning, without any presumption of knowledge.

After all, if we all start as fools, the only way to wisdom is through the truth, and our natural curiosity will not steer us wrong.

-Alton

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