Communion Of Dreams

Wrapping up.

This is the third and final part of a series. The first installment can be found here, the second here.


Last Sunday, I used a quote from Kay:

“Fifteen hundred years ago everybody knew the Earth was the center of the universe. Five hundred years ago, everybody knew the Earth was flat, and fifteen minutes ago, you knew that humans were alone on this planet. Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

I did so to make a point. But it was a little unfair of me to do so, because I cut out the first part of his whole statement:

Catch that? Here’s the first part of his reply: “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”

I laughed heartily when I first heard that. I still get a good chuckle when I re-watch it. It’s a good bit of writing, delivered perfectly by Tommy Lee Jones.

But I no longer think that it’s right.

No, I’m not talking about “The Wisdom of Crowds.” Not exactly, anyway. Surowiecki makes a good case for his notion that truth (or more accurately, optimization) can be an emergent quality of a large enough group of people. After all, this is the basis for democracy. But this can still lead to gross errors of judgment, in particular mass hysteria of one form or another.

Rather, what I’m talking about is that a *system* of knowledge is critical to avoiding the trap of thinking that you know more than you actually do. This can mean using the ‘wisdom of crowds’ intelligently, ranging from just making sure that you have a large enough group, which has good information on the topic, and that the wisdom is presented in a useable way — think modern polling, with good statistical models and rigorous attention to the elimination of bias.

Another application is brilliantly set forth in the Constitution of the United States, where the competing checks & balances between interest groups and governmental entities helps mitigate the worst aspects of human nature.

And more generally, the development of the scientific method as a tool to understand knowledge – as well as ignorance – has been a great boon for us. Through it we have been able to accomplish much, and to begin to avoid the dangers inherent in thinking that we know more than we actually do.

The elimination of bias, the development of the scientific method, the application of something like logic to philosophy — these are all very characteristic of the Enlightenment, and in as far as we deviate from these things, we slip back into the darkness a little.

Perhaps this will ring a bell:

“That which emerges from darkness gives definition to the light.”

* * * * * * *

I’ve said many times that Communion of Dreams was intended to ‘work’ on multiple levels. At the risk of sounding too much like a graduate writing instructor, or perhaps simply coming across that I think I’m smart, this is one good example of that: the whole book can be understood as an extended metaphor on the subject of a system of knowledge, of progress.

Human knowledge, that is.

[Mild spoiler alert.]

From the very end of Communion of Dreams, this exchange between the main protagonist and his daughter sums it up:

“What did you learn from seeing it?”

Her brow furrowed a moment. “You mean from just looking at the [Rosetta] stone? Nothing.”

“Then why is it important?”

“Because it gave us a clue to understanding Egyptian hieroglyphs.”

“Right. But that clue was only worthwhile to people who knew what the other languages said, right?”

She gave him a bit of a dirty look. “You didn’t know anything about the artifact, or healing, or any of those things before you touched it.”

“True,” he agreed. “But think how much more people will be able to understand, be able to do, when they have learned those things.”


Jim Downey

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