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.

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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.”

“Oh.”

Jim Downey



Nine words.

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

* * * * * * *

I have a secret I’d like to share. It’s something that almost everyone thinks they know. But it is something which we all think doesn’t apply to us.

The secret? Just nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

* * * * * * *

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you; it’s what you think you know that ain’t so.” -Will Rogers

* * * * * * *

I don’t care who you are. We’re all prone to making this mistake. To ignoring this thing we know – which has been common wisdom for millenia, and across almost all human cultures as far as I can tell.

Why do we do this?

* * * * * * *

Nan-in, a Japanese master during the Meiji era (1868-1912), received a university professor who came to inquire about Zen.

Nan-in served tea. He poured his visitor’s cup full, and then kept on pouring.

The professor watched the overflow until he no longer could restrain himself. “It is overfull. No more will go in!”

“Like this cup,” Nan-in said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?” *

* * * * * * *

I think that we do it because we have to. Trusting our knowledge, our experience, is the only thing that allows us to make sense of the world.

It starts with the most basic things. Breath. Life. Light.

Then it grows upon those, builds with knowledge accumulated and shared.

* * * * * * *

“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.” Kay

* * * * * * *

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

It’s the central mystery at the heart of Communion of Dreams.

What does it mean?

* * * * * * *

From Communion of Dreams, Chapter 16:

Jon shook his head. “I still don’t see where it really makes that much difference to us.”

“Perhaps not to us. We’re inside the bubble. But to the crew of the Hawking, it made a very big difference. They got on the other side of the bubble.”

There was a moment, a heartbeat, as the implications of this sank in. And then the universe changed. “Sweet Jesus . . . ”

* * * * * * *

“When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.” – Mark Twain.

Actually, it’s just attributed to Twain, thanks to a Reader’s Digest entry from 1939. It sounds like the sort of thing he would have said, but Twain scholars haven’t been able to document it as actually having been his.

Nine words: You’re not as smart as you think you are.

Neither am I. None of us are.

More later.

Jim Downey