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Omnipresence of non-comprehension and ignorance

Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #2)

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Knowledge-based society? There is a curious ambiguity to the sense in which a global knowledge-based society undermines any possibility of incomprehension, whilst at the same time making evident the degree of incomprehension worldwide -- significantly due, in part, to the explosion of information, necessarily only partially comprehended. Obvious concerns of course remain regarding levels of illiteracy and innumeracy, as well as those relating to competence in languages enabling global communication.

Associated with the explosion of knowledge comes a degree of incomprehension, even on the part of the well-informed, regarding the implications, problematic consequences, and interference effects between the facets of emerging knowledge.

There is a case for recognizing the extent to which global society should be considered "knowledge-based" or "ignorance-based" (Garrison Sposito, Does a generalized Heisenberg Principle operate in the social sciences ? Inquiry, 1969).

Comprehension "meteorology": Arguably new metaphors are required to frame the interplay of degrees of knowledge and ignorance worldwide. The global weather maps with which many are familiar suggest the possibility of borrowing common processes from nature to enable a more insightful overview. A number of such phenomena have already been borrowed in this way, most notably "fog", as used in a "fog of incomprehension". Widespread use of the "vision" metaphor to articulate individual and collective strategies for the future, suggests that not only is this impeded by "fog" but that associated phenomena can be called into play to refine understanding. Thus "cloud" may well be used as an indication of a constraint on the clarity of vision, especially when heavily "overcast", ensuring a degree of "darkness". Use has long been made of "darkness" as a descriptor of ignorance. Parts of the world are even held to be in a condition of permanent darkness, rather as is the case in the higher latitudes for periods of the year.

Within such a metaphor, it is easy to recognize that incomprehension may be variously present to different degrees for everyone. The "news" then offers a daily facility to clear the clouds of incomprehension -- or at least some of them and for those who have access to such facilities. Use of the metaphor in this way calls for recognition of bias in the accessible media and how this distorts the "news", potentially increasing incomprehension -- in the eyes of some. (Richard J. Brennan, Fox News leaves viewers ignorant,, 22 November 2011; Fox News Continues to Lead Way to America's International Ignorance, Veterans Today, 7 March 2011).

Variable "weather" for all: Associating incomprehension with "bad weather" needs also to be challenged as simplistic, given the manner in which "clouds" may signal and ensure "rain" vital to growth. Similarly the "cloud free skies" of unconstrained "vision" may be associated with emergence of problematic "aridity". The interplay of comprehension and incomprehension therefore calls for greater appreciation of their complexity and the roles they may play.

Understood in this light, both incomprehension and comprehension are variously present for all. Who then can claim not to suffer from a degree of incomprehension, whatever the degree of comprehension they believe they enjoy? Exploiting the weather metaphor, are there idyllic tropical islands where the "weather" is always "sunny"? To what extent does that image ignore the extent to which such islands may suffer periodically from "hurricanes" -- as with that of the recent global financial crisis? Does the metaphor suggest that "zones of confusion" shift around the global system -- possibly propelled by the so-called "winds of change"?

How then to distinguish a zone of incomprehension from a zone of comprehension? More challenging is the sense in which the comprehension favoured by some exemplifies a condition of ignorance and incomprehension for others. Atheist scientists may well be understood as living under a "cloud of darkness" by the religious -- and vice versa. Even more problematic is the sense in which comprehension may simply signal potential incomprehension, as yet to become evident.

Mapping incomprehension: The relativity of the situation is succinctly illustrated by a map of incomprehension in the light of a generic development of the metaphors used in different languages to indicate incomprehension -- as with the use in English of the phrase "it's Greek to me" (Frank Jacobs, Greek To Me: mapping mutual incomprehension, 2009). The approach suggests the possibility of such a mapping for a range of other "languages" and jargons, such as those of the various disciplines. Thus a practitioner of a natural science discipline could readily make use of the phrase "it's theology to me". The point was clearly made by C. P. Snow (The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, 1959):

Literary intellectuals at one pole -- at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension -- sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding. (pp. 3-4)

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