Friday, February 06, 2009

Informed in the Age of Information

Americans must pride themselves as being informed. As we have seen over the last eight years, information isn't as accurate as we might think. Most of those who still believe that Iraq has/have/or had weapons of mass destruction are watchers of Fox News. Already that should tell us something. Watching news? So just what does it mean to be informed in this Age of Information?

First, I will focus on what I think is the foundation for being informed in these times. Let's just look at the word itself. In-formed. What is happening inside of us relative to the talk radio or web sites or television sources we take in on a regular basis? Do we get angry? Sad? Do we rejoice when the other side has it's fanny end handed to it? Do we cringe in fear? These are all formations that are being built in us by this torrent of words. It is the foundation that is being built because there is no other claim on the property of my mind, which includes my emotions. And frankly, if that is happening, it isn't so I can live there. It's so someone else who has an end that may be contrary to mine can live there.

So what should that foundation be? How do we build it? Knowledge on it's own is no guarantee of a good life, or a virtuous one. Look at the well educated people who have not had such moral lives: Ted Haggard, a pastor. Former Representative Mark Foley of Florida. Even on a local level most communities I have lived in have an eccentric or alcoholic that as it turns out was one of the better educated minds in the community. Knowledge, the accumulation of information as facts that resides in memory files has no guarantee that a successful, meaningful live will be lived. The foundation needs to be something else, and the basis of the founding of this country seemed to point at part of what that foundation was to be. It's right there in the Preamble to the Constitution. "We, the people..."

What? "We" is actually a significant word here. It directly implies that "we" are a community, and all that being a community implies. It means that we are living in proximity, and that any disaster that befalls us, affects us all. That any bounty that affects us, affects us all. That if we are going to progress as people we need to do it together. Some of the shared visions of "we the people" are justice, general welfare, defense, all with the idea in mind that we can pass on to our following generations the blessings of liberty: which not only include monetary prosperity, but the sense of safety and protection that justice and welfare generate. And that means that we are inclined towards equanimity and love of our fellow man. And frankly, that seems lacking these days.

Equanimity means that we live capable of balance. In another viewpoint, it means to live beyond ignorance, anger, and hatred. That's the foundation we are after. Being able to live free from ignorance, hatred, and anger. And those three buttons, are indicators to us when we aren't living that way. Ignorance stands at the root of it all, and the common expressions we see these days are hatred and anger. When these expressions emerge in us, it is time to step back and ask what ignorance is driving this? Which is a very courageous step, because you need to be willing to accept that what you believe may not actually be true. However, by dispensing with these obstructions to moral life and beneficial knowledge, we can eventually begin to develop a love for our neighbor.

Sometimes it takes a disaster for us to get beyond our partisan beliefs, be they religious or political. Then we realize that we truly need each other. What is sometimes lacking in humans is the sense that they are just a part of an ecosystem, not the rulers of it. We all need each other, like cells that need each other. In essence, what the grass gets from the soil the cow gets from eating the grass which we get from eating the cow, or vegetable. Providing of course we eat grass fed cows. Much of what we consume is erroneously fed corn. Cows haven't evolved to eat corn. The point is that if the earth is poisoned, or stripped of nutrients, then the grass will be empty of those life giving nutrients, as will then be the cow, as will then be us. Despite being the food producers of the world that we are, America's health problems are legion. We have apparently missed something. We are needed by each other, and need to be in balance with the ecosystem in which we live. That sort of moral life is the foundation of being informed beneficially.

Then we can actually get to building on this foundation. The basic in-forming of a life has been laid, and in all actuality, it might happen alongside the intake of facts. We can in-form the mind with those facts that are necessary, and actually be able to discover many of those that are divisive and some that are flat wrong. The source is irrelevant. A radio pundit, or TV pundit that lies on his broadcast program won't hesitate to in a book. Yet pundits aren't experts. And maybe even experts are wrong. I am currently reading through the tome titled Everything You Know About God Is Wrong, edited by Russ Kirk. In the essay by James Haught about skepticism, I found a statement about His Holiness the Dalai Lama that was flat wrong. He claimed that when the Dalai lama dies, his being flies into a baby boy being born somewhere else. Anyone who's seen a documentary about how the Dalai lama is selected, or read anything about reincarnation from the Tibetan Buddhist viewpoint knows that Haught's encapsulation, meant to inspire skepticism, is incorrect. The lesson? Learn to read with an open and questioning mind. Mr. Haught also picked on many other religions in his essay, so how do I know that any of his statements are accurate? Mr. Haught is a news editor and author of five books. And still wrong. There are plenty of excellent sources available, and most of them aren't on the web. They are contained in books. And even so, one needs to remember not only the foundation, of how to stay unattached to information, but one needs to be able to ask questions of any material one reads. For example, I am also reading Micheal Pollan's book, The Omnivoire's Dilemma. It is an excellent book. Yet in the chapter discussing vegetarian issues, a comment is made that death is different fro an animal than a human because we humans imbue it with emotion. I ask the question, "Based on what source?" There is no footnote, no caveat. Just the flat statement that it is different. And that is based on the premise that man is rational, beasts are not. Yet again, based on what. Because Buddhism does not refer to humans as human beings entirely, that are classified as sentient beings. And so are beasts. Which makes them is some ways similar to us. For all we know these beasts do communicate with one another, and to say an animal can suffer, and yet not die like a human seems to me to be arrogant as well as ignorant. So I can reserve that iudea of mine. I admit, of all the book, one statement that I could conflict with. That to me makes for a good author and one I can trust.

Being free from attachment allows one to read conflicting views. I was challenged on this point by a radio head, because he is widely read, including conflicting viewpoints. And as much as I did it out of an ego motivation, I bought and read The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk. And it was informative on a fact level. I have also read Tom Paine's works, and I find that he makes statements that today would be questionable, but again, as in the case of Micheal Pollan, I find little to argue with except tfor minor points, which makes his a trustworthy author.

Let me finish with this. A two pronged approach to informing yourself. First, get outside and know the world that exists around you. Touch it. Know the plants and animals that live where you are. Know your neighbors. This is an expereintail knowledge, and is vital to information. Know the sky above your head. All this inormation is readily available for the self educator. Second, when you do read something, do so with a pen, dictionary, and high lighter at hand. Mark those margins! Ask questions, feel free to doubt, to question, to agree with. Because in this two pronged approach, you will find that you can enlarge your own vocabularly and hence your thoughts. You will also see where the street and Ivory Tower conflict. The resolution may be for you to work out and share with others(back to the foundation), or it may not exist. The end result will be that you are truly in-formed.