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Mind The Gap

by on April 17, 2016

                                                                   Mind The Gap

                                                                by Marco M. Pardi

“If a little knowledge is dangerous, where is the man who has so much as to be out of danger?” T. H. Huxley, “On Elementary Instruction in Physiology.” 1877

All comments welcome.

When I was growing up the term “know-it-all” was a pejorative.  Of course, God, being omniscient was a know it all, but that didn’t count. Nonetheless, I wondered what is so wrong with knowing it all, and is it possible. What do people do when they don’t know, what’s their “fall back”?

I recently caught a few minutes of Morgan Freeman’s excellent series, Through the Wormhole. This episode addressed these questions.  The essence of what I gleaned from the episode was that we have islands of what we know separated by oceans of what we don’t.  Hence, the phrase “connect the dots”.  But on what does that connection depend, and is it merely a leap of faith?  Many people are inclined to take that leap, often in subconscious ways.

I used a simple device to illustrate this in my classes.  On the whiteboard I drew a series of large, curved lines.  The end of each line terminated somewhere near the beginning, but not touching it.  When asked what I was doing, the majority of answering students said, “Drawing circles.” I then denied drawing circles, saying I was drawing only curved lines and pointing to the gap in the line. Some may find that picky, even obsessive; but a circle is a circle, and it is so only when there is no gap in the line.

The point of the little exercise was not to embarrass anyone, but to show how commonly we leap the chasm in our everyday lives leaving us vulnerable to the next time someone challenges with, How did you get there from here?  I dreaded that question in early math classes; I could intuit the answer but not write out the formula.

But without concrete and verifiable data do we just stand on the island we know and not stretch over the horizon?   

My initial questions were not new.  Plato addressed them and concluded the universe is governed by mathematical laws which are outside the universe itself, thus making access to the laws themselves impossible and leaving us only to infer their existence from their effects.  That’s pretty unsettling to a mind which desires concrete, knowable “reality”.  But, that is the state of much quantum mechanics today.  Like what is said about Enlightenment, the common saying here is, “Those who say they understand quantum mechanics do not understand quantum mechanics.”  Einstein summed it up by coining the phrase, “Spooky action at a distance.”

The idea that the principles of ultimate reality are outside the arena we think of as reality is similar to an idea I have proposed elsewhere.  That is: If one is so inclined, one can analyze and  discover the ultimate meaning of one’s life ONLY when one is certainly and irrefutably at the very end of one’s life. In practice, only when there is certainty that all data (life experience) has been gathered into our journal and no more input is possible can we examine the story and decipher its meaning.  Unfortunately, too many people can’t, or won’t do that.

But what about the meantime?  Most of the greatest advances in my knowledge have come from realizing what I don’t know, how small my islands are, how vast the ocean is.  All too commonly people say, science knows, or science will one day find out. Without actually looking to see if science has found out, if it really is known, this is an act of belief: Faith in science – scientism.  I just can’t go there.

Anthropology, properly taught, touches on every aspect of what it is to be human: Astronomy through zoology.  When I began college teaching that reality really came home to me; students were asking questions related to other subjects they were taking. While it may at first seem flattering to be the Final Answer, I was fortunate to have an extraordinarily liberating moment as I, for the first time, said, “I don’t know.” And in that moment I realized why I disliked the term “teacher” when applied to college faculty.  The term is acceptable for K-12, but presumptuous and condescending at the college level.  I prefer the term Facilitator.  Those of you who have helped a child learn to ride a bicycle know you cannot teach a child to ride.  You can encourage, you can remove the training wheels, you can facilitate the experience by providing a safe venue and safety gear as needed.  But the discovery of successful mind/body interaction is the child’s own experience.  In the same way, the college student should be encouraged, the training wheels removed, and flexibility for alternative learning styles – within understood and agreed parameters, applied when necessary.  Admittedly, this works better in some fields than others.  Nonetheless, facilitating how to learn is better than teaching what to learn.

And so we again stand at the edge of the gap, the edge of the great void of the unknown in which our knowns, our facts, taunt us like rocks across a stream, daring us to make the leap.

I first saw Mind The Gap in the London underground.  The use of mind as a verb reminded (pun intended) me of my English grandmother’s habitual opening words of any advice she gave: “Mind you……….”.  I secretly imagined her advising someone before drinking, “Liver you….”, before someone sitting down to cabbage and beans, “Colon you….”.  But I soon realized she was speaking not to a physical entity like the brain or the liver, but to the intangible, ultimately unknowable entity we refer to as someone’s mind.  She was, in effect, addressing the matrix of the mind and the gap.

Again, it is certainly not new but more attention has come recently to the proposition that the universe is an ultimately comprehensive consciousness – a “hive mind”.  This has nothing at all to do with the simplistic folly of a personalized god.  Rather, it seems in many ways the logical outcome of learning how macro-reality and micro-reality are simply manifestations of our choice of which end of the looking glass to peer into.  Space/Time is unmasked as the relative perceptions arising therefrom. We are in our context; we are the context for our context.  If we view the Gap as a simple void, as space was so considered until recently, we completely miss the overwhelming body of in which we exist, we miss the fabric of our context.

For millenia the traditions of Buddhism have used Koans and other devices, mistakenly called teaching tools.  They are not. They are devices to help us to realize our training wheels are off,  to realize we are living in the gap.  Unlike any teaching system, I know of no truly Buddhist system which presumes to give Final Exams, measures of how close to or how far away we are from Enlightenment.

For those interested in these thoughts I’ve included a link to an interesting talk.  For me, it’s time to Mind The Gap.  It’s always time to Mind The Gap.

Donald Hoffman: Do we see reality as it is? | TED Talk | TED.com

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20 Comments
  1. Gregg permalink

    With few exceptions, including the innovation-driven subculture in Silicon Valley which still manages to come off as obnoxious, “know-it-all” is still unfortunately going strong as a pejorative. I appreciate your comment about the distinction between “teaching” and “facilitating”. Is there evidence that this can be started far earlier in a public school curriculum?

    • Thanks, Gregg. The Montessori schools and Steiner’s schools have attempted this, but Montessori in particular has been a little too unguided for my tastes.

      • Marco, I nearly put Matthew in a Montessori school at five years old. He might have done all right since he had been reading for a year, but like you, I decided it was too unguided.

  2. “That is: If one is so inclined, one can analyze and discover the ultimate meaning of one’s life ONLY when one is certainly and irrefutably at the very end of one’s life. In practice, only when there is certainty that all data (life experience) has been gathered into our journal and no more input is possible can we examine the story and decipher its meaning. ”

    This idea is fascinating to me, Marco, but I can’t comprehend what it encompasses. Does this mean, if I am on my death bed, I will understand what my life (with a physical body) was really about? Does my life have a purpose? I have always ventured I must create various purposes as they suit the situation.

    • Thanks, Dana. I think you are addressing the difference between Goal and Objectives, the Goal being ultimate and the Objectives being the incremental steps toward the Goal. You have certainly lived the meaning of flexibility, and that is a very strong point with you that I admire greatly. As you know from military jargon, the Battle Plan is the first casualty of war.

      • I laughed out loud at this: …… “I secretly imagined her advising someone before drinking, “Liver you….”, before someone sitting down to cabbage and beans, “Colon you….”.

        I really enjoy hearing about Little Marco, even though he is the same as Big Marco. We would have been the best of friends as children. I wonder who would have charmed the other first?

  3. Dana. Your comment on Montessori again displays your amazing analytic ability. Matthew was very fortunate in having your guidance.

    • Thanks, Dana. Who knows what the world would be like today had we teamed up as kids?

    • Marco, that means a lot coming from you.

      We are together now, and for that I am grateful.

  4. Ahem; cough cough. If I could just take a moment to add my own comment: this has been an interesting and well written offering. I have had to convince my highly intelligent granddaughter that no one (including the father she adores) knows everything; it simply isn’t possible. Those of us who meet on these pages tend to be of the educated and intelligent variety, and yet I will wager that there are a great many gaps in our vast collective pool of knowledge. If we knew it all, what would there be left to learn from one another? I, for one, am happy to look across the gap at what you have to offer.

    Thank you for facilitating the building of so many of my small islands of knowledge, and for helping me to be brave enough to leap from one to another. I’m glad we’ve all met, even if only in a virtual sense. Yes, being parts of the same whole is what matters, and for that I am also grateful. Rose

    • Thank you, Rose. I’ve learned much from you, and often wonder how much I’ve learned from you and others that I’m not aware of on a conscious level. Even though our discussion group is relatively small compared to the group which reads these pages, I think there are reverberations throughout that we will probably never fully account for.

      • It’s that universal intelligence, those bits and pieces of knowledge that we all possess without remembering how we came to learn them, that fill in the gaps between the “this is what I learned today” sorts of knowing that we consciously add to our lives.

  5. It is clear you have given a lot of thought to what teaching is and have a philosophy you go by. I wonder how many teachers do. I’ve never had a teacher like you. By the end of your class I really questioned what was up, what was down, did I know the color of the sky. You taught students living in rural Florida, who all pretty much had similar upbringings and beliefs. No one had ever challenged those beliefs or brought ideas none of us knew existed. We weren’t made to memorize and recite back information fed to us, we were made to question and really look at information in new ways. All other classes I was given information that was to be committed to memory for the purpose of returning the information on paper in return for a grade, then could be completely forgotten after that point. I have known many teachers who love what they do. But I wonder how many have given real thought to what it is they do? Is it really teaching?

  6. Thank you, Mary. My interactions with you, and others like you in some ways, provided the font of life I so much craved. Perhaps some day I’ll begin to fully grasp the contributions you made to my life, but I do know I treasure and honor you for them.

    I really do regret having to leave the classroom. But I have learned all life is a classroom and am so glad we continue to interact.

  7. Ray Rivers permalink

    Very interesting discussion – mind expanding, gap shrinking, and so on… Too seldom do we pause to reflect on what we are and what else is out there – does the gap mind us in any configuration or abstraction of that term, gap. Thanks for the read – good to stimulate the grey matter the way this blog has done. It’s like taking a 30 km bike ride or a double shot of single malt while listening to the Velvet Underground.

    • Thank you, Ray. Even your comments have expanded my mind and shrunk my gap. I don’t drink at all so don’t know about single malt – except in a milkshake, I think I’ve heard of the Velvet Underground, and have never done 30 kms on a bike. But I think the gap welcomes all explorers and you are certainly one.

  8. Jessica Smith permalink

    Everything in this existence is a mental construct. Everything is labeled, categorized and put into nice little packages just like humanity. And this creates a gap. The gap of separation between you and me and us. There are also those gaps within me as well. Gaps in the understanding of me, how I operate, and conduct myself within this existence with others. This gap of separation makes us insecure and fearful. When I separate myself from mankind in ANY form it feels violent, and puts me in a hierarchical position, which is a cheap way to feel better about myself. We don’t get to “know” everything as the mind and ego would like us to believe. The mind, ego and society trick us into believing we have the ability to “know” everything. The more I accomplish, albeit degrees, credentials, and a huge net worth shows outwardly how smart I am. Wink wink. We use the outward accomplishment and accumulation to fill up a gap within. All of this makes the gap bigger.

    I could go on and on…but I won’t, here. Hmmmmm, maybe I need to start a blog and blog away there?

    The unfoldment of life and all of it’s offerings are always present, including knowledge. I like to say I live this life on the event horizon. It helps close the gaps.

    • Thank you, Jessica. I completely agree that we arbitrarily create gaps with our presumed knowledge. Your writing brings to mind the phrase, “Know thyself”, and your application of this phrase should lead us to the understanding that the “self” is yet another arbitrary distinction which grows the gap.

      I’m pretty sure all of us readers would greatly enjoy and benefit from a blog of yours. In the meantime, I look forward to your comments.

  9. In my mind I mind my mind minding my mind for minding my minding of mine. Mind you.

    So what brought me here was seeing you on Jamie’s video, once again. In reading this posting I see were you use some information of yours in the show. Always interesting and entertaining.

    The micro macro makes macro micro macro … or living large.

    These are the leaps of faith I take.

    • Thank you, PM. Your comments remind me of a party I attended at the Physics department of an Ivy League university. A leading physicist said, “If we acted on what we are experiencing in our work we would all be out in the streets in ocher robes, dancing, banging tambourines, and chanting,Hari Krishna, Hari Rama.”

      I’m so glad we seem to share the wonder. Marco

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