These Things That Pass for Knowledge I Don't Understand....

I just finished reading "Dragonrider" in my Science Fiction Hall of Fame collection. It's such a long story I somehow never got around to reading it before; and while I was reading it (off and on), I heard this interview on Fresh Air. It doesn't quite come through in the book excerpt or the article (although the references to pop culture in the book tell you we aren't in the groves of academia here), but in the interview the Director of the Laboratory of Perception and Action at Baylor College of Medicine sad some remarkably stupid things.

First, it turns out that, in a crisis, time really doesn't slow down like it does in the Matrix (his analogy, not mine). No kidding! Whodathunkit? Apparently when you are sent hurtling backwards in a 150 foot drop into a net, your perceive the fall as taking longer than it actually does, but you don't perceive events in slow motion. You can't actually (and the experiment proves it!) slow down events as they pass by. So time passes as it always does, and your perception of it is unchanged; but is changed, because you thought it was longer than it was. Except you thought that later, after it was over! Time, you see, is a matter of perception! And memory! Which will come as news to thousands of trial lawyers interrogating eye-witnesses to events!

And this also means that when I'm asleep and don't perceive the passage of time, it still passes, but I don't know it! And if I sleep a long time but very deeply, and still wake up tired because I don't feel like I slept at all! It's because time is just a perception for me, even though its still real! Somehow! And I didn't know this was true until these experiments!

Golly gee willikers! But you know, this guy is a scientist, so this stuff must be all truthy and stuff! But wait, there's more!

It seems the good doctor is interested in "reality," in what's "out there" and our perceptions of it! Wowee-zowee! Why, that sounds just like what Bishop Berkeley was up to! In the 18th century! But, you know, this is sciency! So it's more real! Or something....

Maybe he should just read this poem by John Hollander. I use it every semester to teach my students something about poetry, and epistemology, and Platonism, and empiricism, and perception, and memory. It might be more useful than throwing people off drops from 150 feet up.

What does this have to do with "Dragonrider"? Well, the crux of that story is that the past has been lost to the present. A lot of valuable information the present needs didn't make the crossing from the past, when it was known, despite the presence of records and ballads and all kinds of efforts and devices (even a tapestry!) for recording the information. Information is like that: it's just information unless it is interpreted and understood. And we tend to interpret and understand what we need to know for the present situation, and anything we don't think we need to know we discard as useless, archaic, uninteresting, or it just gets lost. That is what has happened to the people in the present in the story (and they finally recover the vital information through basically a magic trick of traveling into the past). I found myself comparing it to Asimov's classic story "Nightfall," where all knowledge is lost not because people are not perfectly rational and don't shift their interests over time, but because night eventually comes to a planet with two stars, and comes so rarely that the event provokes madness and chaos, and all knowledge of civilization is lost, to be rebuilt again from scratch when the suns return. It's a lovely piece of mythology, to imagine we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors and understand perfectly all that they knew, and add our store of knowledge, and so rise even higher on the steps of our, or rather their, dead selves.

But it's all bosh. "Dragonrider" gets that much exactly right. We know what we need to know for the present, and we discard whatever we don't need to know from the past, or we think we don't need to know it; and some of what we do hang on to, we hang onto out of tradition or some other fossilizing purpose, and lose the value of the knowledge altogether, until we find we need to reinvent the wheel all over again. I first learned this lesson in a bibliography class, where as a humble English major seeking a Master's Degree, I found out how important the preservation both of records, and of the knowledge in those records, is and can be. It's a lesson I've learned over and over again in the study and practice of law, and in the study and practice of theology.

Which, at least from Dr. Eagleman's description, is what neuroscience needs to do: learn from the past, because so far they seem to be only catching up with an Irish bishop from the 18th century. Any decent third year philosophy student could discuss the nature of reality and perception with Dr. Eagleman, not to mention the nature of time. He might be interested to know what Immanuel Kant had to say on the subject, too; or perhaps even Kurt Godel. It would certainly save him from re-inventing the wheel, and discovering that movies don't reflect reality.

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