Saturday, June 24, 2017

"Where is the knowledge we have lost in information"

The 'Thinking Anew' column that appears in The Irish Times today.

 Michael Commane
Last Saturday was one of those special Irish summer days. Ireland was looking and smelling its best. And I know because I was out walking with a friend at the foothills of Maulin mountain which is in north Wicklow close to the border with Dublin.

At one stage on our walk we had a fabulous view out to sea. Boats exiting and entering Dublin port. All over the water were dots of white. 

The white dots were sailing boats. Maybe it was the altered perspective of looking down on those white dots out at sea that set me thinking about how fascinating knowledge is.

What is knowledge? Is it different from wisdom? The dictionary describes wisdom as the possession of experience and knowledge. I think it's fair to say that the wise person is often a knowledgeable person. Knowledge is a familiarity, an awareness or an understanding of someone or something.

In this newspaper last week in an obituary of Fr Jack Finucane, long associated with the international aid agency Concern Worldwide, the author wrote: “Among the metaphorical badges of honour pinned to Jack Finucane's breast by those who knew him and served with him, was the virtue of wisdom, said to be placed by King Solomon above wealth, health and all other things”.

Wisdom and knowledge are intrinsically linked. Jack Finucane was a wise man who was also a knowledgeable man in his sphere of action, helping the poorest of the poor.

Something I overheard almost 40 years ago has stayed with me. It surfaces when I hear the word knowledge. A Dominican was talking about finance and the banks and he casually said that the banks were all-powerful not because they had vast sums of money, rather they were powerful because they knew what people did with their money. 

There are many pithy sayings about knowledge, Shakespeare tells us there is no darkness but ignorance.

When we encounter genius, we are in awe. People who are brilliant and knowledgeable in their field of competency have an aura about them. The brilliant mathematician, the accomplished musician, the distinguished painter, the expert mechanic, the inspiring speaker, anyone who is exceptionally good at her or his work make us stand back and simply admire what they do.

But no matter how knowledgeable a person is, or no matter how much we know about anything, we are all limited in our knowledge. No one has all knowledge.

We are continuously making new discoveries. Indeed, right now in so many different areas, especially in science and technology, development is taking place at breath-taking speed. 

At the press of a button we have instant information. It may not always be accurate, nevertheless we now have tools of communication at our disposal that were unknown of 20 years ago. Information is coming at us at great speed from every possible angle. It is close to impossible to filter and process it all.

Is there a right type of knowledge? Certainly, we hear and learn bad and nasty news daily. That too, alas, is knowledge. The poet TS Eliot asks us to reflect: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge. Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

In tomorrow’s Gospel (Matthew 10: 26 -33) Jesus tells his disciples not to be afraid. “For everything that is now covered will be uncovered, and everything now hidden will be made clear.” He tells his disciples what they hear in whispers they should proclaim from the housetops.

With all our knowledge, we are simply muddling about. 

As Christians, as believers in God, we say that all knowledge, all goodness is to be found in God. Our knowledge, our goodness surely are just glimpses of the knowledge and goodness of God. 

And maybe our floundering about with ideas and concepts, challenging what we once thought unchallengeable, will lead us to realise that all our understanding and knowledge points us towards God, in whom all knowledge is to be found.

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