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So what do you know?

18 January 2013

A narrow view of knowledge restricts perceptions about God and about much else, too, argues John Inge

Knowledge is becoming ever more specialised. Gone are the days when scholars could know pretty much everything there was to be known. The problem with this development is that we are in danger of being straitjacketed in our understanding of what knowledge actually is.

This is one of the important insights of a highly significant book, The Master and his Emissary: The divided brain and the making of the Western world (Yale, second edition 2012). It is not a churchy book, and the word "theology" does not feature in it, but it has profound implications for both the Church and theology.

Its author, Iain McGilchrist, is a latter-day Renaissance man, whose expertise spans both the arts and science. He started his career as a literary scholar, and was three times elected a Fellow of All Souls College, Oxford. He then trained as a medical doctor, and practised for many years as a consultant psychiatrist at the Royal Maudsley Hospital in London, where he was also involved with neuroscientific research.

Dr MCGilchrist points out that we use the word "know" in at least two importantly different senses. In one sense, knowledge is essentially an encounter with something or someone:

We say we know someone in the sense that we have experience of him or her, so that we have a "feel" for who he or she is, as an individual distinct from others. This kind of knowledge permits a sense of uniqueness of the other. It is also uniquely "my" knowledge. If another person were to ask "what is she like?" you might begin to try to describe her in a few words ("quick tempered", lively", modified by phrases such as "quite", "a bit", "very" and so on), but you would soon be frustrated by the feeling that these general terms didn't really help get it across. . . If the questioning continued, you'd have to say: "Look, you'll just have to meet her."

Dr McGilchrist then reminds us that there is another kind of knowledge, which comes from putting things together from bits. This is knowledge of what we call facts:

This is not usually well applied to knowing people. We could have a go: for example "born on 16 September 1964," "lives in New York," "5ft 4in. tall," "red hair," "freckles," and so on. Immediately you get the sense of some body - somebody you don't actually know. Either it's a read-out from a police database, or it's one of those cheesy magazine profiles of celebrities ("Latest book read" etc.). What's more, it sounds as though you're describing an inanimate object.

As Dr McGilchrist goes on to say, these two sorts of knowledge are referred to by different words in many languages: in Latin "cognoscere" and "sapire"; in French "connaître" and "savoir"; in German "kennen" and "wissen". The former kind of knowing enables us to understand rather than simply to amass information - not just about people, but about all sorts of things in the world.

He quotes the neuroscientist Patricia Churchland, who writes that "it is reasonable to identify the blueness of an object with its disposition to scatter . . . electromagnetic waves preferentially at 0.46µm", and observes that most of us would think that this definition, although true, leaves rather a lot out. What about the truths we discover about blue when we see a Chagall window, or a magnificent sky?

We need both sorts of knowledge. The problem is that, almost without its being noticed, the second kind is being increasingly privileged in our society, almost to the exclusion of the first. This is partly because it is the only sort of knowledge that science allows.

I should add that I speak as a former scientist, and I am very grateful for all that science has done for us. But the hegemony of this sort of knowledge is putting us in a straitjacket.

As Dr McGilchrist puts it: "If we assume a purely mechanical universe and take the machine as our model, we will uncover the view that - surprise, surprise - the body, and the brain with it, is a machine. To a man with a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail."

This is what happens if we confine our attention to the second kind of knowledge, which sees reality in reductionist mechanical terms and nothing more.

ThIS is what is going on in the work of people such as Richard Dawkins, and it is death-dealing. Think, among many possible examples, of music: it can be reduced to its component notes, and analysed rationally with almost mathematical precision, but we know instinctively that music is much more, and that, in the end, it calls not for description, but for surrender.

Most crucially, if we are in thrall to this one kind of knowledge, we will not perceive the presence and reality of God. If reality is viewed in mechanical, reductionist terms, then it will be literally insignificant: it will not point beyond itself, it will be "pointless", and it will therefore disappoint.

To those who see reality simply as thing, as matter, as self-enclosed, as the sum of its components, then the great question "What is life?" becomes unanswerable, except in the most depressing terms.

Only a richer understanding of knowledge will enable us to perceive the truth that the creation is dripping with the presence of the living God. We might then be able to echo the experience of the poet and visionary William Blake, who was once asked whether, when he saw the sun setting, he did not see a ball of fire about the size of a golden guinea. "Oh, no," he replied, "I see a multitude of the heavenly host crying 'Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God almighty.'"

Confining knowledge to "facts" will make us as blind as Pilate, when he asked that most poignant of all questions: "What is truth?", not realising that he was staring truth in the face.

Dr John Inge is the Bishop of Worcester.


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