Ruminating on Michael Polanyi's epistemic model as developed and conveyed by Dr. Esther Lightcap Meek in the book Longing to Know: The Philosophy of Knowledge for Ordinary People

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Bedevere, the Witch, and Premature Convergence

In Monty Python's cult classic film, In Search of the Holy Grail, the peasants on Bedevere's land excitedly bring him a "witch," seeking permission to burn her at the stake. The scene is a wonderfully funny example of several kinds of missteps in the process of knowing.

What with the ridiculously long cone strapped over her nose, and the funnel on her head, she does vaguely resemble the witch stereotype. Aside from those, she's actually a rather pretty young woman. It soon comes out that the peasants dressed her up in the nose and hat. The only piece of actual evidence they offer to support their accusation is that she has a wart on her face. One man also attempts to introduce his personal testimony that she turned him into a newt, but as that seems to be news to the others, it can't count toward their "knowledge" of her occult involvement.

The bottom line is, they wanted so badly to find and burn a witch, that they integrated a whole story from one clue--one pitifully flimsy clue, at that. Sensing that the wart alone would not likely convince Bedevere, they created two more false "clues." Having done similar kinds of things myself, I'd like to be generous and guess that they probably didn't consciously intend to deceive, but to reveal. Although they had insufficient reason for their belief, they really believed that she was a witch (or at least wanted to believe badly enough). They dressed her up in hopes that with the help of the extra "clues," Bedevere would see what they saw.

This demonstrates the role that desire plays in knowing. The more badly we wish to believe something, the more careful we must be to make certain that we are relying on real clues, and that the clues in view point sufficiently well toward the picture we think we are seeing. It's important to true knowledge to walk circumspectly. We've all known people like the UFOlogists who made the poster seen behind Fox Mulder's desk in the X-Files: an apparent photo of a flying saucer with the big, bold words, "I WANT TO BELIEVE." It's good to want to believe, as long as your desire doesn't overcome your reason, making you so careless in your treatment of seeming clues that you rush towards an illegitimate or premature integration. The characatured archtypical witch may have warts on her face, but not all women with warts on their faces are witches.

The word "premature" makes me recognize that I hadn't yet thought about LtK integrations with a view toward maturity. In what sense do integrations need to mature? In that they happen, not instantly in the abstract, but in the embodied minds of people living in time. We start with a vague sense that something might be, continue to growing sense of realization, then to the stage of seeing but as through a glass darkly, and, in many cases, on to a full Oh-I-see-it experience.

Sometimes that whole process takes only a fraction of a second. It had darn well better take that little time to judge changes in the surrounding traffic while driving. I suspect that those near instantaneous acts of knowing almost always follow a well-worn path. That is, they are of a kind that we are expertly practiced at. For example, people who have been married for years can often sense what their partner is about to say, or would have said if they hadn't been interrupted, or might have said had they been present. That's because of how many times we've seen/heard/felt clues that form a pattern greatly similar to the current one.

Other times, it takes--how shall I put this--uhhhhh, lllonger. Maybe minutes. Maybe hours, days, years. There's a whole range of reasons I can think of for the term of integral maturity, so to speak. Some patterns are so complex that we must gather many clues from many places before integration can commence, or at least before it can be completed satisfactorilly. Take the meaning of your life, for example; most people aren't likely to arrive at that one until just before they die, or perhaps not even until afterward. Some patterns are of such a design that we must learn to integrate to simpler ones before we are able to get the bigger picture. Put negatively, lack of experience can prevent integration even in the presence of all needful clues. Another cause is false assumptions, that prevent us from seeing what is right before our eyes.