Saturday, August 28, 2010

All that is sacred.

(adj) sacred (worthy of respect or dedication) "saw motherhood as woman's sacred calling" [WordNet]
Leaving aside the implicit misogyny of the example given, the citation from WordNet for the word "sacred" demonstrates something very important: we can divorce what it means to be sacred from any sort of religious sentiment. Indeed, if we are to leave irrationality behind us, I assert that we must do so. Thus, I'd like to talk a bit about what is sacred to me. That is, what I find to be inherently worthy of respect or dedication.

In that spirit, then, knowledge is sacred to me in ways that nothing else is. Were I to be asked to identify the most quintessentially defining aspect of all that is good about humanity, I would likely respond that our ability to accumulate and record knowledge is what allows us to transcend not only the ignorance into which we are all born, but also the limits of our physical brains. All other human achievements are enabled by our accrual of knowledge in ways that outlast any individual human. At once, the acquisition of knowledge is a highly individual and highly collective pursuit, epitomizing what it means to achieve something of permanence. Towers crumble, words remain.

It is difficult for me to adequately justify my valuation of knowledge as uniquely sacred, as it is fundamental to the person that I've become. As someone that values rationality, however, I must work to increasingly do just that. If this valuation cannot be supported on its own merits, then it is no better than faith and other such anti-virtues. That said, I am in the awkward position that every rational person eventually finds themselves in of not knowing all the answers. Like everything else in my life, this valuation must be amenable to rational analysis, and yet I must have some notions which guide my actions in the interim. Put differently, I must employ some set of heuristics that I use to evaluate both my own choices and those of the society around me. These heuristics must then be refined by learning additional facts and must be discarded to the extent that they contradict reality.

On a more tangential note, I tend to suspect that it is these heuristics that often get confused with religious-minded beliefs, driving the "science is faith" fallacy that I find so detestable. The key difference is that the heuristics adopted by someone that values rationality are recognized as being mere approximations, and thus are malleable to the extent that the underlying reality is not known. Thus, while such heuristics superficially resemble beliefs, they are quite different in practice.

Of course, it's very easy to simply say that something is sacred; a more pressing question for someone dedicated to rationality and materialism is what this assertion implies. A heuristic which does not either directly imply action or imply other values and heuristics which in turn imply action is by hypothesis a vacuous and useless heuristic. Exploring this notion, then, consider what a heuristic of sacred knowledge leads me to aspire to.

Though it is somewhat circular, the first and perhaps most important consequence of this heuristic is the valuation of science, the formalization of the pursuit of knowledge. Disentangling this apparent bit of circular reasoning would take me still further afield, so I will be content to leave it for now with the claim that the sacred-knowledge heuristic and the scientific method are synergistic rather than truly circularly dependent.

Another important consequence of this heuristic is the additional heuristic that knowledge should be shared-- after all, knowledge locked away is knowledge that cannot help in the further pursuit of other knowledge. This is a large part of why the open access and open source movements excite me so, and why I oppose the locking away of human knowledge behind paywalls, military secrecy or other such artificial barriers. Additionally, knowledge kept secret is knowledge that is much more difficult to preserve.

With new approaches to information storage, computation and communication, we are blessed (if you'll forgive the pun and not read too much into it) with new opportunities to safeguard our knowledge against the relentless march of time. To exercise these opportunities, however, archivists must be recognized as a critical part of our societal infrastructure and knowledge must be accessible for preservation.

While I could continue in this vein, I think that this short exploration of the consequences of my sacred-knowledge heuristic is sufficient to demonstrate an essential point: rationality requires rather than precludes the adoption of strong principles to be applied to the world around us, insofar as these principles are derived from sources amenable to rational analysis. We cannot afford for religion to maintain a cultural monopoly on the respect and dedication that underlie the word "sacred," but rather must build our own sacredness in a rational way. All that is sacred, in short, must still lie within the realm of that which can be reasoned about if we are to maintain the primacy of rationality.

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