The Civics Lesson in Cassini’s Saturn Dives

The unknown is a vast and threatening landscape. Acting without exploring the boundaries of what we know is still more perilous. Misinformation disempowers people and institutions. Confusion disrupts our sense of capability. Exploration gives purpose. In finding truth, we learn about ourselves—about our limits and how to transcend them, and about our role as witnesses and world-builders.

— the author, at Geoversiv Global Status Update, April 24, 2017

What we know is partly dependent on what we hear, see, and experience, but our access to knowledge, in fact the bulk of what we call knowledge itself, is much more dependent on what others have seen, studied, and proven. We receive information; it fills the form of the conscious selfhood we spend our time cultivating.

We don’t know what will come to us through the filter of others’ experience, and we don’t know at the outset where the edge of our knowledge lies. Everything seems like it is part of all there is, until we see over the horizon, and are reminded that there is more. And though receiving knowledge is integral to the experience of using language, knowing people, and being human, we are not always prepared to do the work of drawing the line between preferred thinking and evidentiary reasoning.

Evidence is that which appears, clearly, to tell a story. Not every stitch in the fabric of meaning is self-evident. Discovery is not a walk in the park. Evidence can be wrongly interpreted; its truest narrative, its furthest reaching implications, can hide in plain sight. The human story of inquiry, trial and error, careful study, examination of evidence, and learning of truth—that is science.

Science is a basic human endeavor.

We hope our politics, our commerce, our efforts to build wise, useful, noble and celebratory cultures that endure time’s ravages, we hope all of these do what science does. We long for them to be part of the collaborative human story of seeking and reaching truth. What constrains them, more than anything, is that we don’t always know as we venture into the creation of these institutions and conventions what we will most need to know, as our exploration runs its course.

What we need to know is partly defined by our immediate concerns, and partly defined by what evolving experience will eventually require of us. No person’s individual experience is enough to cover all knowledge needs.

Everything you think you know is under constant stress, at all times. This puts distinct realms and preferred styles of inquiry at odds, and can create the sensation that our worldview is threatened by the way others go about building and managing meaning.

Any one person’s worldview might be a fragile thing—built of personal experience, interpretation, preference, and human networks of shared understanding. But what makes a worldview viable, what allows it to serve as cosmology, as a way of being in the universe, is that it stretches beyond our own experience, beyond taste and preference, and touches truth not determined by factional imposition.

If my worldview is not open to the possibility that you exist, and have thoughts, and study the nature of things, and might discover truth I was not aware of, then my worldview is structured to be self-defeating. If we are not invested in smart, ongoing discovery, then we are invested in our own eventual degradation and decline.

The Cassini mission shows us that there is no excuse for pessimism in planning solutions or searching for truth. Optimism is no-nonsense, and makes no room for the false prophecy of the cynic. NASA and JPL engineers don’t succeed in placing long-distance high-velocity remote-controlled space probes at their distant location with millimetric precision by decrying their own goals as too difficult to be reasonable. They assess the goal, craft a mission, map out the technical challenges, and then solve them.

They aim for the best possible outcome, even when their mission is the first of its kind, and prior knowledge of technical limitations is not readily available. Nothing else really makes sense, in any circumstance.

Exploration and discovery are integral to the human way of being in the world. Augustine of Hippo, the Catholic bishop, saint and philosopher, suggested that failure to use our intellect to pursue truth through examination and discovery was the Original Sin—the deviant shortcut taken by the first humans in the book of Genesis, and which led to evil coming into the world. His admonition, for all human beings in all cultures, was that we cannot do right or do good except by free choice, and our choice cannot be both free and virtuous unless we fully understand how and why.

His demand was not fundamentally religious, in this case, but technical: only by science—an honest, collaborative examination of discovered evidence—could we know we are actually in the right. The other way, chaos and suffering await.

Opening our worldview to the preferences, tastes, and assertions of others can be dispiriting. It is often not the other party’s first thought to gratify and uphold our unspoken preferences, tastes, and assertions. What we have in common, however, is that there is always more truth than either of us can fully access, define, and sustain.

We go to Saturn, aiming for the best possible outcome in a project that has never before been possible, and we orchestrate our daring device to make 22 elliptical orbiting dives past the planet’s enthralling ring system… because knowledge we do not yet have resides there, and our collective endeavor as a species is to find it, bring it home, and carefully, honorably tease out its meaning.

The hard work of on-the-ground civics is a similar exploration: we never know where interpersonal politics will take us, but we can reliably aim for best possible outcomes if we recognize that this is our common purpose and the underlying reason for our disagreements.

[ The Note for April 2017 ]


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