The Flight From Understanding

Every so often I want to get on my high horse and rant about this, but here’s a guy who has done the job for me, back in 1957, without any of the slang and swearywords I’d have to edit out.
Bernard Lonergan writes:

For concrete situations give rise to insights which issue into policies and courses of action. Action transformsthe existing situation to give rise to further insights, better policies,more effective courses of action. It follows that if insight occurs, it keeps recurring; and at each recurrence knowledge develops, action increases its scope, and situations improve.

People who have looked into permaculture theory will recognise the imperative for observation and responses, feedback loops and spirals of abundance. On the other hand, Lonergan writes about the opposite, the spiral of degradation which he calls ‘oversight’ or ‘the flight from understanding’:

The flight from understanding blocks the insights that situations demand. There follow unintelligent policies and inept courses of action. The situation deteriorates to demand still further insights, and as they are blocked, poloicies become more unintelligent and action more inept. What is worse, the deteriorating situation seems to provide the uncritical biased mind with factual evidence in which the bias is claimed to be verified. So in ever increasing measure intelligence comes to be regarded as irrelevant to practical living. Human activity settles down to a decadent routine, and initiative becomes the privilege of violence. The preface to Insight,The collected Works of Bernard Lonergan Volume 3, published by University of Toronto Press.

This applies to so much I have been seeing over the last few years, and I’m sure everyone can come up with their own examples. Here are three of mine:
Food is short, and the situation is too desperate to stop and think about lasting solutions, so we have to resort to GM technology. Don’t be emotional, says the government. But look at the science. OK GM food hasn’t been proved to have killed anybody, and ‘frankenfood’ is a particularly unhelpful term of abuse, but look at the actual results. It doesn’t deliver on yield. It doesn’t deliver on pest resistance. It hasn’t cut down the use of pesticides and herbicides. It has cross-fertilisied with non GM crops. It has escaped from cultivation. On every level it has failed to do what it was supposed to do. It is an experiment that has failed. Move on.

The same can be said for nuclear weapons. They are too terrifying to use.They are expensive to maintain or replace, to the point where their possession compromises the standing of a conventional army. And they haven’t kept anyone out of war. They are a failure. Let’s cut our losses and move on.

And now there’s the looming energy crisis. We are so tempted to fly from understanding this one. If we are bounced into allowing fracking – which will only happen if the companies involved are given large subsidies and allowed to relax current environmental safeguards, we can’t guarantee cheap abundant energy. we can guarantee higher taxes, envirinmental devastation, and some years down the line when shale gas runs out, the exact same problem we have now, and less opportunity to rectify our mistakes.

There are moral issues here. But prior to the moral responses come the intelligent insights. And before the intelligent insights, the patient and unself-serving attempt to be still and observe, not react out of panic. I see a lot of division between the spiritual people and the intellectual, the practical and the moral, but it does seem to me that the good and the clever should not be at odds – or we’re all screwed.

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