Gnomicon 276

If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.

Gnomicon  276
Tuesday 12 February 2013
Read gnomica 1-250 here!

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The world is governed more by appearance than realities so that
it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it.
Daniel Webster (18 Jan 1782 – 24 Oct 1852)

Yes, and that’s a part of the root of all our problems, personal as well as public.  That someone like Webster as long as two centuries ago came to this conclusion and that yet it is still operationally true today is scary enough, but when you consider that it is the kind of mindset that would make Plato groan and turn over wherever he is buried it’s even scarier.  We just don’t seem to change that much.  Here it is, all of that Platonic business, the being, the becoming, the world of ever shifting appearances vs. the one of an immutable reality, the larger phenomenological universe as opposed to the ontological one, how can you believe anything or anyone or be sure that the real isn’t fake or the fake isn’t real, and on and on and on.

It’s utterly exhausting.

But here we are.

Politics and all, on the eve of the State of the Union speech and its many verities.

Now, when Russell Crowe plays mathematician John Nash in A Beautiful Mind (2001), nobody believes that the actor is trying to appear as something he is not.  It is part of the ‘entertainment contract’ in which we as well as Crowe are complicit that everybody knows that he, for all the pretense of being a brilliant cryptographer, in all likelihood doesn’t know any more math than the rest of us.  We all willingly accept that this is all about appearance and there is no delinquent fakery taking place.

As to fakery, even with all the sincerity in the world a person can’t fake flying an A380 Airbus, nor can she perform delicate brain surgery, or win downhill slalom races in the Winter Olympics.  Why?  Because each of these enterprises requires an actual, tangible skill that simply cannot be replaced by the endless talk and magnificent posturing of poseurs that so often carry the day unchallenged in so many arenas of our public life.  And because we are here dealing with realities of proficiency and not just the appearances of competence, things get done and they usually get done right.  In none of these instances would it suffice as well to “seem to know something as to know it.”

Are there fields where that would be true?

How do I convince thee?  Let me count the ways …

And focus briefly on just one (of a great many possibilities) small acre — finance.

Individuals (who shall perforce remain nameless throughout), all of them academically vetted and impeccably credentialed, put on the knowledgeable appearance of knowing how financial markets work, and critical levers of power were placed in their shamelessly incompetent hands.  The latter began their Fantasia-esque (“a cautionary fable about the dangers of having more power than wisdom”) dance among the complex machinery that, it is now in retrospect obvious, those to whom those busy hands were attached did not at all understand.  And we all had to live and are still living with the very unhappy reality consequent on a self-promoting appearance of expertise by all these busy, busy Sorcerer’s Apprentices.

And, most magically, most miraculously, when the collapse was all over and said and done with, nary a one of these financial magicians was ever responsible – much less culpable — for their devastating wizardry that so profoundly transformed our world.  In their seeming-ness of knowing, then, they are surely the ultimate in the disastrous triumph of appearance over reality.

For they have turned “it is fully as necessary to seem to know something as to know it” on its head to the day’s mantra: “it is more necessary to seem to know something than actually to know it”.

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