Difference as Knowledge

Temperature and motion. Two fundamental features of the physical world. Strangely, at least to me, we can only understand them relatively, or when they are different from our own state. Temperature is a reflection of the amount of energy inside a physical object (and how much that energy is spread among microstates T=dU/dS), but we don't know what the temperature is unless the object is put into contact with something else. Motion is a reflection of the energy in a traveling object, and we only are aware of the motion if we can gauge it against something else. Right now, I am spinning in motion on the back of the planet at 1265.8 km/hr (for NYC latitude) and circling the sun at 30 km/sec. I would be unaware of my own motion based on sensory information. The atoms and molecules in my body have enough energy to produce a temperature of about 37 degrees Celsius, but the room air is comfortable. I would be unaware of my own temperature based on sensory information. From a sensory point of view, we only learn the temperature of something when it is different than our own.

Our nervous system, and thus our basic perceptions of reality, have evolved so that we only notice fundamental physical variables when they differ from our own state. The perpetual spinning, the heat flowing from our metabolism, fades into the background of our consciousness unless we encounter something different, and we only know it in relation to our own state. Our brain actively fades out the noise and keys in on differences for many sensory experiences, but that's something for another post. The election has me thinking about analogies in belief systems. 

There is not a part of our sensory nervous system that detects beliefs; however, I think there is something to the idea that we don't understand our own belief system until we run up against a different one. Like fish in water, we are immersed in our invisible beliefs, their currents guiding our actions in ways we don't understand most of the time. When we encounter another belief system, its currents push us out of our comfort zone. Through this contrast we can see what is of value in our own beliefs, and what is ugly. Every application I've seen for a community college system has a question about the value of diversity, and to me, this is it. The value of diversity is to challenge us, to make us question parts of our beliefs that we have lived with so long we think they are universal truths.

There are two ways I think we can fail when we encounter different beliefs. The first is to insist that our belief is singularly correct, and to wrap ourselves in the comforting insulation of other people who share it. The second is to give up on seeking universal human truths and to accept that each belief is equally valid, leading us into a morass of relativism in which it is impossible to justify beliefs that dignify human beings and their journeys. How do we do this? How do I do this?

I wish I had the answer, but as someone who teaches hundreds of students a year from every conceivable background - my own approach has been to listen, with compassion and respect, as closely as possible to what other people are telling me about their world of perceptions and values. To listen, and then to reflect on my own beliefs, holding fast to the beliefs that I think will lead to dignity, justice, and truth, and letting go of the rest. Then...repeat.