Across the Valleys of Knowledge. A short story on controversies and the structure of human knowledge
This letter is the 4th episode of my 🔭 Laboratory Logbook, a monthly newsletter where I share my explorations.
Last year, a practitioner of Western medicine told me: “eczema has nothing to do with food”. Later, while I was still trying to improve my skin condition, a naturopath told me: “eczema has everything to do with food”.
In my quest for knowledge and better health, I often encounter such contradictory understandings of the world. How can so opposite worldviews coexist? It is as if these therapists were living in two different worlds, two different “valleys of knowledge”. And what to do when we face this puzzling situation?
After witnessing surprising contradictions like this one, over and over in my life, I recently started to see human knowledge as a landscape. A very hilly landscape made of an endless series of valleys, to the horizon.
Here I tell you a short story, to illustrate what I discovered while venturing across the Valleys of Knowledge.
Table of Content
A valley of knowledge is always comfortable, until…
As I started to perceive recently, Western medicine is, for instance, one valley in the landscape of human knowledge.
In this watershed, lush woods cover the slopes. On their edges, quiet cows graze the green meadows dotted with fragrant flowers. At the bottom of the valley, a deep blue lake, on whose banks sits a peaceful village topped by its bell tower. In this Western valley of knowledge, I am surrounded by my peers, I speak the same language, I know how to behave.
Protected from the strong winds sweeping over the ridges, I feel comfortable.
A valley of knowledge is comfortable, until…
It is true that, here, doctors tend to repeat like a prayer that eczema is an incurable disease, that there is no cure for eczema. But they also prescribe an extremely effective ointment that quickly suppresses pain. In this valley, there is a logical answer to each question. Here, everything is well-established. Natural phenomena have been researched by clever scientists, taught by honorable professors, applied by benevolent civil servants. And everything seems to make sense.
Until one day, when the irritation of my leg’s skin reaches such a high level that I cannot stand it anymore. I cannot sleep, I cannot work. Feeling at a loss, I suddenly remember the mysterious story of a mythical valley just behind the ridge, where therapists would claim they can cure eczema using food as a medicine. As soon as this memory touches my mind, I doubt. What a stupid story! How such a thing could be possible? It would call into question everything we know in our rational valley!
But the burning on my skin eventually unplugs my brain, and pushes me out of my peaceful village, in search of a solution.
Excited and frightened at the same time, I take my backpack and start to walk up the slopes of the valley.
A valley of knowledge is comfortable, until it cannot solve one’s suffering
Along ridges, controversies
While I walk up, approaching the flowery meadows, I am surprised to distinguish thorny bushes between the flowers. As I make my way through the woods, as darkness grows, my heart speeds up. Is it dangerous? Have I really been reasonable to leave my peaceful village to venture alone into those dark woods? Fortunately, after hours of going through even darker and steeper slopes, my heart beating out of my chest, I finally reach mountain grasslands.
I can now see the ridge. I have almost done it! Eager to look on the other side, I run to the ridge, but I suddenly stop, my legs trembling with vertigo. At my feet, a huge vertical cliff leads down to another valley.
Terrified, I slowly sit on the rock, my heart panicking, my legs shaking. Overlooking at this new valley, I realize that it also has forests, grasslands, a lake, and a village. But trees have a different color, houses have a different shape. What a strange valley! Even the bell tower of the village looks abnormal. Which kind of animal could live in such an absurd valley?
At that moment, a wind gust slaps my face and knocks me backward onto the rock. Oh, no!, I think, what a dangerous ridge, what a weird valley! I was feeling so safe and comfortable in my valley! Let’s go back!
But, just as I’m about to turn around, a flare-up of eczema strongly burns on my leg’s skin, once again. No, I think, now that I am here, I have to visit this strange valley. Whether feeling comfortable or not, I need to try.
Gathering my courage, I sit again, and I observe.
I observe the peculiar geography of this new valley of knowledge. I scan the trees, I scrutinize the houses, I inspect this abnormal bell tower. The wind still blows around me, noisily. Gradually, I start to realize that this watershed also seems to have its own logic. Its own rational understanding of the world. The wind still blows around me, but my heart has calmed down and my legs have relaxed.
After all, I think, things also seem to make sense there.
I suddenly stand. “Ok, this new valley looks closer to the truth, let’s go down. Let’s settle in this village.” Looking around, I identify a higher point, a peak, where I should be able to get an overview and find a safe way to go around the cliff, down to the valley. I start to walk, carefully, along the ridge, to the peak. On one side, the dark steep forest of my old valley, on the other side, the steep cliff of my new valley.
As the strong wind whistles in my ears, I hear: You irrational!… You ignorant! Am I now starting to hear voices?, I wonder, surprised. I continue, one step at a time, along the ridge. You quack!… You corrupt! After several series of insults, I gradually understand: I don’t hear voices, the wind just brings me those words, coming from the valleys. Ridges are where two valleys of knowledge, two worldviews, collide. Ridges are where emotional controversies blow up. You pseudoscientist!… You arrogant! With all their misunderstandings, their emotions, their violence, their insults. One step at a time, along the ridge, going through the storm of words, I accept: venturing out of a comfortable valley of knowledge, walking along ridges to find the truth, it is facing my own fears, it is facing violent controversies. That’s how it is. It is not going to be comfortable. You conspirationist!… You murderer!
Venturing on the edges of a valley of knowledge is always going to feel uncomfortable
On peaks, a panorama of knowledge
I reach the peak, trying to keep my balance in this even more violent storm of controversies.
Looking around to find a track to get to the new valley, my breath stops at what I see. In any direction, until the horizon, an endless succession of valleys. Thousands, millions of valleys.
Next to the mainstream Western Medicine Valley, sits the old Naturopathy Valley. And then, the growing Functional Medicine Valley, the polemical Homeopathy Valley, the antique Chinese Medicine Valley, the mystic Shamanism Valley, the puzzling Quantum Medicine Valley… Valleys, and valleys, and valleys of knowledge. Some huge, some small, some high, some deep.
All trying to grasp the world from their own point of view. All more or less specialized in healing something that others don’t really succeed to heal.
On peaks, a panorama of the knowledge
Each valley is a dead end
Breathless, I continue to sweep this amazing landscape with my eyes, when I see a winding trail leading to the Naturopathy Valley.
“My new homeland!”, I exclaim, emotional, already imagining myself settling in the downtown area of the comfortable village down there, in front of the church, away from these dangerous cliffs, protected from those horrible storms of controversies.
But after a few steps towards the village, I already stop, when I identify what actually drives me down. The fear of emptiness and vertigo, the uncertainty and the violence of controversies. Those are pushing me down to the comfortable bottom of valleys. Yet, I realize, no valley of knowledge can feel completely right. Each one is just a representation of reality, from a given angle, in a given context. In this new valley, there will come a day when, out of suffering, I will suddenly take my backpack and leave in quest of a greener valley.
Any valley of knowledge protects me from uncertainty, doubt, fear, and the violent winds of controversy, thanks to its slopes. But, when I sit in a valley, these very slopes are always going to limit the scope of my gaze. It is the nature of a valley to be protecting and enclosing, at the same time. “Each valley of knowledge is a dead end”, I am telling myself. “If I settle in this new valley, or any other, my perception and my understanding of the reality are automatically limited.”
Each valley is a dead end
Becoming a mountaineer of knowledge?
Puzzled, I sit on the peak and observe once again this impressive panorama, letting the wind blow controversies above my head.
So, what to do now, if I don’t settle anymore in any of those valleys?
Settling in a valley of knowledge is comfortable. It is a protective cocoon, where knowledge feels certain and where a community of peers support each other. It is very convenient and reassuring for the mind. But for the soul, a valley always feels a bit artificial, a bit empty, a bit enclosed, as if something was wrong.
The more one ventures closer to the ridges, on the margins of the valley, the more the apparently established knowledge starts to look uncertain and falls apart. Controversies and contradictions arise, with violence. As uncomfortable as ridges are, they show to the patient traveler that the landscape of human knowledge is nothing more than a landscape of misunderstandings, everywhere, at all scales.
Staying on the higher peaks of this landscape of knowledge is like keeping a bird’s eye view of how humans understand and interact with the world. On peaks, facing the sea of valleys, any piece of knowledge feels wrong or incomplete. It is terrifying for the mind which becomes paralyzed. But this openness is salutary for the soul which can, eventually, take a deep breath and feel free.
So, what should I do? Going down to the valley? Wandering along the ridges? Staying on this peak?
“Or, why not do the three of them, and thus become a mountaineer of the knowledge?”
Becoming a mountaineer of the knowledge
A mountaineer of the knowledge has crossed many steep passes, visited several contradictory valleys, walked along kilometers of controversial ridges. Of course, a mountaineer loves reaching a new peak, and staying hours or days contemplating the landscape, reminding one’s ignorance, resting one’s soul.
Yet, a mountaineer also knows when it is time to venture along the uncertain ridges, going straight where controversies shape the landscape. Because a mountaineer knows that focusing on controversies is as important as studying established knowledge, to understand faster the tectonics of the knowledge, and get closer to the truth.
Finally, a mountaineer also knows when it is time to go down to a valley, to rest the mind in a reassuring cocoon, and to learn new key features of knowledge, in order to use them as tools to take concrete decisions in one’s life.
What a mountaineer doesn’t do, though, is to take anything for truth, to settle anywhere in the landscape of knowledge. Being a mountaineer of knowledge is living a nomad life.
And this story is an invitation for you, if you wish, to take your backpack, walk up the slopes of the valley, and start your nomad life in the surprising landscape of knowledge.
Did you like this article?
Great! Then you may also like to read another short story where I invite you to think like an ecosystem and see invasive plants differently, through the example of bamboo.