Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Problem of Knowing

This topic occupies a space in mental geography which is not terribly close to architecture. It is important, but one might say it is several valleys over. And higher.

In some ways, the fundamental problem for humans in understanding our universe is that of knowing. Ideas about this area have changed radically over the past century. Some might call this the debate over Truth, or the puzzle of understanding. In essence, (which is a phrase I use far too much), we don’t quite understand how it is possible to know anything, and on what basis we know that we know what we know.

There are several levels to the question. At the most everyday level, I might say that I know a certain object is a pig. Of course, if someone were to question me, and ask me to give my reasons, I would have to admit that I only think it is a pig, because based on what I have learned about pigs, that animal looks like a pig, acts like a pig, and (especially) smells like a pig. Much of our ‘knowledge’ about ordinary things is of this sort – based on information we have gained elsewhere.

This raises a host of problems. Is that information, gained from a multitude of different sources, accurate? And was it transmitted correctly to us? Have we remembered it without error? If we traced back each source by which what we think we know came to us, we would find that they were all based on what we could find out using our senses, and what we could understand or reason out with our minds.

Thus, digging down to the next level, the question is whether our senses and minds can be relied on to provide correct information to us – are they able to reach out both into the world, and into the mental universe of abstract things, and convey what things are actually like? Or are we hopelessly muddled? Is the world sending out radar blips, and our instruments are hopelessly waterlogged, or firing off words and phrases that turn into garbles of spaghetti before they reach our brains? Maybe each of us is staggering around in our own little worlds, utterly unconnected to anything around us, but under the illusion that we are.

Going even deeper, on what basis (since we can’t be sure we are receiving information properly) can we say that there is information out there that it is possible to understand? Maybe there is nothing that can be truly understood; maybe the real transmission of information is impossible. Maybe there is no such thing as information.

If this is so, we’re pretty stuck. If we can’t know anything, we might as well not do anything. We might as well sit around and talk about the weather on Jupiter while eating fillet of doughnut sundaes and crumpling up wads of newsprint and throwing them at one another. It would be rather amusing.

Wait, though! Something’s working. If I can be amused by something, and watch your reaction as you at the same time are annoyed by it, I at least have some sort of inner coordination. Things in practice seem to make sense to me. There is at least something going on, which is probably where Descartes got his famous “I think, therefore I am” declaration. Unless someone is working very hard to deceive me, or I am under some sort of illusion from who knows where, I must exist in some form, even if in a dream, since I am experiencing this. This brings up, of course, the whole question of what consciousness is, but we’ll ignore that for now.

Descartes’ problem, and mine, is how to get from experiencing something that seems to be somewhat logical, to knowing about anything outside my own body and mind.

I would propose that the unifying factor, the term that makes the equation balanced, so the universe is something that hangs together in a harebrained way instead of being a whole bunch of fragmented beings wondering how they can know any of the others, is God. There must be someone with knowledge of everything before any finite thing can hope to touch anything else.

That's my personal interpretation, of course, though I am making the proposition that it is the correct one. Meaning that it is objectively true. A summation of my position on God, and why I think that the existence of a Creator fills the void of knowledge, will have to come later.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Roof, Road, and River

The world as we know it is coming to an end.

But maybe this isn’t such a big deal. ‘The world as we know it’ is a very dynamic thing, constantly shifting form and changing into something different. In a sense, the world has been coming to an end every day for centuries, and we’ve grudgingly, and often subconsciously, had to adapt.

As humans, we seem to assume that because something is the way it is, it will therefore remain that way for all eternity. This mindset often acts as a mental cage, blocking us from the possibilities of change.

Our cities have changed hugely over the past hundred years. For several early decades of the 20th Century, New York and Chicago were the only cities with skyscrapers, and even those could barely equal the Great Pyramid. The vertical dimension suddenly sprang into being in urban centres.

Now we face a different kind of change: the breakdown of conventional infrastructure into something much simpler. Subsistence-based living. We think of this as the way of the past, as something we have long surpassed. But our world may require us to reconsider our ‘progress’.

Half the world now lives in cities, and a large proportion of those in developing countries live in urban slums and shanty-towns. The reasons for the trends behind this situation have been well-documented by my fellow team-members, but I wish to make a specific comparison. In Europe, during the Industrial Revolution, a similar migration took place. What was different about that time?

In the 18th and 19th centuries, urbanization took place in the richest and probably most technologically advanced nations in the world. There were problems with poverty, but always offset by rapidly increasing prosperity.

Most urbanization now is happening in the poorest countries in the world. It is a reaction pattern to trends in other nations, and governments have less effective power to direct the explosion of their cities. With a more global economy, environmental concerns, and widespread war and conflict, the stakes are higher in every way.

As a result, most newcomers to urban areas are unable to take part in the official economy. They must create everything on their own – shanty towns spring up, crowding thousands of people in ridiculously small areas, and an unofficial economy of small service and supply businesses is awakened.

The exact nature of this ‘informal sector’ may vary, but governments are beginning to recognize its potential. My question is: are there ways in which the informal sector can organize itself, perhaps with some support from outside, to provide basic infrastructure for its own constituent people? They have many needs, but three of the most necessary are shelter, adequate transportation, and water.

In the abstract, we are interested in the Roof, the Road, and the River.


Clark, David. Urban World / Global City. London: Routledge, 1996.
McKay, Donald. “Point, Line, and Plane".