puppet show,

an old metaphor for the three-step “epistemic dance”: first, youre charmed by a puppet show suspecting no puppeteer; second, you notice the strings — and get painfully disillusioned; finally you know all there is to know about the strings but are able, once again, to enjoy the puppets' art. Single minds as whole civilizations go through this repeatedly: unknowing bliss, crisis of discovery, and learning to live with the knowledge; the puppeteer you see at one level is but a puppet if you go further — there is no final knowledge, “answer a why only to face a why why.”  ■    It hurts singularly to discover strings attached to yourself: hence the well-studied history of selective blindness in humanities, biology, even neuroscience (Minds, the aneural latecomers, had much less room for uncertainty about their inner workings); hence the waves of conservative reaction — the life-defining quests for “at least dignified” strings to tack on the irrepressibly self-conscious puppets. (Hence, some say, is the puppet metaphor itself with its deference to an all-powerful puppetmaster — because what we really need to learn to live with is chaos and emptiness.) The ease of breath at the third stage — the catharsis of lucid understanding, engaging, “where a placebo works even as you know what it is” — takes more than a deeper vision: it is an inescapably ethical choice to love the world, understand it, and never let one get in the way of the other.  ■    It may be too easy by now to “see the strings,” real or not: the familiarity of the three stages tempts to skip the first two, aim blithely for the third — to bypass the second-stage pain without the second-stage hard work; indeed “largely past” is the characteristic second-stage antagonism of faith vs. knowledge (“once as universal as nostalgia”) with its free-will exasperation, scares and conspirologies, rigid cults of rationality, panicked rebounds of fundamentalism. For the third-stage serenity to take hold, the hands-on experiences of civic science — even mere grassgrowing — proved crucial: “the first real use” was made of the centuries of growing literacy and “education pumping”; later, sparsening filtered the air, made it so easy to believe that no evil will ever underlies the deception — that its just the fabric of the world dense with strings that we disturb, rarely consciously, with our every breath. Within a life, a puppet-show realization is irrevocable — but layered understandings soften it, help render the strings controllable; prune and graft in your string garden but dont overclear — maintain a healthy hairtangle where no one string overrides all others.

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