Parsing Knowledge of the Universe
In the below figure pretend that the blue box represents the total amount of information available about the Universe. The red line across the middle represents the limits of how much of the Universe humans can model and know (The Realm of Possible Knowledge). We can obtain and have knowledge representations for everything below that line. The reason the line demarcates a subset of the totality of the Universe has to do with the limitations of human knowledge representations and our ability to access them holistically. Note that the Universe is a whole and not really divided into discrete knowledge domains.
But humans, the only beings present on Earth capable of converting Universal information into knowledge representations, have tackled the job by parsing knowledge into domains (subjects) and sub-domains (and recursively sub-domains within those). It is the only way we know how to encode and represent knowledge. The Universe has physical, chemical, biological, and many other aspects as shown in the figure. Individual knowers, however, tend to be limited both in depth and breadth of their understanding.
Fig. 1. We humans have parsed the universe into knowledge categories and then proceed to explore these categories to one degree or another.
The wavy lines in the figure represent the depth of knowledge in various domains. I've made these lines continuous to acknowledge that in reality domains really do meld along multiple aspects. Roughly the order of the aspects in the figure represent a kind of increasing organization complexity from left to right.
I imagine the bottom such line (red color) as representing the depth of knowledge acquired and maintained by the average US citizen. Of course the exact shape of the lines for any individuals depends on what that person is interested in and pays attention to. It doesn't seem to matter whether the average person has a high school diploma or a baccalaureate degree in some subject. Woefully, note that the line is generally pretty shallow and only rises toward the right as ordinary citizens seem to understand how to behave with one another and they definitely know how to use technology. Still their understanding of the Universe is shallow. Toward the left end I suspect most actually fall close to zero depth.
By comparison I've included two more lines representing more highly educated individuals. Someone who gets a Master's degree (purple line) in a subject (biological aspect domain shown) has a somewhat deeper understanding of that aspect but otherwise fits the same basic profile as the average person. Their continued emphasis in education and their presumed higher than average intelligence increases their depth slightly but not that much. The black line represents a knowledge profile of a presumptive PhD graduate (again in biology). Here we see a marked increase in depth for that aspect which, owing to the amount of underlying knowledge needed by a PhD in biology, includes much deeper than average knowledge of physics and chemistry. But beyond that the PhD, with the highest level of education available, shows a very narrow band of truly deep understanding and in only that one aspect.
The dashed lines (one red and two black) across the box represent different levels of idealized systems knowledge. The red line suggests a relatively deep level of knowledge and the two black lines represent somewhat shallower levels. But they are all systems knowledge, just at different depths of understanding. They are not strongly wavy lines for the simple reason that a systems thinker does not really “specialize” in any one aspect of the Universe in the ordinary sense. They see the Universe as a connected, whole, dynamic system so every aspect of it, while having unique characteristics, is still integrated as a totality. Systems thinking is broad and relatively even in depth across all aspect domains. It is as deep as the talents (intelligence, persistence in discovering, time devoted to learning, etc.) of the individual allow. The red dashed line is an extreme possibility. Occasionally a broad polymath might emerge with a line more like the somewhat wavy yellow line. This is a bit more realistic in having more depth in some areas and a little less in others. Some of the most powerful systems thinkers have been “experts” in aspects toward the middle, e.g. biology or ecology, where systemness appears in its strongest forms (living systems, ecological systems, social systems). But their breadth of knowledge is paramount to their grasp of that systemness.
The Average Knower
The shallowness of the average human's knowledge line is the fundamental problem. This amounts to profound ignorance of how the world works compared with the amount of knowledge available and needed to understand the world. It leads human beings into over reproducing, over consuming, and over trashing of the planet. Even when they hear that, for example, our activities are polluting the world, they can process the words, but not the deeper meaning. They do not understand how things are connected and their depth of any knowledge is abysmal. And that is why they fail to act on the information. They do not really understand.
The question is open as to how much education could fix this situation were that system itself fixed. The education process and the system that organizes and runs it are broken, and I think beyond repair. I subscribe to a suspicion, however, that in the end the problem is really one of innate ability. While there is obviously variation in the strengths of brains for learning and using knowledge, I maintain that the average level (and the bulk of a normally distributed set of mental attributes) is nowhere near commensurate with what is needed in the modern world and given the mass of knowledge that we have already garnered. The average person would rather party, watch professional sports, and be entertained by the media, than read a science book and spend time thinking about what they learned. They almost never give thought to how seemingly disparate phenomena are nonetheless interconnected in some way.
As I've indicated in the above figure, even additional amounts of education do not necessarily turn someone into a systems thinker. Indeed, it may drive them further into a niche while creating barriers to broadening their understanding. No PhD got tenure by being a generalist thinker. The system is rigged to create narrow knowers. Many of us probably know PhDs whose lines would dip below even an average person's aspect knowledge in certain realms!
People, in general, know a lot about social interactions, primarily because an awful lot of it is built into our brains by evolution. Most people today know a great deal about various aspects of technology because that is the milieu in which we live and work. But they know next to nothing about the physical realities of the Universe. They are almost wholly ignorant of the connection between money and energy, for example. They cannot understand how all the wonderful chemical cleaning agents are poisoning our world. Even if they accept the claim, they really don't know why.
Fitness for Humanity
The Universe is humanity's environment. It is true that we are semi-isolated on planet Earth. There is not a lot of material flow through the planet as a system. Everything we have in material needs to be recycled driven by the engines powered by solar, tidal, and geothermal energies. But our Earth system is open to both energy (solar flux) and information flows. We have evolved into informavores extraordinaire in biological terms. We look at the stars and interpret the messages we get from them. And the information content of those messages causes us to change.
Every species that has ever existed derived its fitness (its fit into its econiche) from being able to process messages from its environment — the parts of it that were affective for that species. The better processors had the advantage in terms of both direct competition for resources and cooperation with others to auto-organize a new level of complexity and gain a super advantage, for example by exploiting completely new resources. In biological terms this led to higher reproductive success for whatever genetic mechanism led to the advantage and thus the evolution species. What is humanity's fitness? How good are we as information processors? How much knowledge have we realized and exploited to improve our fitness in a increasingly complex world?
Our fitness will shortly be tested in the extreme. My money is on the systems knowers/thinkers as the most fit information processors. It won't play out as those thinkers having more kids than others over a long period of time, and those kids having more kids and so on. It will play out as they will be the last people standing when the environment changes so radically that the average kind of knower/thinker fails to figure out why things are happening and fail to connect the dots in order to anticipate the problems in order to preadapt to what they bring.
Being able to use information from one aspect of the Universe to understand how another aspect is going to change (for ill or good) will be seen as that which raises the fitness of the possessors such that they will be able to have children while all others are simply not able to survive. It won't be pretty. And most of us will essentially end up as the dinosaurs of our hominid kind. But it will be evolution and that is all we can say about it, I think.