Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Web of Life 14

The Settled versus the Unsettled Mind

We humans like to be sure of things - we delight in certainties.  However, there are few certainties in this life, indeed, apart from such certainties that we shall all grow old, get ill sometimes and eventually die.  Insurance companies make money, and lots of it, on the back of the uncertainties that are part of life.  I remember a priest friend once summarising the Christian message for his congregation thus: "Jesus came into this world to comfort the disturbed and to to disturb the comfortable."  Whatever about one's religious stance or even lack of it, this sentence just quoted contains no little wisdom.  When we are too smug, we do need something to disturb us or wake us up from our indifferent slumber.  In like manner, Fritjof Capra is correct in his contention that traditional science based on the old reliable scientific method is all too comfortable insofar as it has a solid foundation.  As we have pointed out in the preceding post this building or architectural metaphor is just that - one metaphor among other metaphors.  Systems Thinking suggests another metaphor - that of Network(s). "For some scientists such a view of knowledge as a network with no firm foundations is extremely unsettling, and today it is by no means generally accepted." (The Web of Life, p. 39)

The Beauty of Philosophy

The beauty of philosophy for me, and for so many others, is that it is a restless questioning, a questioning which never stops and even ruthlessly questions our own assumptions and presumptions, and hopefully our prejudices.  It also seeks to question our motivations as individuals and as a society.  The philosophy of science must do the same.  Indeed, as one who studied mathematics for some three years at university, I am well aware that there are many areas within that subject and each of those areas has its own specific axioms (or unquestioned assumptions or fundamentals upon which that area is based).  I am also aware that, when one changes one's basic axioms or, say, changes from one geometry to another, the resulting mathematics will be different.  Each of these geometries is logical and sound within its own area and according to the axioms on which it is built (I am, of course, using a building metaphor here!).  However, when we transfer axioms from one specific area into another distinct area, they can be simply meaningless.  The beauty of philosophy, too, then, is that it trains the mind to think outside the box and it enables the mind to change from one " box" to another with a certain ease or facility.


Objectivity has always been a concern for humankind.  As a student I remember that we used to hand up the same essay to different teachers to see what score we would get and to see how accurate or objective our teachers really were.  Oftentimes the results differed, but, thankfully not markedly.   Also as a teacher who has done a certain amount of official corrections, I have always been scrupulous in taking the chief examiner's and other more local examiners' advice into consideration.  In other words, we have to work hard at being objective, that is, objectivity is not a given at all.  Scientist believe that the twin approaches of  empiricism and the scientific method are totally objective. And yet, philosophy can raise questions about how objective such so-called objectivity really is.  Returning to the words of Fritjof Capra, we read:

Another important implication of the view of reality as a inseparable network of relationships concerns the traditional concept of scientific objectivity.  In the Cartesian paradigm, scientific descriptions are believed to be objective.i.e., independent of the human observer and the process of knowing.  The new paradigm implies that epistemology - understanding of the process of knowing - has to be included explicitly in the description of natural phenomena." (Ibid., p. 39)
We see things not as they are, but as we are:

Some sources tell us that this piece of wisdom is written in the Talmud. Shakyamuni Buddha said the same thing, in different words: "All existence is conditioned." As a result of that conditioning, our perception is skewed, and as a result of living based on skewed perception.

Some years back, the great musician Joshua Bell played incognito in a metro station by way of an experiment that was organized by The Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. He played some of the most intricate pieces ever written, on a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell had sold out at a theater in Boston and the seat price was $100. The outlines of this project were: (i) In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour do we perceive beauty? (ii) Do we stop to appreciate it?  (iii) Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context? Very few people noticed his brilliance at all, or that this was a world-famous musician.  Most passed by and he was acknowledge by some 32 $ in his hat!

One of the possible conclusions from this experience could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing? Is it because 'We don't see things as they are but we see things as we are?'

Capra once again returns to Werner Karl Heisenberg (1901 – 1976) who was a German theoretical physicist who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and is best known for asserting the uncertainty principle of quantum theory. In addition, he made important contributions to nuclear physics, quantum field theory, and particle physics.  This wonderful theoretical physicist said: "What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning." (ibid., p. 40)

Paradigm Shift

In 1962, Thomas Kuhn wrote The Structure of Scientific Revolution, and fathered, defined and popularized the concept of "paradigm shift" which basically can be seen as a change from one way of thinking to another. It's a revolution, a transformation, a sort of metamorphosis. It just does not happen, but rather it is driven by agents of change. The same can be said, I believe, about the change to Systems Thinking: "[t]hus systems thinking involves a shift from objective to 'epistemic' science;  to a framework in which epistemology - 'the method of questioning' - becomes an integral part of scientific theories." (Ibid., p. 40)

Big Question

As I have been literally singing an encomium to the importance of philosophy above, we must now ask a very big question.  If everything is connected to everything else, how can we ever hope to understand anything?  Well, while there may not today be the Cartesian idea of the total certainty of science, there exists today what we may term "approximate knowledge."  In the new paradigm of science - that of interconnection, connectivity and networks, it is recognised that all scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate.  Science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding.  For that matter neither can theology or philosophy or literature or any other human enterprise.

The best way, dear reader, to end this post is surely with the great declaration of Socrates that the beginning of all wisdom lies in our declaration of our ignorance.  Only from there can we hope to learn anything.

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