PROPOSED: A SCIENTISTIC PERSPECTIVE ON EVERYTHING.
A POSSIBLE BASIS FOR IMPROVED COMMUNICATION IN A WORLD OF CHAOS AND INCOHERENCE.
Why scientism? And why do we need a perspective on everything? Suffice it to say that Science, Technology and Engineering have changed the world profoundly, but not all to the good. Cataclysmic dangers loom. It therefore behooves us to understand the issues and potential solutions. A Medical Model is recommended: identify the relevant context, obtain accurate historical information, examine the current situation, test various theories, make a diagnosis, formulate a plan of action, monitor the progress. This may sound complicated, but it probably is not complicated enough. It would, at least, be a major improvement on current approaches.
Cosmos/Reality, Consciousness/Life and Culture/Existence.
All information and knowledge about everything, anywhere, at all times can be filed under at least one of three closely related, fairly distinct domains. They encompass all of human experience, knowledge and creativity. Every opinion of every person is concerned with an aspect of one or more of these areas:
1. The Cosmos represents Reality as it is, it is the foundational and generative basis of everything, including each one of us. With time (Evolution) it directly gave rise to Life. It is the eternal, evolving universe that we know is there, but cannot yet understand.
2. Consciousness, awareness and drive are biological processes inextricable from Life and its Evolution. In animals it additionally includes awareness of phenomena (complex things and events) associated with highly effective responses, frequently with a complex social component. In humans, mostly through language, it uniquely includes the ability to describe, communicate and choose among subjective simulations of past, present and future events. These biological, phenomenal and social components of form the foundational and generative basis of all of our Culture.
3. Human society and culture and our bodily existence in it are the substrates from which are generated the compelling virtual reality of all of our subjective experiences of self, environment and history.
Systematic biases and errors are at the core of our cultural conflicts since they exacerbate our misunderstandings. The above three intimately interwoven domains continuously modify and interact with each other. They are central to all understanding, yet their roles are not generally acknowledged. Scientific, philosophic, political and religious debates proceed almost completely unconcerned with these distinctions. As a result communication is deeply flawed and even superficial mutual understanding across disciplines is very difficult. More precise definitions and better awareness could provide a framework that focuses our discourse and opens channels of communication between disciplines and world views. Since no one has all the answers, no one is qualified to categorically exclude anyone else – but it happens all the time. It is essential that all parties actively participate and contribute, especially religion which has been under relentless and even irrational attack, but also philosophy, art, science, politics, etc
Growing up during the Cold War made a deep impression on many young minds: there were constant rumors of the imminent destruction of civilization. How could this even be that the human race would consider the possibility of destroying itself? It became somewhat of an early preoccupation trying to find the causes and possible cures for such madness. Total killed in conflicts in the 20th century about 100 million, many more injured and maimed. The 21st century already promises another rich harvest of death and destruction in the mass pursuit of delusional sectarian certainties.
There is no agreement even on a general approach to our problems. The proclivity to kill and destroy on a vast scale is dismaying, yet we seem baffled. People wring their hands and utter reassuring platitudes about peaceful co-existence, disarmament, trust, communication and cooperation. “If the others would only correct there ways” is the usual assessment by perplexed philosophers, politicians and spiritual leaders. They seem to be completely oblivious of their culpability and the limits of their understanding.
We all have great difficulty even in understanding ourselves, what we are thinking, and what our motivations are. How could anyone flourish under these adverse circumstances? Are we lost? Is this the inevitable price of ‘progress’? It might even be true that matters could have been much worse had it not been for religious campaigns for peace and universal human rights. The ultimate irony, of course, is that activists in favor of these noble goals may themselves end up rioting, burning and looting. Rather, humanity seems more distracted by other matters.
So, from where will salvation come? Do we have to wait on experts to deliver us from this bind? On a deeper level, the quest for understanding is so complicated that everyone always has to rely on authoritative sources who, it turns out, rely on other authorities, and so on. The experts upon which all of us rely are not true masters of all the facts upon which they are pronouncing judgement. Frighteningly, those upon whom much trust and responsibility have been placed, make momentous decisions without even having access to all the relevant information! In other words, assuming a leader is honest, sincere and responsible, she must still proceed by guesstimate or intuition. The crowd is usually anxious to rally behind any skillful or charismatic leader – that is the nature of politics. However, this has been a recipe for terrible mistakes. The battle of ideas too often ends up in real battles. Even in our daily lives there is much confusion, miscommunication and disagreement on everything.
What is the cure for this historic ailment? As any good doctor knows, first make a diagnosis, identify the cause and then prescribe treatment. The diagnosis is not encouraging: (a) Our sources of information are limited and unreliable. Human beings have no choice but to make decisions without ‘knowing all the facts’. (b) We are confused on our aims and goals because we do not understand ourselves or others well. (c) We do not understand our culture very well, much less that of others. (d) Our prescriptions are often based on fantasy, bias or error. For example, conflict appears to be an inherited congenital condition that manifests as a chronic disorder. It should receive more attention and be placed under continuous active management. Furthermore, we do not even have an accurate understanding of the root causes and mechanisms of expression of this malady. Fairy tale assessments are usually offered up that suggest it is all due to a few bad apples: if only the good would band together, our problems would go away!! That sort of wishful thinking has been disastrous. Rather, there is a surreptitious “banality of evil”. Simple narratives about the Son of God, the Chosen People, the Perfect Messenger, a Glorious Leader or a Workers Paradise can be very inspiring, but the net effect on their followers has been to isolate them from new information, to widen the divide amongst communities, and thus to increase the opportunity for conflict.
In too many situations perceptions of irreducible differences with The Other arise because of ‘fundamental’ principles derived from some formulation of reality or another. This error, we believe, very simply has had its roots in the universal failure to appreciate the processes involved in the production of consciousness, thought and culture. Our experiences are so self-reinforcing that very few ask what is going on behind the curtain.
A new approach should not simply be to intensify the same efforts of before, and certainly not to launch yet another triumphalist movement. Diversity of cultures and competition amongst them have been destructive at times. However, efforts at enforcing uniform attitudes and values have been even more destructive. Could there be a way out of this mess?
The cure should include better communication. Our analysis appears to re-emphasize a special role and responsibility at the individual level. We can not rely only on a few of the best and brightest, or only on some elite group. There clearly is a need to re-examine our form of governance. This should be a longterm project involving all citizens who really have the ultimate responsibility for bringing forth a true democracy. (This is all old hat, but it gets lost amidst all the shouting and screaming by leaders in various theaters of operation, departments of opinion and schools of thought.)
Through the use of common sense and common language we hope to describe a framework by which anyone could approach all knowledge and information; to address in accessible terms everything that is real and everything that exists: every thing and every non-thing. Everyone has a huge but nevertheless very incomplete fund of information, yet each has a unique and potentially valuable perspective. An encompassing framework will enable just about anyone to put in perspective what they are thinking or what some specialist is saying. Much new information is inevitable and should affect our understandings profoundly. Nevertheless, the outline of our theory should remain intact.
Everyone should feel encouraged to participate to the maximum of their ability and interest. So what is the average curious layperson to do? Systems of learning have been of two types, and combinations thereof. A still pervasive ancient approach is to wholly accept the pronouncements of a charismatic speaker, a chief, a respected oracle, a mystic master or a divine prophet. Una boca de la verita. A newer approach is practical and scientific. It depends on the cooperative efforts of many individuals applying curiosity and reason. Oracles snared insights intuitively, while the empirically curious meticulously pursued any interesting question, often being surprised themselves by the results at the end of their search. Purely intuitive truths have an attractive quality and have worked quite well, especially in primitive times when there were few alternatives. Experience has since shown many great intuitions of the past to have been simply wrong. The community efforts of scientists, philosophers and others have far outstripped the best efforts of the oracles and, like it or not, society and culture have been transformed. Paradoxically, we now have come to realize that true understanding of ourselves and our world is extremely hard to come by in most areas. So, getting down in the weeds of voluminous scientific information would be deeply frustrating for anyone interested in solving large, overarching problems.
A simpler methodology that will point in the general direction of ‘The Truth’ is needed, stipulating up front that the final destination seems permanently beyond reach. By taking a big picture, holistic approach, combining science and intuition, suggestive answers to our larger questions can be surmised, even questions that have challenged us through the ages. We must begin at the beginning.
The story of life on earth resembles a journey – an evolution. It began at some very distant point and has evolved into what we see now: a wonderful display of phenotypic diversity and superficial teleological design. With each new creature discovered, the picture becomes a little more complete. It has been said that only ~10% of bacteria have been identified. If true, this means that most of the species on the planet have not yet been looked at; many surprises are certain to be still coming our way. Even so, the big picture is pretty clear: life has, more or less coherently, evolved into innumerable niches of survival. These niches, including ours, continue to change and evolve, as does Earth and the cosmos.
Our somewhat historical narrative is all inclusive; no information exists outside the three domains of (1) reality as it is, (2) biological consciousness and (3) culture. A story of everything should establish a framework that identifies the connections between all the parts and could be referred to when difficulties arise between fields of knowledge and systems of belief. Anyone could use this framework in order to gauge where in the universe of information their interests and pursuits lie. One does not have to know everything in order to know some things, but having some idea of everything could be very helpful by putting matters in perspective. No mathematical formulae are used although we grant that they are essential for many analyses. No complex philosophic abstractions, structures or ‘isms’ are relied upon because they are too confusing for everyone, even the professionals. Summaries and perspectives by experts, however, are very useful for up to date objective information in their respective fields; one should always keep in mind that such fields may have their own built-in biases. As new information develops, adjustments must be accommodated. In other words, one must keep an honest and open mind, recognizing that we lack complete knowledge and understanding in virtually every area of human pursuit.
Allowance for ignorance, misunderstanding and error should be an important feature of a complete framework. Perhaps what has been missing in all other efforts at providing a coherent framework of knowledge and understanding has been a recognition of our large information deficiencies and many misapprehensions. Despite our limitations, humans have managed to ‘flourish’ while holding completely incorrect or fantastical ideas. Our numerous gaps are especially acute at the borders of the three knowledge domains: what were the initial conditions at the beginning and what set this majestic process in motion? What were the crucial forces operating at the beginning of life, propelling it in an apparent quest for multiplication, diversification and survival above all else? Perhaps most important, what is driving events now and what is our role in our own future evolution? For instance, is our future wholly dependent on computable events? Or, is there a human element that is undefinable, essential, unpredictable and irreplaceable?
Furthermore, humility should be front and center because no matter how superior anyone’s knowledge might be, any such single individual can theoretically master but a very small percentage of all available information; especially since what is available is itself very limited in relation to the entire universe of potential information. Knowledge is more like a web of ideas to which everyone contributes. Culture is a web of ideas plus a web of behaviors plus a collection of artifacts. Various grandiose claims of profound understanding and mastery are on the order of the day and dot the cultural landscape. Prudence suggests great skepticism, even cynicism. To the extent that these claims motivate individuals and groups to attain new heights of excellence, they may be beneficial. But most of these claims, however, are hyped and subsist largely on the human need to trust, belong and be reassured. Humility notwithstanding, substituting one’s own judgement for that of another is always risky business and should not be done lightly.
Our approach is new of necessity because it has not really been possible until now. In the earliest stages of our culture knowledge was mostly intuitive, based on natural observation of phenomena that were all extremely mysterious then. The Copernican revolution about 600 years ago started the scientific ball rolling in earnest. The amount of information on natural/physical phenomena collected since then is amazing. There are still huge mysteries but now, at least, we have an idea of where to look for the answers. Biology was rather slow out of the gate. There were early fits and starts, but a coherent story has only been emerging over the last 60 years or so, essentially since the identification of DNA. We are only now beginning to understand the basic processes of life.
The most surprising realization, looking at all the different areas of knowledge, has been how coherent the picture seems to be. Despite the accumulation of an almost infinite amount of data, the gaps are still large. At this juncture it would appear that no definitely irreducible gaps are present within this vast body of information. All the processes appear as if they could be interrelated. The reductionism of the physicists studying ‘fundamental’ processes in the cosmos is therefore theoretically possible: all phenomena could in theory be explained in terms of the behavior of elementary particles and fundamental forces. As a practical matter, this is probably not going to happen, ever.
There do appear, however, to be definite irreducible boundaries to what we can know: We cannot obtain information from prior to the alleged Big Bang. We cannot obtain information from any signals that might travel faster than the speed of light, if there are such. We cannot predict the future with certainty because so much information has been lost or is not observable. In addition, human abilities of observation and processing appear to be extremely limited. Culture and behavior also appear not to be predictable because of the complexities involved: each one of us is functionally different; H. sapiens also mysteriously co-evolves continuously with nature and Reality. Absolute determinism and reductionism, therefore, appear to be abstract mathematical formulations, not certainties, and as a practical matter, they appear irrelevant to questions regarding our existence.
The theme of inter-connectedness is especially strong in the biological realm, all of which revolves around DNA. There is surprising genotypic similarity amongst the extremely diverse population of living creatures on earth. What could be more strikingly different to the human eye than a single-celled paramecium, a 1 mm blind worm in the soil, and a two hundred ton whale? Quite amazingly, there are numerous similarities at the molecular level between all these life forms. All life on earth appears to be closely related despite the tremendous diversity. There is also a high level of interdependence. Bacteria are the scavengers, scrubbers and true work-horses of our biosphere. If they went on strike, the rest of the biosphere would quickly grind to a halt.
1. All information is relevant to the framework.
2. Most observable information is not observed, consciously or otherwise.
3. An incomplete but fairly coherent narrative is possible when allowing for unobserved and unobservable information.
4. An integrated story of all information always would represent an informed and inspired guess of one person, relying on the efforts of many others.
5. Individuals are the seat of the most coherent evaluation of the greatest amount of information.
6. A working framework of and perspective on everything should facilitate human communication.
7. Improved human communication should increase human flourishing.
8. Each human being consciously and ‘unconsciously’ processes a vast trove of information, far in excess of other animals, yet our abilities are still very finite.
9. Improved networking would be a simple and obvious means by which to improve our knowledge base, coordinate our actions and provide meaning to our existence.
10. The presence, extent, function or purpose of unobservable information will always perplex human imagination.