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Friday, August 2, 2013

Ethics and the Science of Knowing

In my last blog, I suggested that the new ethics and politics to deal with the central issues of today require a new (or renewed) spirituality and new (or renewed) epistemology.

Let me deal a bit more with the latter since I find that many intelligent people today have not read much in philosophy, much less "radical or non-dualistic constructivism." Most people and many professionals--especially those in religion, law, accounting and finance, politics and punditry--are naive realists in philosophy. They are prone to believe in natural laws, inspired books and constitutions, unchanging truths, infallible judgments, final words, complete language, whole rational numbers, sacred principles, past unencumbered by memory, perfect interpretations, and fixed ideologies.

In naive realism, you get what you see. Just look. Truth is when the word corresponds to the real-outside-there object and when the mind mirrors reality. Such realism is considered empiricism (but not the "radical empiricism" of William James) when the right idea comes from things out there; that is, the object sends its form to the mind. It is considered idealism (but not neo-Kantian idealism) when the idea comes from the mind or from some transcendent Mind to fit the real object. But both empiricism and idealism are manifestations of the same split between mind and reality.

The participants in naive realism declare their pronouncements as self-evident. Their commonsense is not the reality that most people agree to, it is what most people would know if they would only look without bias. Naive realism separates the word and the object, the idea from the reality, the knowing from the known, and then attempts to link them. That is its source of duality or what Daniel Dennett calls the Cartesian theater.

What is my problem with naive realism? 1) Its pronouncements are non-verifiable, non-falsifiable and so meaningless. 2) The consequences of naive realism are deadly. They lead to the two issues we have cited: the assault on the earth and the stultifying finality of human existence. And this is why naive-realism is important to ethics and politics.

Radical constructivism or what Stephen Hawking calls "model-based realism" is the alternative to naive realism and closes the Cartesian gap between mind and reality, body and world, word and object. For the commonsense person who sees the sun go around the earth and that his breakfast of eggs, bacon, and toast have nothing to do with symbols, it is somewhat difficult to grasp.

There are ancient roots to constructivist thought, but in modern times, many cite child psychologist Jean Piaget and his study of language learning as a new beginning. Piaget in his observations and reflections pointed to words in the inherited language as the media for objects in the world to be present. Then Benjamin Whorf and other cultural anthropologists observed and reflected that language made a difference in how a community encountered its world. Einstein and Heisenberg in the physical sciences and others especially in quantum theory observed and reflected how much human imagination and intervention contributed to the determination of what is real. And now neuroscientists are demonstrating through brain scans and experiments how the brain forms images, uses models and analogies, and constructs and assimilates ideas through language and other symbolic forms.

I do not intend to make the case for a radical constructivist epistemology. There are so many others who are making that case and all I can do is encourage people to get into the conversation. But I do intend to show that such epistemology (and its corresponding spirituality) is important for our ethics and politics dealing with the critical issues of today.

To the naive realist I say that, yes, the breakfast that you ate today is the result of the symbolic capacity of the human species. Note that I am not saying that eggs, bacon, and toast are mere symbols. They are objects in your lived world because of your and others symbolic action. The eggs you ate cannot be separated from the words you inherited and the constructed images that formed the plan to raise hens and collect the products of their ovaries. The bacon you ate cannot be separated from the imagination to raise and slaughter pigs for eating. The toast you ate cannot be separated from the imagination to name, to plant and cultivate wheat, to make flour and bake it into bread.

Objects in our world are what we name them in the language in which we grow and to which we contribute. Our world reveals itself through our symbolic forms; and our symbolic action constructs that reality. Knowledge is an interaction that creates both mind and object--a symbolic interaction with others that makes a world, our world.

I know that my last sentences are not understandable to the naive realist, just as quantum theory is not understandable to the classical physicist, much less to the commonsense observer. But I do beg you to try to understand, to try to engage with Hofstadter, Pinker, Dennett, and Deutsch or the philosophers I cited earlier, to try on the constructivist hat. It is a new thinking cap that I invite you to wear. And if you do, I feel sure you will see your religion, your politics, your economics, your life quite differently. You will have a new awe of the freedom that awaits you and your responsibility for our collective future.

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