- History of Knowledge: Research, Resources, and Perspectives
- A Brief History of Knowledge
A similar conversation in West Germany in the s or Saturday, June - In recent decades, a diagnosis of democratic crisis or even of a post-democratic condition has emerged in public debate in many Western states. The rise of electoral abstention, particularly since the s and s, often serves as statistical evidence for this assessment. Thursday, May - A specter is haunting the current political discourse, the specter of cultural cleavage. More and more observers see the emergence of a socio-cultural gap between a hegemonic, globalist, educated class and an underrepresented, locally anchored underclass.
It hears a loud cry, identifies it as an animal, and analyzes it to determine whether it is that of a prey or a predator. The data of the senses is distinct from the objects of sensation and the knowledge derived is distinct from the data. It is indirect knowledge. It makes up for its deficiency by memory, imagination, thought, idea-symbols of various kinds. We have no direct capacity to perceive their subjective state. Thinking is also a separative form of knowledge. The thinking mind does not directly perceive reality. It perceives thought-forms and formulates thought-symbols representing reality but separate from it.
Physical sensation and experience impact on mind in the form of mental energy. The loud cry of an animal generates a mental sensation that activates the mind to full alertness. But until the mind interprets the sensation and identifies it as friend or foe, it does not possess knowledge.
As soon as it recognizes the sound as the roar of a lion, it converts the energy into a mental form, a thought expressing the danger of an approaching lion. Then and only then does it also possess the capacity to transmit that knowledge to other minds in the form of symbols, signs or words. All symbolic, theoretical, conceptual, scientific knowledge is separative knowledge. It is knowledge of symbols that represent reality, not reality itself. Relativity and Quantum Theory, medical diagnoses of disease and econometric model of markets are conceptual representations of reality, not reality itself.
Thinking is a symbolic form of indirect, separative knowledge. It may begin with the primitive symbolic representation of the forces of nature as images or sounds or gestures. Cave art dating back 30, years confirms the development of symbolic thinking long before the emergence of complex languages. Evidence from this period of the widespread worship of the mother goddess most probably signified belief in the unique power of women for procreation. This suggests that man had not yet realized the relationship between sexual intercourse and the act of child birth nine months later.
The symbol of the mother goddess reflected the sense of wonder and power associated with the act of procreation. Primitive man shook with fear at the occurrence of a solar eclipse or an inauspicious configuration of the planets because he took these events as powerful symbols relevant to his own life. Symbols became the means for the creation and perpetuation of powerful superstitions. Superstition is the subconscious formation of a relationship between two or more things based on the perception or imagination that they are related with one another.
Symbolic thinking ushered in a transition from utilitarian thought focused on gratifying immediate needs to cosmological speculation regarding the nature of reality. Merlin Donald terms this as the transition to the stage of mythic culture in which language was first used to create conceptual models of the universe, grand unifying syntheses.
These symbols were often laden with immense power. Historian Peter Watson identifies the idea of God as one of the three most significant acts of cognition in the long evolution of civilization. In Vedic India, intuitive knowledge of human consciousness and the universe was rendered into myths and symbols of profound insight, remarkable beauty and power, unintelligible to the modern intellect trained in analytic discourse. It seems likely that they were the result of intuitive faculties of mind that are no longer well developed or may one day yet become far more prevalent, as the capacity to read, write and calculate was at one time a rare endowment and considered a sign of genius.
The brilliant Indian early 20 th century mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan regarded zero as the symbol of God, the apparent nothingness and unmanifest potential from which all emerges, and infinity as the deployment of that potential in creation. In the period of the Upanishads, symbolic images developed into symbolic words born of intuition, rather than rational thought.
They sought to depict truths of existence rather than to describe and explain them in rational terms. In fact, all words are symbols. All thoughts, concepts, theories and models are symbols. They are mental forms or images utilized by mind to represent reality, never reality itself. As early man came to accept the symbol as the reality, today we often mistake modern scientific theories for truth rather than abstract representations of truth and constructed mathematical or conceptual models of reality for reality itself.
The sophisticated scientific theories, philosophical systems and theological doctrines that have influenced the development of knowledge and the evolution of society are all attempts to represent truths of existence in symbolic form accessible to human thought and communication. Thoughts are a means of relating things with one another. The capacity to relate two or more things is a basic characteristic of thinking. But correlation is distinct from causation. Symbolic thinking attributes significance and power to things, but does not necessarily represent causal relationships.
The capacity to relate cause with effect is a more advanced power of thinking, and one essential for the development of civilization. One may wonder why it took so long for primitive human beings to learn how to imitate natural processes occurring right before their eyes. The invention of agriculture took place around 10, years ago and met an essential precondition for the evolution of human civilizations.
We can only speculate now regarding the mental processes that led to the invention of agriculture. The discovery of which plants, fruits, leaves, roots and flowers were edible and nutritious must have been a labor of many tens of millennia. The observation of where they grew and when they flowered and ripened must have taken even longer.
But understanding these relationships was not sufficient to give rise to agriculture. Without language, these observations could not be communicated. Without written language, they could only be preserved by oral transmission from generation to generation. It was also necessary for early man to closely observe the relationship between crops, soil types, rain, sunlight, temperature and the changing of the seasons.
A long slow process of subconscious observation eventually must have led to the first conscious realization that human beings could replicate and even improve on the natural process. Instead of roaming the earth to find food, human communities learned how to imitate Nature. It fostered the development of sophisticated cognitive skills for planning, organization, specialization of function, and timely execution of complex sequences of activities. It led to the concepts of land as property and principles governing ownership.
Agricultural surpluses spurred the development of trade and the advent of money, as a symbolic form of social power.
The field of human productivity shifted from the land to the marketplace, from toiling on the soil to mutually beneficial interactions with other people. It spurred the rise of commercial centers, towns, cities, kingdoms, and overseas empires. Archeologists associate the emergence of early civilizations with four important social developments: the invention of written language, the creation of cities with monumental architecture, specialization of work, and organized religion.
Mind organizes objects, ideas, beliefs, people, activities, events and countless other things. Civilization represents the outward organization of the life of the collective. It is made possible by the further development of a range of mental faculties and cognitive abilities. The development of written language around years ago required a sophisticated capacity for precise definition, organization of thought and expression, and formulation of grammatical rules. The development of cities involved the orderly physical arrangement of structures, a division and categorization of activities, a hierarchical arrangement of authority and decision-making.
Specialization of function required the capacity to break down complex activities into their parts, to arrange the sequence of steps and coordinate the relationship between multiple activities. The development of religious symbolism and ritual long preceded the emergence of organized religion, which combines a mental construction of beliefs and ethical rules of conduct, a hierarchical organization of authority, social organization of the community and physical organization of events.
The close and structured association between larger groups of people in cities was a catalyst for rapid advances in law, formal systems of weights and measures, trade, development of money, public administration, participative governance and education. These capacities in combination necessitated the systematic application of mental faculties at three levels—mental, social and physical. These capacities derive from the power of mind for division and aggregation. Mind is primarily and quintessentially an instrument of division.
In its pursuit of knowledge, the characteristic action of mind is to divide reality into parts and deal with each of the parts as an independent whole. It distinguishes and categorizes these parts by comparison and contrast. All human beings share common characteristics, but they can be distinguished and sorted by size, sex, age, familial relationship, place of origin, skills, etc. The identification of differences is the basis for the mental faculty of definition, the delineation of characteristics, properties, qualities, categories, territories, social position, occupation, powers, privileges, varieties of behavior, personality traits, species of plants and animals, types of minerals, etc.
There are innumerable ways in which the elements of any whole can be distinguished from one another. Therefore, there are an unlimited number of ways in which reality can be divided and subdivided. Thus, Wikipedia lists 27 types of snow and the Eskimos of Scandinavia have more than words to describe different varieties of snow and ice. The more it divides, the more it distinguishes, separates, compares and contrasts things with one another.
It comes to consider each thing as a separate object of reality distinct from all others. Division also leads to abstraction of objects from their context. Thus we observe a ripe mango fruit as something separate and distinct from an unripened fruit, the inedible leaves, branches and trunk of the tree on which it grows, the soil in which the tree is planted, the sunlight and rain by which it is nourished, and the season in which it ripens.
Similarly, mind divides us from one another and from the world around us. It separates the pursuit and dissemination of knowledge through science and education from the life of the community. It even divides our own inner psychological existence into thoughts, opinions, beliefs, sentiments, emotions, feelings, urges, desires, impulses and sensations.
Mind also has a complementary capacity to aggregate the elements of reality it has divided in order to construct some conception of the greater whole of which they are the parts. Mind synthesizes the parts generated by analysis to create greater wholes. As the division of reality into parts is always based on a specific set of characteristics and differences, the aggregation of the elements to form a whole also depends on the characteristics used to reassemble them.
Modern science has identified a diverse range of micronutrients known as vitamins, which are derived from a wide variety of very different sources and support the entire gamut of physiological functions, yet are grouped together to constitute a whole. In this case, the very small quantity required is the common factor between them that serves as the basis for combining otherwise very dissimilar substances. The whole can never be fully represented by an assembly of its parts, any more than the living human body can be represented by the sum of all the minerals, molecules, types of cells, anatomical organs, physiological functions and systems of which it is constituted.
Thus, the whole is more than the sum of its parts, as Aristotle said. Analysis and synthesis, the capacity of the mind to divide and aggregate reality, lie at the root of all mental knowledge, the languages mind has evolved to formulate and express that knowledge, and the civilizations that have resulted from these developments. What is described above is a simplistic rendering of the primordial stages of mental evolution in prehistoric times leading up to the creation of written language and the founding of civilizations.
The capacity of the mind for acute physical observation, symbol and language formation, definition, categorization, correlation, organization and causation evolved gradually over very long periods of time in different places and grew through contact, exchange and imitation between early civilizations.
Thinking is primordial. The formulation of principles for valid reasoning was a later invention. The symbolic and intuitive knowledge of ancient India became in ancient Greece conceptual knowledge based on rational thinking and gave rise to the development of formal logic. They pondered the nature of definition and sought to identify the principles of effective reasoning. The Greeks sought to render reality into terms intelligible to the rational thinking mind. The Egyptians were concerned with the practical application of geometry. The Greeks transformed the practical tools of geometry developed in ancient Egypt into principles validated by formal proof based on logical reasoning.
Greece lived in a world of ideas that were considered valuable in themselves, not merely for their practical utility. Greece marked the transition from practically effective knowledge to ideative truth affirmed by rational mental processes. The combination and correlation of thoughts led to the development of complex abstract ideas and theories of knowledge.
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The development of logic coincided with the conception that the universe is essentially a rational place that can be explained in rational terms. Their science was wide and borderless, not confined to narrow conceptual boundaries or cut off from other forms of knowledge. It encompassed both natural science and philosophy. They developed democracy, mathematics, education, formalized the role of hypothesis and evidence in law, and based medicine on observation of symptoms and rational diagnosis. The Hellenic period was remarkable for its development of rules for discernment by reason and logic and rules for communication through rhetoric and dialectic in quest of metaphysical and scientific truth.
But it also applied analytic thinking to questions of justice, right and wrong, ethics and morality, which are at the core of organized religion and social thought. Nor did its rationalism prevent Plato, Aristotle and others from extolling the virtue of intuition in their mystical quest to realize transcendent spiritual truths. They invented a wide variety of expressive literary forms—historic, epic, philosophic, tragedy and comedy, pastoral and lyric, oratory and didactic. Reason, discrimination, judgment, imagination and intuition all contributed to the efflorescence of Hellenic civilization.
Hellenic civilization was extraordinary in one other way. It affirmed the value of individuality and individual uniqueness. Ancient Greeks never allowed strict rules of logic or mechanical laws of nature to infringe on the place of independent thinking, free will and creative imagination. They revered mathematics but would have scorned the indiscriminate application of statistical probability when applied to conscious human beings. What is most impressive about Hellenic culture is its inclusiveness, sense of proportion, balance and harmony. Perhaps unique in history, the Greeks simultaneously pursued knowledge in all fields and by all means—in philosophy, metaphysics, polity, religion, the arts and applied science.
They affirmed intuition and logic, aesthetic sensibility, mathematical precision and ethical conscience. They embraced the objective and subjective dimensions of reality. They applied the analytic powers of mind with great depth and precision, yet never lost sight of the larger reality which is eclipsed by the focus on minute particulars.
They accomplished this by a remarkable tolerance and respect for diversity of perspective. While individual thinkers may have proclaimed with insistence the sole reality of the physical, their assertion was not permitted to overshadow or obscure contrary points of view. This sense of inclusiveness and proportion might well be the finest contribution of Hellenism to humanity. It appears all the more precious in the current age of exclusive concentration on the objective and the physical.
Ancient Greece was able to aggregate an impressive range of perspectives, but it could not truly synthesize and integrate them to form a comprehensive conception of reality. Rome inherited the Greek reverence for the powers of mind. But while in Greece, the principal field of application was mental knowledge and the creative arts, the mind of Rome was concentrated on social organization.
Rome harnessed the powers of mind to organize the life of the polity, law, the military, economy, education, civil administration and civic life. It developed a written body of law and a theory of jurisprudence. It organized education, establishing a widespread system of schools with a standardized curriculum. Greece gave birth to the modern mind. Rome gave birth to modern social institutions. Greece developed the intellectual and aesthetic faculties of mind to rare heights. Rome gave birth to the modern state founded on a culture of duty and discipline and based on development of the ethical faculty.
The Greeks worshipped beauty. The Romans worshipped character. The evolution of mind in Europe was submerged for centuries during the Middle Ages by the collapse of the Roman Empire, the reversion to a feudal social structure, and the weight of church doctrine. Important developments during this period prepared the way for the explosive outburst of mentality that characterized the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment. Quantification is an inherent power of the analytic faculty of mind that divides reality into smaller and smaller parts. The full development of the analytic mentality required the development of symbols, concepts and logical principles governing the use of numbers.
The ancient Greeks gave emphasis to the geometric application of numbers for measurement, as in the fields of architectural engineering and astronomy.
Indians made important advances with the development of the Hindu numerals and applications of trigonometry to astronomy at the end of the 5 th century AD. With the perfection of the decimal system and solution to indeterminate equations and the addition of the zero symbol in the late 9 th century, a decimal based system of positional notation was fully in place.
The introduction of the Hindu numerals and algebra into Europe from Arabia gradually supplanted the Roman numerals. Precise quantification was extended to many fields of life. The use of letters in place of numbers in mathematics was introduced in the 13 th century. The operational symbols in arithmetic were devised in the 14 th. This was accompanied by a significant change in written notations. The order of subject, verb and object, the separation of individual letters into words, sentences, and paragraphs, the adoption of punctuation, chapter headings, headlines, cross references and alphabetization as an organizing principle were major advances.
In combination, they facilitated the spread of literacy and the use of numbers. The spread of mechanical clocks from the late 13 th century enhanced the consciousness of time. The development of musical notation combined symbols and mathematical concepts to denote both octave and tempo. The introduction of double entry resulting in the separation of assets and liabilities, debits and credits greatly facilitated the development of commerce and banking.
While Greece focused on the application of mind to ideas and Rome focused on the organizing power of mind in society, the modern period began with intensive concentration of the powers of mind on the physical world. The power of the analytic mind turned its attention to the physical world of Nature.
It gave rise to methods of inquiry that replaced the authority of Church doctrine with validation by physical observations. A brief survey cannot do justice to the many stages through which modern science has developed or the complex array of civilizational advances that influenced that development. The founding of universities, spread of learning, and rediscovery of the Greek classical legacy gradually restored the preeminent authority of logical reasoning and empirical experience.
It led to the development of inductive and systematic testing in the 12 th century and the reemergence of mathematics, philosophy and metaphysics in the 13 th century. A commercial revolution led to important innovations in agricultural production, manufacturing, entrepreneurship, trade, shipping, banking and insurance. This in turn gave rise to a bourgeoisie of unprecedented wealth and sense of independence, which spurred a radical reorganization of society with increasing freedom and independence from feudal and church authority.
The revival of Platonic philosophy legitimized the pursuit of metaphysical truth through number, geometry and intuition, laying the intellectual groundwork for the emergence of rational, secular humanism and individualism in the 15 th century. An efflorescence of originality in the arts coupled with the rise of individualism gave birth to the concept of genius, an idea unknown in the medieval world-view. During the same period a new type of combinatorial mathematics developed based on analysis of gambling situations which ultimately gave rise to the inductive method of statistical probability.
The spread of democratic ideas during the 18 th century promoted freedom of thought and expression.
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The spread of education increased the population that could engage in and benefit from new ideas and scientific discoveries. All these factors gained far greater significance when the Industrial Revolution demonstrated the enormous power of science for generating wealth and military power during the 19 th century. Although most of the early inventions of this period were developed by skilled mechanics rather than trained scientists, it soon became evident that a systematic study of scientific principles could vastly enhance the process of innovation.
The marriage of science, technology and economy spurred the development of technical education in engineering, agriculture and medicine. The remarkable achievements of science over the past four centuries are too vast and self-evident to be given adequate treatment in this paper. The focus here is on the profound impact the rise of empirical science and the scientific revolution has had on our conception of knowledge and the way we utilize the powers of mind to discover it.
If inordinate attention seems to be placed on the limitations and unintended consequences of science as a pursuit of knowledge, it is with the hope that a greater understanding of these limitations and consequences will provide insight into the need and potential for evolving more effective instruments of knowledge and more successful forms of civilization in the 21 st century. Our primary concern is the relationship between these developments and our approach to understanding the world. Physical observation, measurement, analytic thinking and experimentation formed the foundations of modern science.
Minutely detailed and careful observation of physical phenomena that could be independently verified by other observers was the starting point. Scientific instruments were developed to extend the reach of the senses and improve their accuracy. But the real power of modern science issued from a marriage of observation and measurement with analytic thinking. The Copernican Revolution dramatized the limitations of sensory data as the basis for knowledge. From ancient times it had been known that sense impressions could distort reality. Copernicus applied logic and precise mathematics to refute the notion that all heavenly bodies move around the earth.
Galileo confirmed this heretical view by using a telescope to observe four moons orbiting around Jupiter. It ushered in what Kuhn calls a scientific revolution, based on a new conceptual system and a new method of knowing reality. Newton combined acute observation, precise measurement, reflective analytic thinking and mathematics to change the way science viewed the world for three centuries. His discovery of universal laws of nature and the invisible force of gravitation had profound impact on our conception of reality and knowledge.
Newton applied new concepts and a new mathematics to arrive at a more precise understanding of the physical world. The concept of immutable laws of governing an orderly, machine-like universe became a conception in science. His work spurred advances in mathematics as a field of knowledge in its own right and as an instrument of knowledge applicable to all fields of existence. As a consequence, modern science has come to identify valid knowledge with mathematical proof and to search for knowledge in places where the light of mathematics can shine brightly.
The rise of modern science altered the course of global civilization, the evolution of the human mind and the development of our conception of knowledge in fundamental ways. The contributions of modern science to the march of civilization are immeasurable. Even its tendency toward exclusive concentration on physicality, the objective world, the measurable, quantitative, and universal has had salutary effects of great value. Materialism has wiped away much that was merely superstitious or speculative.
Its irreverent questioning of acknowledged truths has unleashed an insatiable curiosity and spirit of adventure. Its ruthless rejection of unfounded opinion and prejudice has helped discipline the thinking mind to challenge opinions, shed preferences and prejudices, question conventional beliefs and challenge established authority. Even its atheism has helped cleanse religion of pious posturing and vacuous moralizing. It has served as a basis for the democratization of our lives as well as our minds, at least within the boundaries of the world as science perceives and understands them.
Each of these characteristics has contributed positively to the advance of scientific knowledge and is partly responsible for its collective achievements over the past five centuries. At the same time, each of them has imposed arbitrary limits on the development of knowledge. After reigning victorious for four centuries, today we see the weaknesses and insufficiencies of modern science rising to the surface, staring at us with its unvarnished flaws and glaring inadequacies. An impartial consideration of their role will help us understand both the strengths and weaknesses of science today and reveal opportunities for the further advance of both knowledge and civilization.
The initial concentration of modern science on physical nature was justified as a logical choice and practical necessity. The rise of positivism converted practical necessity into philosophical dogma with profound implications for the development of science and the further evolution of mind. The transition was abetted by confusion regarding the ambiguity of the terms objectivity and subjectivity, each of which has a double meaning. This led eventually to the philosophical premise that reality consists solely of objects that can be studied objectively and by extension that all subjective phenomena are secondary results of objective causes.
The word subjectivity also has two meanings which have gradually become conjoined and confused with one another. Only its behavioral expressions can be observed by others. So the idea of subjectivity as the psychological experience of a conscious individual came to be regarded as an unscientific and invalid form of evidence and to some extent an invalid form of experience.
As in the anecdote of the man who lost his keys on a dark street and searched for them down the block under a street light where there was better light, science sought to discover ultimate knowledge by the exclusive study of physical factors that could be observed by the physical senses and measured by material instruments. In the process the entire subjective dimension of reality, the dimension which distinguishes human beings from all other species, was subordinated to the objective dimension observable by the senses.
Eventually it resulted in philosophical and scientific efforts to reduce all non-physical phenomena solely to physical causes. The course of science exerted a subtle influence on the development of mental faculties and concepts of truth, knowledge and logic. It displaced the Greek conception of truth as that which could be known in the form of pure ideas accessible to logical reasoning, but not necessarily to physical observation or measurement.
Rationality itself came to be narrowly associated only with that which can be perceived and verified physically. The old adage that I will believe it when I see it acquired the status of scientific dogma, even when applied to aspects of reality beyond the reach of the senses.
This phenomenon might be termed the materialization of knowledge. Divide and subdivide reality ever so much and we still arrive at some smaller portion of reality that eludes our grasp. The infinitesimal is infinite. The dominant role of the analytic intellect in modern science resulted in the dissection of knowledge into smaller and smaller fragments resulting in the proliferation of specialized fields of study.
Analysis is an extremely powerful instrument. It harnesses the dividing power of mind to separate reality into smaller and smaller parts. By so doing, we acquire more precise, detailed knowledge of the part and are enticed to drill down to ever deeper levels of minuteness. As its focus narrows to laser-like precision, the surrounding fields and interconnected aspects of reality grow proportionately out of focus and obscure. The more we know the part, the less we know about the integrality of the whole.
History of Knowledge: Research, Resources, and Perspectives
Physical science has compensated for this divisive tendency by aggregating knowledge from different specialized fields to form a remarkably cohesive and coherent conception of the physical universe. It has successfully incorporated the fundamental principles of physics into chemistry and the principles of both into astronomy, geology, the material sciences, climatology, oceanography, soil science and innumerable other disciplines.
While the same fundamental principles are consistently applied, the interactions between subsidiary fields founded on these principles have been less effectively related and integrated. Partly, this is due to the complexity arising from these multiple interactions, but also partly because research and theorization have largely proceeded in a compartmentalized manner.
Raging controversies regarding climate change are partly attributable to the fact that for so long the complex array of phenomena that influence climate have been studied piecemeal, independently from one another. The consequences of compartmentalization and fragmentation become more evident when we look at the life sciences.
Here the effort to overcome compartmental barriers is far less advanced. Interdisciplinary and cross disciplinary research have become more common, but the fundamental principles applied in different fields remain largely autonomous. For decades, evolutionary biology remained preoccupied with the exclusive role of random mutation in the evolution of species, ignoring important biological and environmental factors that impact on the chemistry and biology of genetic materials.
In medicine, specialization has led to remarkable progress in our understanding of specific pathologies, but it has taught us relatively little about the overall concept of health. Moreover, the piecemeal treatment of specific illnesses often has consequences quite detrimental to the overall health of the patient. In allopathic medicine health is conceived primarily in negative terms as the absence of disease; whereas in traditional systems of medicine such as Ayurveda, developed by reliance on more synthetic and integrative mental processes, health is conceived in positive terms as the property of a balanced and harmonious living organism.
This becomes even more evident when we take into account psycho-somatic phenomena. Indeed, recent findings indicate that the placebo effect is increasing over time. This and other phenomena directly connecting physiological and psychological processes testify to the need for a much more synthetic conception and approach. The six characteristics of empirical science discussed above have each had profound impact on the development of mind, knowledge and modern civilization. Re-examining the implicit and explicit premises underlying modern science is vitally needed to further the advance of knowledge in all fields.
But the limitations of the prevailing approach are most apparent in precisely the fields of knowledge closely associated with the challenges humanity confronts in coping with rapid and radical global social, economic, political, intellectual, technological and cultural evolution. Therefore, it is especially necessary to consider whether the application of the analytic methods of the natural sciences to the social sciences is itself one of the root causes of the current problems confronting humanity today.
A comparison of the natural and social sciences needs to take into account the significant differences between these two bodies of knowledge. The most obvious is the fact that systematic study of physical and biological phenomena began several centuries before the systematic application of the scientific method to the study of society. By comparison the social sciences are still in a very early stage of development. Furthermore, there is an enormous difference in the intricacy and complexity of the phenomena being studied in the two realms. Living organisms are far more complex than inanimate material objects.
In addition to possessing all the attributes of material things, they also superimpose on their physical base structural and functional characteristics and environmental interactions not found in inorganic forms. This adds enormously to the complexity of living things. The same is even more true of the phenomena studied by the human sciences.
To the complexity of physics, chemistry, biology, genetics and earth sciences, is added the complexity of conscious, self-aware purposeful human beings living in complex social and cultural environments, interacting with myriad social institutions and organized activities, utilizing a vast array of tools and instruments, and influenced by the cumulative knowledge and experience of countless generations of humanity. Moreover, the level of individuation, complexity and uniqueness observed in human beings is far greater than that found in other life forms.
The behavior of every electron, every atom of hydrogen and every red blood cell may be identical, but the behavior of every individual human being is characterized by a very large degree of variation and uniqueness. The range of factors influencing behavior and outcomes defies numeration. Physical and biological factors apply, but social, cultural and psychological factors play a determinative role. Individuality may safely be ignored in the study of physical and biological phenomena, but it is central to the knowledge of conscious human beings.
The problem of compartmentalization of knowledge in the social sciences becomes evident when we consider that each discipline has developed its own set of fundamental principles and applies them relatively independently from the rest. Different concepts and hypotheses regarding human behavior are routinely adopted by political scientists, economists, sociologists, anthropologists, lawyers, and management scientists, yet all with application to the same subject—individuals and groups of individual human beings.
No universally accepted principles are uniformly applied across fields. The consequences of this fragmentation are apparent in the problems we confront related to environmental degradation, unemployment, political instability, social alienation, crime, drugs, and psychological disorders. For two centuries Economic theory developed without giving serious consideration to the impact of human economic behavior on the physical environment.
Similarly, the development and application of technologies for economic purposes have been done without regard for their impact on employment, social stability, human welfare and well-being. Many economic theorists ignore the central role of political regulation in the successful operation of free and competitive markets.
Legal theory has become increasingly divorced from political principles, social aspirations and human rights. The humanitarian rights of humanity are rejected on the basis of legal principles that recognize only the rights of sovereign nations, not of their citizens. The same fragmentation of knowledge occurs within disciplines supporting an increasing divorce between different aspects of our social existence.
Backed by fragmented theoretical conceptions, financial markets have become divorced from the real economy and the economic welfare of people which they were originally intended to support. A similar fragmentation has led to the treatment of a wide range of psychological problems as if they are simply physical in origin. The Cartesian divide also isolates and insulates social science from society and the social consequences of its theories.
Theorists assume no responsibility for the failures arising from application of their flawed conceptions, as exemplified by the global crisis of Scientists in leading universities refuse to acknowledge or apply the findings of educational researchers in the same institution about the most effective pedagogy to promote learning. Medical doctors are licensed without receiving any training in managing patient and family relations.
The list of gaps and short-circuits is endless. The phenomenal success of the natural sciences spurred efforts by early social scientists to imitate and replicate the same approach. The discovery of immutable universal laws governing the physical universe led to a search for similar principles applicable to society. The extension of the concept of law to conscious human behavior, individual and social, has been the source of endless confusion and error.
The governance of political systems and the functioning of our economies are not determined by natural law. They are the result of conscious choices made by individuals and groups in the past, which have undergone a continuous process of evolution over the centuries and are always subject to modification by conscious choice. The resistance posed to social and psychological change by established habits, beliefs, self-interests and inertia may indeed be formidable, but no social arrangement is unchanging or inevitable. In the field of Economics, the enunciation of principles and the construction of mathematical models similar to those in Physics have fostered a basic misconception regarding the factors that govern economic systems and the scope for altering their outcomes.
For nearly two centuries the Newtonian concept of equilibrium in a static universe that dissipates energy and tends toward the lowest possible energy state prevailed almost unchallenged in Economics. The theory of perfect, instantaneous equilibrium is inapplicable to social systems that function far from equilibrium, adjust gradually, organize energy and continuously evolve higher levels of orderliness. Similarly, the Darwinian concept of the evolution of subconscious biological forms narrowly viewed as competition and survival of the fittest was inaptly applied and later rejected with respect to conscious social systems.
Society evolves by processes that are conscious and subjective. Aspiration, curiosity, observation, thinking, creativity and imagination are more fundamental than external forces in human social evolution. Competition takes place within a wider and more fundamental framework of cooperation.
As this narrative affirms, human evolution is a complex conscious process involving continuous interaction among the objective and subjective dimensions, physical facts and mental conceptions, natural forces and human aspirations, creative individuals and social groups. Analogies between the natural and human world may provide useful insights into similarities and parallels between the two domains.
But the automatic extension of physical principles to conscious living beings conceals more than it reveals, obscures rich complexity by overly simplistic assumptions, and reduces the profound creative complexity of human existence to rudimentary mechanical models and quantitative equations. It is here that the confusion regarding impartiality and reality has imposed the most serious obstacles to the progress of knowledge.
The identification of knowledge with objective fact has erected a serious barrier to the progress of knowledge. The sciences of society and psychology are concerned with the actions of conscious human beings. Those actions include not only the physical movements of our bodies, but also our mental actions of observation, thought, will, imagination and creativity.
They also encompass our vital actions of perceiving, feeling, emoting, aspiring, fearing, desiring, loving, enjoying, playing, and so forth. The effort to discount, dismiss, or delegitimize our subjective experience is to reject all that is most truly human about us, simply because it does not lend itself to observation and measurement in physical terms.
The effort to compress, reduce or reinterpret all subjective experience solely in terms of neurophysiology is akin to looking for lost keys under the street light, because that is the only place our eyes can see. It seems reasonable that the physical scientist studying matter assumes the position of an observer mind witnessing an independent physical reality. Self-experience is the most vividly real and tangible experience of which human beings are capable.
Indeed, we can never experience anything else so directly and intensely. When we impartially examine the supporting evidence, we realize that the reduction of all subjective experience arises from the initial premise of physical science rather than from either rational or evidential justification. The fact that there are neurophysiological correlates to our conscious experience no more proves that our thoughts and feelings are the result of neurophysiological phenomena than the fact that adjusting the dials on a television proves that the program being broadcast originates from the TV.
Nevertheless, the pursuit of extreme hypotheses such as this one and the presumption that human intelligence and machine intelligence are the same may serve an evolutionary purpose. Indeed, it can help us understand the mental and social processes by which both mind and civilization have advanced up to the present stage.
Undoubtedly there are correlations between our mental and physiological processes. An impartial observation of both the similarities and differences between them may generate valuable insights.
A Brief History of Knowledge
But this requires that we remain conscious of the hypothesis we are testing. The problem of objectivity goes still deeper. In regarding reason as an impartial judge and witness of reality, we overlook the implicit biases that colors all rational thought. Reason has a pronounced tendency to concentrate on facts and ideas consistent with its premises and to ignore or differently interpret those that contradict it.
The effort to exclude philosophy from science suppresses open discussion, but can never eliminate its subjectivity. In denying the validity of subjective forms of knowledge, science invalidates itself. The application of statistics to social problems has brought to the front inherent problems with the quantification of human experience.
Taleb seeks to challenge a blind or misguided sense of confidence in the reliability of political and economic decisions based on statistics. He concludes that the problem lies in the structure of our minds. The point here is not to criticize either science or social science. It is rather to emphasize the inherent limitations and untoward consequences that arise from a partial, one-sided and unbalanced development and application of our mental faculties.
The knowledge we need is very unlikely to be discovered by objective analytic methods, quantitative measurements or experimental neuroscience. It lies in our conscious experience and can be most directly accessed by reflecting on our own mode of functioning as scientists, rather than hunting for answers through mountains of clinical experiments. No other field of scientific inquiry has so much to offer. Long before the development of logic, the ancients discovered the profound truth that reality is one and indivisible.
What mind infinitely divides for the purpose of analysis remains at all times a unified, integrated whole. The more we divide reality for the purpose of understanding its component parts, the more we lose sight of the interconnections, relationships and interdependencies that reflect its underlying unity. Division and aggregation present complementary perspectives of reality. The microscope and the telescope are instruments fashioned by these compensatory needs to zero in on a specific target and zoom out to see the big picture.
The inherent limitations and inadequacy of the knowledge generated by extreme specialization, compartmentalization and fragmentation became increasingly apparent in the 20 th century and inevitably gave rise to efforts to reunite that which had been torn asunder into tiny fragments.
Compartmentalized universities introduced interdisciplinary, cross-disciplinary and multi-disciplinary studies and research, which sought to bring a variety of different perspectives to bear on problematic issues. But the inherent limitations of these efforts soon became evident. Each brought to the problem a different set of concepts, theories and evidential data to talk about the same problem, without any shared conceptual framework indicating the relationship between these disparate perspectives, their interdependencies or the unifying factors underlying their different expressions.
The limitations of aggregating multiple sets of data based on different theoretical frameworks gave rise to efforts to conceptualize the relationships between all the parts by viewing the whole as a complex interconnected system. Cybernetics evolved as the study of control systems in the early 20 th century in the fields of electric network theory, mechanical engineering, logic modeling, evolutionary biology and neuroscience. Its insights contributed to the theory of complex systems.
It stimulated transdisciplinary research in information theory, artificial intelligence, robotics, medical science, economic systems, biology, cognitive science, management, sociology, and the earth sciences. A similar approach has been adopted to build systemic theories and models of global financial markets and the global economy, as well as to comprehend the complex array of forces that govern the climate of the earth and on the impact of human behavior on the planet.
Systems theory has helped compensate for the extreme fragmentation of knowledge resulting from specialization. It has restored a vision of the totality of existence within specific fields and with relation to specific problems. Conversely, the practical development of cyberspace has provided a tangible example, symbol and metaphor for systemic thinking and has been a catalyst for the development of more comprehensive, inclusive thinking in all walks of life.
At a more fundamental level it seeks to identify universal principles that underlie and govern the behavior of complex adaptive systems in a very wide range of applications, such as network effects, emergence, self-organization, and self-reproduction autopoiesis. It represents a serious effort to move from the aggregation of specialized knowledge through multi-disciplinarity to the search for unifying trans-disciplinary principles.
In spite of these momentous developments, the advance of knowledge remains encumbered by several other characteristics of the Scientific Revolution which have yet to be seriously challenged. The first and most obvious of these is the mechanization of reality. The perception and conception of reality in mechanical terms still dominate scientific thinking, even with regard to living beings and conscious individuals. The idea of a simple clockwork universe has given place to more complex network models, but the models remain very largely mechanical and mechanistic.