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Incomprehensible constraints on comprehensive capacity


Living with Incomprehension and Uncertainty (Part #8)


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As a psychosocial phenomenon, the above pattern merits review in the light of the variety of "disciplines" or "modes of knowledge". These might well have included the conventionally deprecated traditional/indigenous modes of knowledge as articulated in the compilation by Darrell Posey (Cultural and Spiritual Values of Biodiversity, United Nations Environmental Programme, 1999).

Philosophy: Arguably philosophers have engaged in noble efforts to clarify the context within which all-encompassing theories emerge and decline (Nicholas Rescher, The Strife of Systems: an essay on the grounds and implications of philosophical diversity, 1985). It is very challenging to engage cognitively with that context and the process, especially given the commitment to the next emerging theory and the exciting claims made for it. The process has been partially addressed in the debate over the contrasting perspectives of T. S. Kuhn (The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 1962) and Karl Popper (Conjectures and Refutations: the growth of scientific knowledge, 1963). Rescher (1985) concludes his study of such distinctly unintegrative conflict with the comment:

For centuries, most philosophers who have reflected on the matter have been intimidated by the strife of systems. But the time has come to put this behind us -- not the strife, that is, which is ineliminable, but the felt need to somehow end it rather than simply accept it and take it in stride. To reemphasize the salient point: it would be bizarre to think that philosophy is not of value because philosophical positions are bound to reflect the particular values we hold.

It could be considered incomprehensible that philosophy has proven to be significantly inadequate to addressing incomprehension between philosophies -- and especially irresponsible in its failure to recognize the issue (with the notable exception of Rescher), other than to deplore how "misguided" or "wrong" are the philosophies promoted by others. "Metaphysics" and "metaphilosophy" have become synonymous with irrelevance.

Religion and theology: Christianity offers an especially dramatic instance of incomprehension through the question of Jesus on the Cross: Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?, meaning My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34) -- the subject of many sermons (cf. Human Incomprehension: the Cross, OnePlace)

Curiously, useful insights into the nature (and value) of incomprehension are offered in a particular debate central to Christian theology, as indicated by the following:

For a global civilization on the brink of World War III as a consequence of faith-driven governance, the self-righteous complacency of the Abrahamic religions regarding the nature and quality of their relationship can only be described as incomprehensibly shocking. As self-proclaimed vehicles of "global" comprehension and the highest values of humanity, they effectively epitomize the capacity to engender fatal incomprehension -- and seemingly take pride in doing so. The many efforts at "inter-faith dialogue" then appear to be incomprehensible exercises in tokenism -- despite the riches and experience on which religion is able to draw, especially in the light of the fatal conflicts between their own schismatic groups..

Disciplines: How, asks Russell Ackoff (Systems, organizations, and interdisciplinary research, General Systems Yearbook, 1960), is a practitioner of any one discipline to know in a particular case whether another discipline is better equipped to handle the problem than is his? It would be rare indeed if a representative of one of the many disciplines in some way related to the problem in question did not feel that his particular approach to that problem would be very fruitful, if not the most fruitful. This tendency is also institutionalized, as noted by Hasan Ozbekhan (1969):

This almost subconsciously motivated attempt, that of a sector to expand over the whole space of the system in its own particular terms and in accordance with its own particular outlooks and traditions, compounds the problem by further fragmenting the wholeness of the system. For sectors cannot become systems, they can only dominate them; and when they do they warp them.

On the same point, Ackoff notes (1960):

...few of the problems that arise can adequately be handled within any one discipline. Such systems are not fundamentally mechanical, chemical, biological, psychological, social, economic, political, or ethical. These are merely different ways of looking at such systems. Complete understanding of such systems requires an integration of these perspectives. By integration I do not mean a synthesis of results obtained by independently conducted undisciplinary studies, but rather results obtained from studies in the process of which disciplinary perspectives have been synthesized. The integration must come during, not after, the performance of the research.

As with philosophy in particular, it is curious that  disciplines in general have been content to ignore the mutual incomprehensibility of modes of knowing alternative to that which they individually advocate. The various forms of interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity have proved to be of little significance to the experience of incomprehension of those obliged to wander the streets between the ivory towers and information silos of the disciplines, as separately discussed (¿ Higher Education ∞ Meta-education ? Transforming cognitive enabling processes increasingly unfit for purpose 2011).

Unexplored wealth of insight: It is especially to be regretted that the emerging complex insights of fundamental physics and cosmology -- informed by relativity theory and paradox -- have not been explored as a source of patterns of thinking more capable of interrelating the diversity of perspectives that emerge in the psychosocial processes above. It is perhaps characteristically tragic that a physicist such as Alan Sokal should acquire his fame by using the language of physics to frame the perspectives of those whose worldview he deprecates as "nonsense" (Fashionable Nonsense: postmodern intellectuals' abuse of science, 1999). Ironically such misuse of physics might well be understood as exemplifying the "abuse of science" he condemns. More paradoxical however, at a time when physics is attributing ever-increasing significance to "nothing", is the possibility that so-called "nonsense" may come to have far greater significance -- in the light of the emerging capacity of physics to offer new ways of thinking, as discussed separately (Evolutionary influence of the absent, 2011; Fundamental integrative role of nothing -- the ultimate remainder?, 2011) in the light of special issues of the New Scientist on the topic (Nothing: the intangible idea that rules the cosmos, 19-23 November 2011; Something from Nothing,18 February 2012; The Nature of Nothingness; The Grand Delusion: why nothing is at it seems).

Whether science or religion, it would seem that those most convinced of the inherent superiority of their particular mode of knowing are incapable of effectively and meaningfully addressing the dynamics of the psychosocial system in which they are immersed. This phenomenon merits consideration  in its own right. In particular, despite the fact that religion and science attach a high value to quite distinct forms of critical self-reflexivity, the associated insights offer little of relevance to their capacity to reflect on the place of their particular mode of knowing within any larger context. This is especially ironical in the case of physics, given the significance it attaches to relativity theory and its ability to handle frames of reference moving in relation to one another -- in contrast to its total deprecation of any "relativism" allowing of other modes of knowing. This pattern it also shares with religion.

It is then understandable that any observer of this "incomprehensible" dynamic might simply conclude "a plague on both your houses", as argued with regard to the debate between creationists and evolutionists by Mary Midgley (A Plague On Both Their Houses, Philosophy Now, January/February 2012; The Myths We Live By, 2003; Science As Salvation: a modern myth and its meaning, 1992; Evolution as a Religion: strange hopes and stranger fears, 1985) .


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