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Commentary

Some familiarity with philosophy is basic for anyone with an inquisitive mind. And this must apply to anyone who sees value in education.

Philosophy examines the assumptions on which our beliefs rest. These assumptions are less secure and more complicated than they might seem at first and if we are not prepared to open our minds to intellectual possibilities then we will become victims of stultifying dogma. There is a point where questions run out (philosophers refer to philosophical neurosis and make statements like ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent’) . . .  but blind acceptance is never an option for the critical mind.

Our understanding and explanation of the world begins with metaphysics or, in other words, reality and its representation. Philosopher Wilfred Sellars described this as the investigation of the way that ‘Things (in the broadest sense of the word) hang together (in the broadest sense of the word). This seemingly inane remark, as philosopher Dan Dennett points out is, under closer inspection, not so silly.

We think and communicate about the world (about the way it hangs together) using categories or objects (things) of more or less abstraction. And much of the time the ‘things’ we are dealing with are a consequence of our immediate response to the world, our intuitions.

It appears to be only a recent insight that these intuitions are essentially biological in origin. The way we perceive the world and the cognitive categories we use to think are those that have proved important to us as humans in the course of our evolutionary history: the factors that were important in our environment of evolutionary adaptation. This then is the world as it seems to us – what Sellars called the manifest image.

The blue planet

Humanity can only flourish in a harmonious relationship with fellow humans, the planet, and its biodiversity

Articles on this web site argue that this broad aspiration for humanity is expressed through the internationally-agreed goal of ‘sustainability’ as promoted by the United Nations. If we want to change the world for the better, making it a more secure place for humans and the future community of life, then it is not enough to just do science. Sooner or later we must reconcile ourselves with the world of ethics, meaning, and purpose.

Part of the challenge of sustainability is to determine the physical conditions needed to preserve and improve the well-being of the global community of life. This is a quantitative exercise involving the measuring and monitoring of the physical factors that affect quality of life and it provides common ground and goals for the diversity of world peoples. Much more difficult is the political process of working together to determine common values and priorities. This political process is, of course, as old as humanity itself and there is a suite of strategies in general use to address it including: improving social interaction and interdependence by engaging in trade and commerce; the formal establishment of internationally accepted systems of behaviour and law; an increasing exchange of ideas and promotion of cosmopolitanism aided by the use of all communications media including social media; and, arguably, the encouragement of liberal democracy. Approaches like this will, we hope, encourage greater mutual tolerance when people come from backgrounds that include different religions, ideologies, belief-systems and norms.

Another more academic and apolitical approach is examine more rigorously than ever before those factors that influence the way we think, our social attitudes and norms. This is a rapidly-developing field of research and it does offer some hope of improved understanding and additional strategies for the future – partly by avoiding the mistakes of the past but also by applying new knowledge about ourselves and our beliefs.

This Foundations section challenges you, the reader, to think about: the role of science and religion as sources of knowledge and patterns of thinking; the way that modern science is informing our outlook on the world; the nature of morality and its scope and the potential for new disciplines like moral psychology, practical ethics, and evolutionary psychology; our present-day outlook on the potential and limitations of reason; and contemporary analysis of the nature of human nature. These topics are contemporary areas of contribution to the social dimension of sustainability alongside the domains of economics and the environment. This complements the approach taken to the general topic of this blog and since the articles on this web site offer an approach that combines history and science I have deliberately included material usually placed in the generally-ignored specialist academic pigeon-hole called ‘history and philosophy of science’.[1] This is part of the multidisciplinary Big History approach of the site.

Apart from general informational articles related to the topics on this site like Latin?” href=”https://plantspeopleplanet.org.au/?page_id=5035″>Why Latin? and others, there are articles in the series on Sustainabilty in world history. On this page’s menu is a cluster of seven articles that address the foundational issues I refer to above: the way we think about and perceive the world and what we think is important; what it is about our human nature that influences our social, religious and scientific explanations; the scientific world view; and the implications all this has for our future: meaning and purpose, grand narratives, the grand narrative of science, reason and rationality, reason and morality, moral psychology, and Human nature.

Inevitably each one of us approaches the world from our own particular point of view, a view that is partly the result of what we have been taught or learned in various ways, and partly the result of our own thoughts and conclusions. When writing an article for people to read, or even when drafting a scientific paper, we dont bother about all these foundational issues (our basic assumptions about the world) because they can quickly become complicated, controversial, academic, confronting, and divisive. Even worse, there may be no way to resolve any differences of opinion. So, understandably, we just get on with the job at hand, leaving our assumptions implicit and letting the reader form their own conclusions about ‘where we are coming from’. Besides, we tend to associate and communicate with people of the same broad beliefs and similar customs for getting along together. This desire to avoid conflict and sterile debate can lead us to become intellectually lazy about such matters: we leave their study and analysis to philosophers, religious leaders, and people of similar ilk, that is, people who we can easily ignore.

Reality
However, we all have a world view, a set of assumptions about what is ‘real’, what ultimately makes up our existence and governs our lives. Most people in the world today find answers to questions of purpose and meaning through the supernatural as it is represented in the great world religions. Those who do not have religious or spiritual faith look to naturalistic explanations, and the best naturalistic explanations we can collectively muster are those of science. Indeed science is a powerful predictive tool that has that has demonstrated its application through the technology that we use. But science itself has a metaphysical base, that is, it brings with it assumptions about the way the world is.

The article on ‘Reality’ examines the way we develop world views and especially that of science while under the headings of ‘Reductionism’ and ‘causation‘ the articles explore the way that traditional scientific metaphysics is undergoing a major revision.

Principle 1 – Reality can only be what we, as human beings, take it to be: we cannot step outside ourselves to see if we have got it right. The nearest we can get to an understanding of the world as it exists outside ourselves is through science, but part of this scientific process is understanding ourselves and why we experience the world as we do

The conventional metaphysical view of science, Aristotelian in character, is foundationalist and smallist (reductionist). That is, our scientific explanations proceed by analysis such that wholes are explained in terms of their parts in a regress that comes to rest on a foundation of all existence which consists of the smallest objects that science can discriminate. The appeal of this metaphysical characterization is that it presents us with a unity of science: the entire physical universe consists ultimately of minute objects and their relations – once spoken of as ‘matter in motion’. This is the world of physics. Regardless of any complexity in the organization of world matter, all can ultimately be reduced to its smallest and most fundamental constituents. Sometimes associated with this view of science is the conviction that science has achieved its undeniably impressive results by the application of a special ‘scientific method’, a procedure employing logic in a method known as hypothetico-deductive or deductive-nomological.

Against this conventional view is another (surprizingly also Aristotelian in character) according to which science cannot be separated neatly from other disciplines by some special and unique logic or procedure. Science is continuous with other fields of enquiry but it has tools, many shared with other disciplines, that include mathematics, scientific instruments, and a self-critical community of experts. Instead of regarding the physical world as cosisting of small objects in certain combinations and relations it is characterised as being layered hierarchically in increasing degrees of organizational complexity that account for the various academic disciplines . . . moving from physics, to chemistry, to biochemistry, to biology, to ecology, sociology, and so on. This might still be related to the size of the objects under investigation so that we have atoms, molecules, cells, tissues, organs, individual bodies, communities, ecosystems.
This characterization of the world as consisting of a layered hierarchy of objects, reminiscent of the Great Chain of Being, is clearly an explanatory metaphor that has been found useful.

But this second metaphor is also becoming tired. A feature of hierarchies is that they rank objects, and ranking is associated strongly with position and value. There is a ‘top’ and a ‘bottom’ with one of these of greater value. In other words the criteria on which any hierarchy is based are given rank-value. In science there are three major ideas or criteria on which the hierarchical metaphor is based: size, inclusiveness, and complexity.

Size

Though I may describe my body in terms of its molecules, cells, tissues, or organs it is still the same body, that is, the molecules, cells, tissues, and organs exist not separately but altogether and equally. In this sense we have a flat ontology, so the idea of layers or levels is unhelpful since it confusingly suggests the superimposition of one thing on another. There will, of course, be times when the size of an object is important to our explanations but this is our chosen criterion, it cannot be given any special ontological status just because of its size – size does not make an object more or less ‘real’. Though we may indeed find those explanations that procede by analysis convincing or enlightening, the objects of the analysis have no special status – an electron is no more real than a hamburgher. Nor is the hamburgher more real or significant because it is more complex of holistically more inclusive than the electron.

Inclusiveness

The biological world arose by descent with modification. Though Aristotle and Linnaeus developed their systems of biological classification before the theory of evolution had appeared, they reflect this biolocal principle by being organised into categories of increasing or decreasing inclusiveness (classification can obviously be ‘read’ both ways). So, species are organized into genera, genera into families, families into orders and so on. The idea of greater or lesser inclusiveness backed up by biological classification is a powerful idea i which the size or complexity of the units that are being classified need not matter.

Complexity

Generally, but not always, as evolution has proceeded organisms have become more complex. Natural selection works on those factors that confer advantage and these seem to generally entail novelties and elaborations of what was there before. Again, complexity need have little to do with size or inclusiveness. A small cell can be exceedingly complex and inclusiveness seems almost unrelated in any way.

Our preferable scientific metaphor of reality will therefore provide a flat ontology for both the objects under consideration and the criteria used to distinguish between them. But there is difficulty. If we treat everything around us equally then we cannot act. It is therefore critical for our cognition that objects are ranked in some way . . . but ideally we need to convey that this is as value-neutral and ‘scientific’ (reflecting the external world as closely as possible).

Principle 2 – Reductionist and hierarchical characterizations of reality are ambiguous and confusing . . .

My coverage here of such wide-ranging topics is inevitably superficial but it does provide a multidisciplinary overview in a form that is currently difficult to find. The articles do establish a ‘position’ or ‘point of view’– essentially a form of scientific realism in a secular Western liberal democracy – but the material is presented in this way to serve as a framework for constructive criticism rather than as a dogma. I present my own views simply to stimulate the thinking of those who are curious about the human condition.

Though the five core articles may be read in any order I recommend that the reader reads them all before proceeding to the summary of these articles in the Commentary.

A world view

The challenge for science and philosophy in the 21st century is not just to devise a physical account of the universe in the form of a unified field theory, M-theory, or string theory: this is the vision of old reductionist science. Instead we need an intellectually coherent account of reality that encompasses life, the mind, consciousness, normativity, function, information, meaning, representation, and intentionality.

From a post-Darwinian interpretation of Immanuel Kant’s thinking we arrive at a metaphysics, a modern interpretation of reality as a grand narrative or worldview. As human animals we have evolved in constant interaction with the world that lies outside our bodies as a kind of organism-environment continuum. What we make of the external world, what we can know about it and ourselves (our epistemology) relates to our evolved faculties of perception and cognition which present the external world to us in what we can refer to in general terms as ‘human reality’. We cannot know with certainty the relationship between human reality and the external world but our most effective epistemological tool for managing the world, as demonstrated by its practical application and predictive capacity, is science. We can beneficially think of science as the progressive and cumulative improvement of the categories we use to match our human reality with the external world.<sup[2] That is, science tries to map, as best it can, the character of the external world as it is ‘in itself’, not the world as interpreted by human reality.

Just as the evolution of organisms has resulted in numerous bodily solutions to problems posed by the environment, none being privileged over any other, so human reality is just one among many realities that is not privileged over that of other sentient organisms. There are nevertheless important cognitive differences between humans and other sentient animals: the processing power of the human brain is greater than that of other sentient creatures and one consequence of this is the human capacity to accumulate and store culturally acquired knowledge transmitted by means of symbolic languages (including science, mathematics as well as more familiar languages). Slow changes in bodies resulting from genetic modification as a consequence of natural selection (biological evolution transmitted through the modification of genes) has been greatly accelerated by a much more rapid social process of information transmission (cultural evolution through the modification of memes as units of knowledge). Modification of circumstances through changes in genetic and mimetic pathways is not automatically for the better.

Citations & notes

[1] Today the history and philosophy of science is rarely included in the academic curriculum of science students. Articles in this Foundations section provide some material to help students think beyond their own particular specializations
[2] I have found this very general way of looking at science to be much more insightful than the in-depth analysis of modes of scientific logic or thinking, the place of science within the scientific community, or experimental methodology (though these all have their place)

These articles can be viewed as a modern grand narrative that has developed out of science’s current consensus on two rapidly advancing fields of research – human nature and sustainability. This is a modern version of the most basic relationship of all, the evolutionary connection between person(s) and their environment(s).

To see a picture clearly we must have at least some inkling of how it appears as a whole. This is the old analogy of blindfolded people feeling an elephant and being asked to describe what it is, each person giving their own interpretation with no idea of the whole. Because of the sheer volume of knowledge and information available today academics are hard-pressed to stay ahead in their own disciplines let alone stay informed about developments in others, tending to learn more-and-more about less-and-less. We cannot all be experts in all things, so we stay within our own disciplines, our own ‘academic silos’, to use the current jargon. The challenge is to work closer together, to join in a phase of synthesis that has a common vision, and to see the big picture.

Human thought, rationality, morality, human nature, and other topics once placed firmly in the realm of metaphysics are now falling under the purview of science. What has evolved out of the articles in this Discussion section has been a grand narrative that gives us a scientific and moral framework that serves as foundational thinking for the future.

Though the word ‘sustainabilty’ seems like a modern buzz-word and its meaning opaque, these articles show how its assumption about human well-being or flourishing, is an idea whose origins go back to the ancients as a key part of Plato’s Republic, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, the basic assumption of politiccal science in the continued tradition through Hobbes, Locke and others through the Jefferson’s basic declaration of human rights.

We can see how evolution itself, and the ‘purpose-like’ character of all life together with the true conscious purpose of the human mind are all directed to human flourishing and survival. In spite of our war-like capacity humans willingly choose life over death.

the way the world is structured, the way our minds work, theories of human nature, political and cognitive biases and all sorts of other things

A grand narrative: the meaning of life, the universe, and everything
From the two articles Reason & rationality and Meaning & purpose I can now offer you a very simple grand narrative.

This is offered in the spirit of making progress by improving the correspondence between the mental categories through which we view the world and the world itself.

1. There is an ‘external’ world (our environment) that exists independently of human minds
2. Humans perceive this external world through the senses, and understand it through the application of reason to the construction of categories of understanding
3. Human behaviour results from the interaction between 1 and 2

Since life first appeared on earth those organisms that have been able to survive and reproduce have been those that have persisted by means of the ‘self-correcting’ process we call natural selection: this includes all organisms including plants, fungi, bacteria, algae, animals and plants. As organisms subject to this process became more complex some developed nervous tissue and the ‘automatic’ motions and responses to the environment that we refer to as instinct, those instincts which promoted survival and reproduction also being selected by the mechanism of naturals election. Increasing complexity of the nervous tissue eventually produced consciousness (awareness of self), in a way that we currently do not understand. Humans can now direct their behaviour towards certain conscious goals in a way that is to varying degrees under the influence of the long-term self-correcting influence of ‘instinct’ (emotions, intuition, the will) and the short-term self-correcting mechanism of reason.

We see here a transition from replicating molecules, some of which proliferate and become more organically complex to self-correcting reflex behaviour or instinct, to self-correcting consciousness that can direct itself to the future. Perhaps this is the result of the pervasiveness of natural selection (self-correction) which acts at every level of biological organization, including species, individual organisms and even molecules like DNA itself and the proteins in generates.

REALITY
Scientific metaphysics
The five articles in the ‘Reality’ section of this Foundations module focus on the metaphysics of science, the scientific world view as an explanation of the ‘ultimate nature of reality’. What is suggested is that current views are misleading, if not mistaken, and that we can certainly do better.

Two metaphysical models of the physical world currently prevail. The first is the reductionist view in which the reality of the physical world rests on a foundation of fundamental particles out of which the rest of reality has emerged. An alternative view represents reality as being organised hierarchically into a series of interdependent and interacting layers of increasing complexity. Whether we regard these modes of thinking as representing the structure of the real world or merely convenient metaphor that assists understanding and explanation does not alter the claim made here that they can be replaced by a more meaningful metaphysic.

The following account draws together the principles that are discussed in more detail within the articles in this section of the web site to present a more contemporary metaphysics of science.

A new metaphysics of science
The world outside human minds existed before minds and will persist after minds have ceased to exist. Human understanding of ‘everything’ is results from an integration of the structuring and ordering processes of human minds (their cognition and perception) in relation to what exists outside minds.

Experience as perception & cognition
The world experienced by a human is very different from that experienced by a dog, bat, fish, worm or amoeba. This is partly a consequence of evolutionary circumstance but it is also influenced by the language humans use to describe the world. Modes of perception vary from one kind of animal to another depending on their evolutionary history, so a dog has a more developed sense of smell than humans while birds have more penetrating sight. From the perspective of perception each animal is simply more or less adapted to the environments they frequent. Cognitively humans have evolved modes of thinking that do seem to be more elaborate and complex than those of other organisms as demonstrated by the ability for: abstract thought, language …. We are normally unaware of the boundaries of our perception and cognition and find it quite difficult to speculate on what these boundaries might be although we can include, for example, our limited capacity for arithmetic computation and our struggle with the concepts of space, time, and infinity.

Structuring processes of the mind
There is, as yet, no consensus on the nature of the innate structuring of the world imposed by the mind.

Perhaps the most famous attempt to list these innate predispositions is that of the philosopher Immanuel Kant who distinguished categories of perception and categories of cognition. In his opinion, the world we humans perceive is filtered through the categories of space and time, as though we are perceiving the world through space-time spectacles. He lists the innate categories of cognition as quantity (unity, plurality, totality), quality (reality, negation, limitation), relation (inherence/subsistence, causality/dependence, reciprocity), and mode (possible/impossible, existence/non-existence, necessity/contingency). Some of these categories relate to the simple structuring, or operators, of logic and mathematics.

Objects
We tend to understand and explain the objects of our experience by either synthesizing their relations into a wider whole (placing them in context) or analyzing the relations of their parts (breaking them up into their constituents). Analysis proceeds in a regress to ever smaller constituents. The regress is either infinite, or it reaches an end (like fundamental particles), or further analysis is unnecessary. The kind of explanation employed will depend on the purposes for which the explanation is needed – there is no ultimate explanation. (how does this relate to formal, efficient, material, and final)

Rank-value & scale
In exploring these ideas on this web site there appear to be other possible candidates for our mental structuring of the world, not necessarily innate factors but nevertheless embedded in our minds through habit.

Firstly, there is rank-value. To survive in the world, we are constantly making conscious and unconscious decisions. All these decisions involve prioritization – the ranking of one object or behaviour ahead of another. Ranking of objects thus becomes second nature. Significantly the ranking we choose may not lie in the world but depend instead on the purpose of the ranking.

Secondly, there is scale. We cannot experience everything, all at once, so we narrow our perceptual and cognitive focus. So, for example, our vision selects a small part of our visual field (say the words on this screen or page) and the surroundings fade into the background. Cognitively it is the same as we think about some part of our possible internal or external worlds. The structure of the world of our perception, the manifest image, is single-scaled. We experience the world at the ‘human’ scale. However, by means of science and technology we know the world is multi-scaled, so for example, we believe our bodies are simultaneously constructed of tissues, cells, and molecules. This does not mean that we have three different bodies but that we can understand and explain our bodies in three different ways, that is, at three ‘scales’. However, psychologically we resist considering the same object in separate ways so we are inclined to treat them separately. Our psychological inclination is to then impose rank-value on these separated items – from habit of thought we assume that either molecules, cells, or tissues are in some way prior. This may be true if, for example, we are attempting to find the smallest possible components. But this prioritization is added by our minds, it is not in the world.

Flat ontology
It is now clear that when we understand and explain the world at different scales (ecosystems, societies, individuals, tissues, cells, molecules, subatomic particles, fields – even social, economic, biological) we are not examining different worlds, but encountering the same world in different ways. Expressed another way: the world (reality) is not arranged hierarchically in a series of layers one above the other, all the scales exist simultaneously. The idea of hierarchical organization is a metaphor to assist thinking at different scales. Metaphysically it is, however, misleading. Firstly, because it imposes on the physical world a structure that it clearly does not have. Secondly, it raises the possibility of imposing a rank-value on the various scales – perhaps that the smallest, most inclusive, or most complex is more real, more metaphysically authentic. But, again it is clear that any rank-value is also an imposition of the mind and does not exist in the world. Put simply, all scales of explanation and understanding of the physical world exist equally, there is no ontological (metaphysical) prioritization of matter existing in the world itself, it only exists in our minds.

In sum, we now need a scientific metaphysic and language that does not privilege the small over the large, more inclusive, or more complex and this must be a metaphysic that does not structure the world into any kind of layered hierarchy. In practical terms, we need language that does not structure the physical world into ‘levels’ – one that avoids the words ‘higher’, ‘lower’, or ‘fundamental’.

The difficulty is that we have domains of discourse whose criteria of selection for rank-value relate to not only scale but also inclusiveness, complexity, subject matter, and more. In fact, the selection criteria of our world taxonomies are limited only by our imaginations.

The idea of ‘levels’ of reality carries the twin dangers of rank-value and the mental imagery of independent real or conceptual worlds superimposed on one-another. What we need is value-neutral words that capture the flat ontology of both the objects under consideration and the criteria used to distinguish between them. The major ways we structure the world both conceptually and scientifically (the criteria we use to structure the material world) concern size, inclusiveness, complexity and, in the case of living organisms, evolutionary history. The various academic disciplines are simply different interpretations or perspectives on the same external stuff. Instead of ‘level’ the word ‘scale’ is sometimes used but ‘scale’ is strongly suggestive of size. ‘Aspect’ is a simple word that captures the flavour of ‘perspective’ or ‘interpretation’. It is being used in the same way as we perceiving the same image differently without that image physically changing. (If we only ever have one perception then we would not say ‘now I see it as a duck)’.

The use of the word ‘aspect’ removes the potential for rank-value, it removes the metaphorical and misleading hierarchical layering of the external world, it captures the way disciplines are studying the same object but in different ways (rather than is suggested by the ‘levels’ metaphor – totally different objects), it is also much simpler. Rather than saying that scientific disciplines study the world’s different hierarchical levels of organization we can just say that the various academic disciplines study different aspects of the world.

The hierarchy of organizational levels is a mixed consequence of the Great Chain of Being and the Linnaean hierarchical classification system.

[1] If this characterization of science is accepted then it is a rejection of idealism in its various forms, also the view that everything in the world is ultimately explicable in terms of physics (reductive physicalism)

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