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The Divergence of Thought in Science & Philosophy: Could “Complexity” be New Common Ground?

CHARLOTTE, NC. October 2011, by

Knowledge is a gift best appreciated when we don’t try to think about it. As a topic of focus, it frequently defies words. It grows more elusive as we attempt to draw closer to its source.

And, though we make complex decisions every day, we routinely fail to grasp what it means to truly understand something. For many reasons (outlined elsewhere in this thread) we fail to engage what’s presented in a discerning way.

My research on critical thinking is making one fact crystal clear: it’s high time we raised the bar on how well, and how deeply, we dare to think.

So let’s unpack the concept of epistemology. To most, it’s hopelessly obscure, a word dying to stay hidden in text books. Yet it’s a vital to understanding a foundational divide in Western thinking. I define it like this:

An epistemology is a holistic framework for knowledge, giving us a set of consistent, simple rules for how we should describe that knowledge and apply it in practice.

Looking back over the centuries, 8 famous epistemologies dating to Aristotle, Bacon and DesCartes mark clear fault lines between science and philosophy. It is a separation between those who think in terms of empirical ’cause and effect’ vs. those who tend to think more intuitively, in ‘patterns’.

Evolution of Knowledge Frameworks (c) 2011 Chris Jones

Both modes of thinking have, in the long run, proven fertile. The problem that developed was an all-or-none orientation. The rift was widest during the 19th century, as Hegel and Mill battled for mind share. In the wake of this, sadly, a long standing respect among academic schools of thought was all but gone. And the lingering cultural effects continue to impede progress across many domains, ranging from business to government to public education.

In the 21st century, we can only look back at the damage that’s been done, and ask “why”?

Thankfully, neuroscience is proving a potent field of discovery, and it’s helping us better unpack how the human brain works, yielding important insight on the psychology of thinkers. Back in the 1970’s, in the earliest stages of discovery, we thought we could isolate reason to one region, or imagination to another. But our first steps were tentative, and sometimes wrong. More recently, a more coherent picture is beginning to take shape. Here’s what’s being concluded now:

  • Our left brain is our associative center, the home of “cause and effect” thinking, the place where we focus and categorize and label every detail. It is where we refine what we already know. Think science. Think public education.
  • Our right brain is the hub of our pattern matching capability, where we seek new information that arrives in diverse or unfamiliar forms; it’s where we scan the environment, search for clues, and try to relate ourselves to the world around us. Think philosophy. Think ethics. Think culture.

It would appear that key thinkers of our time, and whole schools of thought that emerged under their guidance, have a strong bias in their cognitive models.

Perhaps it’s not surprising then that the pursuit of knowledge over the last 2,500 years has been split into two camps: the left brain camp of empirical science, and the right brain camp of the intuitive philosopher. Thanks to the industrial revolution, science has generally won most of the debates. Philosophy has not fared well, losing anything resembling critical mass.

But all that can change, and I do think there’s hope.

Ultimately, it’s a question of restoring balance. Where science struggles for context and where philosophy struggles for anchoring, the two worlds share a common ground that, ironically, has always been there. Often shrouded in it’s own complexity, I present to you:

The real world.

Rather than argue the point, I’ve shown the two divergent branches of knowledge in the graphic, above. I’ve identified 4 leading thinkers and their knowledge frameworks aka epistemologies in each branch. As we near the present day, you’ll notice fewer discrete frameworks, and a dearth of contributions from the philosophical ranks. But there’s also a convergence of sorts. The real world lies in the middle, balanced, as it were, between two cognitive extremes that, by themselves, cannot describe our reality in a holistic way.

We need both halves of our brains to function. To reason. To imagine. To understand.

As I was finalizing the graphic that helped me bring this post to words, I came across an intensely fascinating, and highly relevant TED talk by Iain McGilchrist. Thanks to Jennifer Sertl for teeing it up on G+.

I’m seeing a harmony of thinking made possible when a greater share of our left-brain and right-brain mental resources are tapped. There is much negative thinking to undo; we must move outside some exceedingly strong professional paradigms. But as we do, I see us replacing conflict and stalemate with a genuine hope for new possibilities. I openly wonder what might happen when we embrace empirical facts and rational insights in their full, raw, hopelessly unrealized potential. Stephen Johnson says great ideas come from other great ideas. So it’s time .. high time .. we get scientists and philosophers talking again. There will be a richness in the diversity of their epistemologies that will foster the new ideas we need.

The topics?

  • New epistemological frameworks for complexity.
  • New common ground for a world that is hopelessly in need of it.
  • A fundamental rethinking of how we frame public education.

For the scientists needing proof? Look no further than the K12 Ecosys.

Pencils down, folks. Let the deep conversations begin again.

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Lakoff on Metaphor: Rethinking how we Frame and Unpack Complex Problems

Our critical thinking series continues in the language space, focusing now on perhaps the most powerful tool of all: the metaphor.

Like the words and grammar of language itself, metaphor is a crucial, foundational aspect of effective communication, and it’s one we tend to take for granted.

Metaphor is a way to create common ground. It pulls from what is ultimately shared or sharable human experience. And it serves us well not only as a literary device, but also as a versatile, robust element of our cognitive thought processes. We use metaphorical frames when we think, when we speak, and importantly, when we collaborate. And because of their versatile reach to bridge our thinking across diverse subject areas, they may well emerge as a new approach for grappling with problem complexity.

To explore these possibilities, let’s start with a working definition:

Metaphor is a mental/linguistic technique that helps us understand a complex concept by relating it to our more concrete, observable experiences; by comparing two discrete ideas, we expose similarities and can infer logical relationships.

While we employ metaphors frequently in everyday speech, the mechanics of the technique often remain a mystery. Metaphors have the power to clarify and enlighten, but we seldom use them intentionally to make a point, or work to find ways to leverage their full potential.

In “The Metaphors We Live By” (1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson lay down a rigorous argument for why metaphors matter, laced with interesting and compelling examples. They build on Wittgenstein’s concern (from a half a century earlier) that academics, philosophers and scientists have tended to talk past one another, speaking from their own paradigms and being generally unwilling to recognize – let alone embrace – frameworks in use among other camps.

Some examples are in order.

First, let’s introduce several commonly used cultural metaphors that are core to our Western way of thinking. I’ll state the metaphor then I’ll provide some related ideas that might flow from it:

“Time is Money” – how do you spend your time? – I’ve invested lots of energy on that project – I can’t waste any more time on that
“Organizational Politics is War” – he defended the point – her criticisms were on target – his ideas were shot down – let’s develop a plan of attack
“Public Education is a Factory” – is the system working? do we need common curriculum standards to ensure compliance and quality? – are we forcing students to fail when they don’t match a specification or comply with schedule, as if they were defective parts?

Clearly, our history flows deeply through our culture and our language.

Sometimes using more than one metaphor to analyze the same abstract concept is useful. Per Lakoff, when held up side by side, the various metaphorical comparisons may not be consistent because they describe different aspects, but to be effective, metaphors should be coherent, that is, without spawning conflicting views.

Consider these examples:

“Problems are Puzzles” – we need to take it apart – how do the pieces fit?
“Problems are Journeys” – we’re on the wrong path – we’ll add more elements along the way – do you think we will discover a solution? – that idea could drive us in an entirely new direction
“Problems are Containers” – that idea is out of scope – we need to pull in more expertise – your concern is at the core of a very strong argument
“Problems are Buildings” – that issue is foundational – we need to build some case studies for this – we need to architect a different approach – that point could help us unlock further dialog

These metaphors are both consistent and coherent. We can use virtually all of the descriptive phrases interchangeably. Each helps to address specific perspectives of what a problem is and how web might attack it, with generally intuitive results. As we do this, listeners will tend to subconsciously resonate (sometimes emotionally) with one aspect or another.

Here we expose a cultural challenge. Though metaphor is present in everyday speech, the injection of subjectivity and emotional response into problem solving has historically sparked concerns for scientists, academics, whole schools of philosophers, and many in the business world. Why? Because we live in a Western culture that prides itself on its highly rational objectivity. A presumption of factual certainty has overtaken our thinking, and made metaphor an enemy of precision.

Case in point? Let’s circle back:

“Public Education is a Factory” has become an increasingly popular metaphor (employed by both Clay Christensen and Sir Kenneth Robinson) that sparks widely different responses from educators, academics and parents. Many practitioners, for example, will have an immediate negative reaction. Arguably, from a professional vantage, this clearly can’t be true; it is in conflict with a deeply held vision of education. But if approached with an open mind, metaphors like this one can start a useful dialog. In what ways are schools like factories? What are the implications? What can be done to about it? Deeper, more highly invested conversations tend to energize a serious, intentional discovery exercise. Metaphor can literally get people to think outside their silo’d mental models. When we encourage subjectivity in thinking, we can open minds (our own, and those of others) to new ideas. When collaborating, we provide stakeholders multiple ways to relate, sparking deeper engagement. By tapping personal experiences, a broader portfolio of relevant ideas can emerge.

Doesn’t this help us with critical thinking in general? I say yes.

Though many see critical thought as a reductive exercise (harkening back to the world of objective science), I think we need to train our minds for expansive thought as well. Effective use of metaphor exposes diverse aspects of our ideas. Besides shedding light on how we think, we understand better how we relate to each other. Do we agree? Do we disagree? Why? And all the while, we’re developing an ever richer solution language, steeped in metaphorical insight.

Again, intentional collaboration ultimately seeks to establish and expand upon our common ground.

Metaphor can help us get there.

Lakoff says a metaphor works if it advances our understanding. I’m seeing some compelling possibilities. Are you?

A Landscape for Discovery

Learning and innovation have a common thread.  In simple terms, their mission is to expand what we know. We begin at familiar places, we move to areas of uncertainty, to explore .. then, with luck and a fair wind, we return a little better informed.

Let’s call this mission one of discovery.

Seeking knowledge is a core human aspiration, a measure of what makes our species unique. Unfortunately its a path from which many have drifted. The more rigorous aspects of critical thinking and complex problem solving are now often left to experts, those among the shrinking ranks of science and corporate R&D. As I’ve written about a knowledge renaissance in other posts, I’ve come to the conclusion that  more people need to be able to engage on harder problems. And we need better ways to frame the gaps.

Take a look at this picture:


In the lower left hand corner we start with ‘what we know’.  As we move out, we launch our journey of discovery. Do we have a direction? That depends on our situation and objectives. Perhaps we launch multiple journeys in succession. Or we explore in parallel. Or maybe we just wander around, afraid to venture far from familiar territory.

In every case, the journey back is when we extract value. We apply what we’ve learned. We adapt, adding to our knowledge base, giving each successive journey a head start.

This model was developed by Mary Nations of Nations Alliance here in Raleigh, with input from Holladay and Cheesebrow at HSDI. I find it particularly fascinating because of its potential for broad application. Think of how we might reframe education reform; paradigms for innovation and complex systems; a reinforced foundation for knowledge management (KM); a fresh look at the learning organization.

At a minimum, I think we’ve established some context .. a canvas on which to chart our journeys of discovery. Look across this landscape and into the future. What do you see?