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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.