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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.

Words That Matter: Wittgenstein and Senge on the Power of Language in Critical Thinking

Language, like the culture it derives from, plays a subtle but powerful role in how we interact with others. Yet we are so completely immersed in it, we scarcely give it a second thought.

Early in the 20th century, Ludwig Wittgenstein brought focus to the critical importance of language in the context of knowledge, philosophy, and science. One of the more powerful and accessible claims he framed was this one:

“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” Wittgenstein, Tractatus, 5.6 (1921).

It may seem overstated at first glance, but let’s unpack it.

If we reflect on how we think about, evaluate, and come to understand virtually anything, we realize that the running voice of our conscious thought sets practical boundaries. We can contemplate problems and solutions in our mind only to the extent we have words to describe them. Our vocabulary either limits or unlocks our ability to describe what we see. Our command of grammar and ability to construct descriptions of abstract concepts works the same way.

Our command of semantics is a central to critical thinking.

Language literally bounds our possibilities.

Wittgenstein thus underscores a compelling argument for mastery of the original liberal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic – skills that we might better grasp today in the modern context of reading and writing – but his message is clear: the tools of language are essential to the thinking person.

Now let’s apply those ideas in the social and collective contexts.

What happens in a team setting?

Carefully articulating a new idea for ourselves is only half the battle. As collaborators we face the more difficult but critically essential task of explaining this idea to others. What words do we use? What language will our audience understand? And if we’ve followed good practice by ensuring a diverse group of collaborative stakeholders, the bar has been raised even further: what subset of our shared language will be most effective to ensure common understanding across a diverse team?

From my experience, the most common failure in team settings is mis-communication of ideas, most readily observed when group members freely, often unwittingly, talk past each other. In a fervent effort to make a point, we default to arguments grounded in our semantics of origin. So what happens? IT folks will talk technology. Accounting will talk about margins. Sales will talk about customer problems. Educators will talk about pedagogy. Academics will talk about epistemologies. With heightened energy, the vocabulary grows increasingly parochial and inaccessible, and the steeper the organization’s silo walls, the more entrenched the participants tend to be, and the more difficult language barriers are to cross.

No wonder finding common ground can seem like a pipe dream.

So intentional collaboration places clear demands on semantic foundations. Defining key terms often helps. Project glossaries can go a long way.

Another strong approach (referenced previously in this blog, and elsewhere) is that of a solution language. The idea is to create common ground on the output side. We can define terms for the proposed solution set(s) that are literally grounded in a new language that is embraced by all. It is an extraction from the contributors’ source languages, an amalgamation of pieces and parts to create a viable whole. As the solution language is built, common ground is established in the process. In so doing, collaborators become more aware of their context of origin, better described as their comfort zone. With time and energy, many will see how cultural and linguistic boundaries can impact their collaborative engagement.

Peter Senge in the 5th Discipline, observes:

In dialog, people become observers of their own thinking.

then cites the work of the late physicist David Bohm, who researched collective learning among scientists. Bohm believed that we, as individuals engaged in collaborative dialog, can:

“… begin to correct incoherence in our own thinking. A kind of sensitivity develops that goes beyond what is familiar … (exposing) subtle meanings that lie at the root of real intelligence.”

Senge and Bohm share a deep sense for the requirements for team-based learning. Senge himself devotes many pages to language, and the evolutionary steps through which individuals must navigate to achieve value from a shared, collective learning model. Often, it means suspending bias inherent from professional education and what is often years working within a given specialty.

Thomas Kuhn’s thinking on the challenges and demands of paradigm shifts peers from these lines.

Wittgenstein’s foundational messages ring true throughout.

It’s easy to imagine ourselves standing before the locked door of critical thinking. We hold the keys in our hands, but remain dumbfounded about how to use them. When we attempt to collaborate, we stand before the same door with others, but we’re still at a loss; perhaps it’s even worse, arguing the course of action.

Language, like culture, is a profoundly rich, integral aspect of our social existence. I’ll summarize it like this:

Language is the master key to unlocking effective collaboration, opening the door to possibilities of what we can accomplish via intentional, purposeful dialog with others.

We can cast all this aside, broadcasting our views to the world at will. We can choose empty words with casual intent to impress, or use caustic words that serve only to bully, blame and obscure.

People do it every day.

The price? It’s a fundamental failure to be understood, preempting an exchange of ideas that could have emerged into something more. That spells disaster for progress in any language.