Knowing and Not-Knowing (Werner Sun)

Thanks to everyone for all the thought-provoking posts. There is so much to follow up on here, but one thread has been the connection between humanism and knowledge. As someone with a scientific background, I find the topic of sense-making to be endlessly fascinating, and I tend to see scientific knowledge as dynamic and provisional, even though it is often more convenient to present it as a collection of fixed truths. The practice of science is like the practice of art, in that outcomes are not preordained, and artists/scientists spend more time in a state of not-knowing than in certainty.

I'm interested in the "phenomenology" of knowing, and from this perspective, the mind/body duality falls away because I believe we all experience cognition as a physical activity. (And for this reason, it is hubris to claim that it's unique to humans, as Carrie points out.) Indeed, if I haven't slept well, my thoughts are slow as mud. When I'm struggling to solve a problem (technical or not), I am acutely aware of the bits of information I'm shuffling around. I can close my eyes and see them as puzzle pieces, and when I finally fit them together into a bigger picture, there is a shiver of understanding that registers as a bodily sensation. It's the same way that a complex piece of music like a 4-part Bach fugue can transcend its individual components and stir the emotions.

I've also found that when such understandings are revealed, I habitually tend to assume that the map is the territory, that these now-apparent (Platonic) truths were somehow hidden within the objects under study all along. This common perception of "embedded meanings" leads to a narrative of form/content duality that can be found in science as much as in art (with scientific laws being the content of natural forms). Furthermore, this duality implies an opposition between our questioning minds and their subjects. Thus, seeking knowledge can have an alienating effect -- in order to understand how something works, we have to objectify it, to regard it as separate from ourselves.

However, there is an alternative. As Deborah suggests, we could posit that there is no duality, that the form of an object simply is, that it carries no inherent meaning, that we can look at an object without seeking to know it. But if we do choose to reach for knowledge, we can view that "content" as intrinsic to us viewers, not to the object itself, thereby preserving the object's integrity.

In other words, sense-making is a conscious act. Science proceeds under the assumption that all phenomena can be explained rationally, that nature is knowable even if it is not currently fully known. This does not mean, however, that scientists are constantly being scientific. When I gaze at the night sky, I find myself flitting back and forth between two modes of looking: zooming in to pick out individual stars and constellations, and zooming out to take in the entire sky with wonder. Both of these approaches -- the analytic and the holistic -- can co-exist without contradiction, enriching each other.


Taney Roniger said...

Werner, there's so much in your post that begs further exploration, but I want to pick up on just two bits here. The first is your point about cognition being a physical activity. Yes indeed, and I love the way you describe how you experience thought. It reminds me of Einstein's claim that he thought kinesthetically, or intra-muscularly, which I certainly relate to (writing for me is profoundly physical). The second thing I want to draw attention to is your very interesting point about the form/content dualism in science. This is something I've never thought about, but of course it makes perfect sense. I think the problem is essentially a misapplication of metaphor (in the Lakoffian sense of conceptual metaphor). If we think of form as a container -- a vessel, say, or any type of enclosure -- then this naturally leads to the idea that it is to be *filled*, that it itself only exists to hold whatever gets placed inside it. When I say I want a glass of wine, for example, I'm not thinking of the glass at all; all I care about is the silky Cabernet inside it! So what if we were to reconceptualize form not as something hollow that is to be filled but as something with no "inside" whatsoever: it's all one solid thing, outside and inside in one. If we could do this somehow, change our conceptual metaphor, then talking about the "content" of a form would make no more sense than looking for the wine inside the molecular makeup of the glass. (Not to get carried away, but perhaps a better way to think of it would be to imagine a solid chunk of frozen wine. Who would take it out of the freezer, lift it to her lips, and just before biting off a delicious sliver stop and declare: but this is just a form -- where's my goddam content?)

Werner Sun said...

Thanks, Taney! Yes, that's an excellent way of describing what I meant by a holistic approach, one that does not see a form as something to be decoded or interpreted to get at the content inside, but simply appreciated as is. Incidentally, I wonder why we tend to think of form as a container in the first place. Perhaps it's a natural by-product of the struggle involved in cognition. The fact that understanding is not immediate, that it takes an investment of time and effort, gives the impression that the surface appearance of an object/phenomenon/form hides its true nature underneath. And so, it's possible that our self-centered minds, eager to see supernatural agency and conspiracy where none exists, find it easier to attribute the form's opacity to the form itself, rather than to our own unavoidable limitations.