Categories
Knowledge

Beyond Objectivism and Relativism

The history of epistemology and society’s current views of knowledge have been and are plagued by a perennial and pervasive false dichotomy: tension between objectivism and relativism.  That is to say, people in every sphere of social life divide themselves artificially into two camps: one which believes that knowledge is foundational, unchanging, and absolute; and the other which believes that knowledge is socially constructed, changing, and contextual.

Those who align themselves with objectivism often come across as dogmatic, rigid, and formulaic.  They believe that truth exists in reality, that human knowledge directly corresponds to this truth, that the world can be comprehensively known; they believe in the system, and they want to make sure others do things the way they do.

Those who align themselves with relativism often come across as evasive, flighty, and scattered.  They believe that human knowledge is socially constructed and has no connection with any underlying truth in reality (if there is any), that this knowledge is a function of self-interested power struggles, that the world cannot be thoroughly known; they oppose or want to dismantle the system, and they want everyone to do things their own way.

Both of these descriptions evoke images of Republicans or Democrats, western doctors or eastern herbalists, religiosity or secularism, but the fact is that people don’t come packaged as either/or’s.  We have the capacity to think about the world in both it’s objectivity and its relativity.  Some aspects of reality are more or less objective, and others are more or less relative.  In order to see the world as it is, we can adjust our mode of thinking to match the type of knowledge we seek to gain.  For instance, many aspects of the natural world are objective.  Many aspects of human psychology are relative.  What is important is to employ the mode of thinking which harmonizes closest with what we’re observing and what we’re trying to accomplish – mathematical analysis may call for a more objectivist perspective and the creation of art may call for a more relativist perspective, though they each have aspects of both.  By employing both perspectives appropriately, we can transcend the polarity in thinking that leads to intractable conflict and seek a middle path which is not a political compromise, but rather attuned with the nature of reality.

Do you find it useful to think of some things more objectively and other things more relatively?  How can we protect against merely shifting our analysis when it’s convenient?  How should we hold each other to account on the one hand, and create space for unique expression, on the other?

Categories
Discourse Knowledge

Habits of Thought

Certain habits of thought also need to be fostered in connection with a culture of learning, often at odds with current society’s tendencies – three will be mentioned.  It is clear that society increasingly speaks with slogans.  To be able to analyze yet not reduce, to ponder and not dwell, to categorize but not compartmentalize are essential to form full and complex thoughts required of a learning mode.  To take science and religion as an example, there seems to be an endless quest to describe each of these vast systems using fewer and fewer words accompanied by clichéd pictures.  “Science flies you to the moon while religion flies you into a building” is one rather amusing one.  What is actually learned from this statement?

Society also breeds false dichotomies – many of which have already been mentioned: science vs religion, study vs action, individual vs collective, material vs spiritual, action vs reflection, mind vs heart, “us” vs “them”, etc.  They are all manifestations of fragmented thought, harmful to a culture of learning that seeks to understand the interconnectedness of all things.  Many stem from the general false dichotomy between being and doing.  These are two mutually informing aspects of one coherent human being;  an individual personally develops through service, and gains the impulse to serve through personal growth.

And thinking in terms of process, as oppose to society’s end-point oriented value system characterized by punctuated events, short-term vision, and instant gratification, is crucial in understanding that learning is a process that will proceed over time, will evolve in an organic fashion, will require sustained and long-term action and vision, and will never reach a definite conclusion.    Regardless of if current society has forgotten this fact, science and religion are both characterized  historical process, whether progressive unfoldment of revelation or progressive development of disease treatment.

Categories
- Oppression - Religion - Science Knowledge

Fanaticism and Ridicule: Science and Religion

Currently, there are some who resist the reconceptualization of science and religion.  They fragment science and religion, and dismiss one for the other, claiming that only one or the other has led to humanity’s successes. How often is it that we hear religion caricatured as a superstition of idle fancy, or a hollow ritual of football-detracting compulsion. How often is it that we hear the thunder of ‘hail to science’ with the glorification of the latest cell phone mobile technology; and how often is it that we read of principle-compromising cover-ups of Church-father molestation scandals. If Thor ‘God of Lightning’ was real, one would think that we worshiped him as he flowed in our power cables.

 

A Mendelian punnet square emerges with fanaticism and ridicule on the Y axis and religion and science on the X (Figure 1). People often fall into habits of speaking fanatically about the exclusivity of science as a source of human betterment, or the monopoly that religion exercises over truth. Both are caricatures of reality, and neither adequately describes it. A discourse that ridicules religion as an empty ritual and a superstition for the ‘masses’, co-exists with a view in society that mocks science as a) a theoretical preoccupation of the disconnected elites, or b) a dangerous and heretical arrogance before the angry, angry Lord. The dichotomies of this punnet square are to be utterly and wholly discarded. The present discourse pays no attention to these ways of compartmentalizing our epistemic experience and collapses these dichotomies under the view: reality is one, knowledge of reality is multi-factorial, and ultimately represents only diverse views of a single entity.

 

We propose an alternate schema that reconclies these epistemic systems (Figure 2). We start with the understanding that reality is one (R1=S1). Science and religion are two systems of learning about it. Religion offers the Revealed Word of God and its authoritative interpreters (R2), and science offers the physical universe as an experience of facts and laws we can all observe (S2), as the first level of the two great systems. The interpretations and methods for justification of ethical commands in religion (R3) and the standards and justifications offered by the scientific method (S3) are the next level of knowledge offered by these two systems. Practical knowledge of daily spiritual disciplines as an individual and cultural norms of the collective within a community (R4), and technology and practical knowledge of scientific inquiry in application (S4), constitute the third layer and final of these two knowledge systems. They both intertwine to produce the harmony and betterment of the human condition and human society.