This is a short post to address the additional “eastern” perspective missing from the post note in my previous blog on the London Thinks “How Do We Believe” event.
Here on Psybertron, much of the philosophical journey was informed early on by the qualities of Zen / Tao thinking introduced to millions by Robert Pirsig with two earlier clues connecting it to the real world of business and economics by Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence and to physical reality by Nobel prize-winning physicists Josephson and Stapp.
There are (for me) three lessons that inform doubts about the dominant western view of rationality.
- One, simply that the self-other relationship is worth understanding and valuing. Quite the opposite to the dogma of a purely objective logical ontology in “science” (the so-called “exact-sciences” anyway) from which subjectivity is deliberately stripped or simply turned into another object. (There are many other relational, informative, flow-based alternatives to physical objects – particles in space and time – alone.)
- Secondly, the questioning exemplified by the koan. Questioning is at the core of all pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, since Socrates most obviously, but recorded by Plato, codified by Aristotle, and restored to the western canon (ironically via Islamic scholars) in the enlightenment that gave us modern science. It’s already a presumption in the modern take on Socratic method, that there is an objective truth being uncovered with a fully consistent logic. But it may not have been that way to Socrates himself. We can never know. The questioner may or may not believe they already know the “truth” better that the target being questioned, but there is an inbuilt arrogance that the learning is aiming for objective truth, independent of what the subject believes. The Taoist koan, by asking questions without objective answers, at least leaves those thought-provoking non-objective “Mu” possibilities open.
- Thirdly, reality really does exist, but the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon. To suggest otherwise strips reality of any meaning. Any world view is a model of that reality, not reality itself. So any model of reality – any ontology – is contingent on its usefulness, and contingent all the way down. Even the most strictly objective, logical, hierarchical model stands on a turtle somewhere. The real world may have no cosmic bootstrap, but our model always will. And we can never know any more about the world than the epistemology our bootstrapped ontology gives us. To suggest the model we hold is not a “belief system” is merely semantic word-games.
These three points have many corollaries, possibilities left open for alternate world-views.
Qualitative differences matter. Assuming a strictly reductionist hierarchy in the relationships between the exact sciences as a foundation, living and evolving biology dependent on that, and all other psycho-social phenomena above these, involves many category errors. There can be quite – qualitatively – different types of thing in the different layers of our ontology. There is a gestalt view that says patterns of organisation in these different layers all have existence in their own right. Sure there is a dependence, a supervenience, of the higher layers’ existence on the lower, but the chains of causation which explain and predict behaviour do not all run from the part to the whole. That’s greedy reductionism. The wholes in the higher layers have their own behaviours. These behaviours do not “depend” on any of the properties of their parts, but rather on the nature and level of their organisation.
Certainly any number of “hard problems”, that lead science to deny the existence in its model of self, consciousness, will etc, are at least given space for investigation rather than dismissal and denial.
Of course many (Pirsig included) have constructed their own ontologies on some or all these principles. All I would say is the value is in believing these qualitative alternatives exist and have value. Getting exclusively attached to any one of them is just another dogma, no different to any religion, cult or even science. The enemy is dogma, not belief itself.