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The Big Questions - Seminar Three, The Philosopher's Crystals
Hello again, Dear Friends and Welcome Visitors. In this third, long-overdue seminar, I want to begin by throwing out a word I've coined and been using for a year or so. The word I'm intending to lose - "Cosmosophy" - is proving very difficult for a lot of my readers to accommodate.
While I like what the neologism is trying to encompass (which is an attempt to combine elements of the fields of study involved in both cosmology and philosophy, as the basis of what we're doing in these seminars that examine The Big Questions), I take the point that has been made many times by readers from all over the world: the word is just too darn hard for a lot of people to get their tongues around in regular conversation.
So, what I propose to do is to leave the word out of our discussions from now on, and simply refer to my own name for the cosmological and philosophical model that I've developed through my years of study, and that I'm sharing with you. I call this model, which attempts to answer The Big Questions, "Resolution Theory," and whenever you see the term in these seminars, you'll know that I'm talking about my cluster of answers to the great problems of life and its purpose.
Okay, at the end the last seminar, The Philosopher's Toolkit, I promised to give you one of the most useful and frequently used tools that any thinker can use in trying to find good answers to big questions. In fact, I'll give you three tools in this seminar, and I think you'll find them pretty useful.
Some of you - many of you, perhaps - will already be familiar with these tools and their applications. As always, when you find something you already know - or you encounter something you don't like - please just move on to anything else that captures your attention. There's no pressure here. I'm not trying to convince anyone of my point of view, or to win some kind of argument. I'm just sharing with you what I think is important and valuable in the search for meaning and purpose.
The first tool I want to share with you is known as Occam's Razor, and it's named after William of Occam (1285 - 1349), who was an English Franciscan monk and a very influential thinker. Among many other interesting propositions, Occam argued that any kind of problem that we're trying to solve or investigate "should be stated in its most basic terms."
What William of Occam was getting at was that when we're exercising our minds in trying to work out a problem we should try to eliminate everything that's not strictly relevant or necessary from any statement of the problem - and from every attempt to find its solution. In other words, we should try to get down to the most essential elements involved in the problem and its solution before we even start to discuss it.
Now, the part of this idea (which is stated very simply here, and I urge you to look into it in more detail in your own researches) that I want to concentrate on, is the part that involves the procedures involved in seeking solutions to problems. I'm going to restate Occam's Razor in different terms, in order to make it clear just how I think you should use this important tool. My version of the Razor goes like this: Almost always use a simpler explanation of a thing or a phenomenon, rather than a more complex one, if the simpler one serves as an adequate explanation.
I'll give you a silly example, as a way of explaining precisely what I mean by this tool. Let's suppose that you make a cup of milky tea - without sugar - and leave the room for a few minutes, with the cup of hot tea resting on a table. Then, when you return, you sip the tea to discover that it is very sweet. One possible explanation (among myriad) for this strange turn of events, is that someone came into the room while you were away, and sugared the tea. Another explanation (I'm not saying it's sensible) is that ancient Greek mythical figures, known as Centaurs, entered the room through a spatio-temporal distortion and performed a sorcerer's ritual over the tea cup, resulting in a sweetening of the tea.
Now, if we take a good look at this admittedly silly example, the fact is that I can't actually prove to you that Centaurs didn't come into the room and perform their sorcery, thereby sweetening the tea. What I can tell you is that if we develop a healthy suspicion of explanations that are more complex than they need to be, or involve more elements than they need to - and if we make it a habit to seek out the simplest explanations of things, whenever they actually serve to explain the things - we'll be more often right than wrong.
So, that's Tool Number 1: Occam's Razor. Work with it as often as you can, and do your best to make it an intellectual habit to apply Occam's Razor. Actually say the words, in your mind and in your discussions with your friends and colleagues: "If we apply Occam's Razor, we can see pretty clearly that the explanation you're providing is much more complicated than we need ." Use it in everything, from an analysis of the reasons why nations go to war, to the reasons put forward for economic "rationalization" within societies. With practice, the Tool will serve you well, and become one of the handiest in your Philosopher's Toolkit.
The second tool comes from what's now a much-derided area of our modern scientific tradition. For the most part, new thinkers who are at the vanguard of new ways of looking at the world have rejected this tool. But I think that their (not always unreasonable) ideological objections have resulted in an arbitrary abandonment of what is still one of the best intellectual implements in our philosophical toolkit. The name of this tool is Reductionism.
Among other meanings, the word "reductionism" refers to a way of thinking about the world that tries to reduce any thing or phenomenon to its constituent parts. The hope, for this kind of reductionist, is that by studying the bits that go to making up a thing, we can know just about all there is to know about the thing itself, and how the thing works.
In general, there are two kinds of reductionist philosophers: the hard and the soft. Soft reductionists try to break things down into their component bits, but assume that there's probably a limit as to how far we can take that process, and a limit to how useful the information and assumptions we can draw from the breakdown process will be. Hard reductionists hold that every thing or phenomenon can be broken down into basic, fundamental elements or units or forces, which, when fully understood, can reveal all that there is to know about the thing or the phenomenon being broken down.
I'm a soft reductionist. I understand (and even agree with quite a lot of) the bad press that reductionism gets these days, but I still hold that soft reductionism has great value. That being so, it's probably helpful if I give you a little history of the idea, before I explain why I think it's such a useful tool.
The reductionist [take it apart, piece by piece] approach began with the Greek philosopher Democritus (460 - 370 BC), who argued that everything in the universe (including the human soul) was made up of hard, indivisible, tiny bits of stuff, which he called Atomos, meaning "cannot be divided further". (In fact, the idea was put forward by Leucippus, some years earlier, but formally stated by his student, Democritus).
This way of thinking about things reached an almost religious orthodoxy (ironically) in the time of Renee Descartes and Thomas Hobbes (1588 - 1679). In fact, Hobbes (as just one of many philosophers who saw the world in mechanistic terms) wrote that all the events, things, and phenomena in the universe could be understood "just as in a watch, or some such small engine, the matter, figure, and motion of the wheels cannot well be known except it be taken asunder and viewed in [its] parts."
When Galileo Galilei and Isaac Newton ripped the first two veils of wonder - the non-centric peripheralism of our home planet (we're not the centre of the universe), and the magical mystery of the dance of heavenly bodies (gravitational attraction) - from the worlds of night, the "clockwork view" of the universe gained new vigour. In the fields of anatomy, astronomy, botany, and the developing Earth sciences, it seemed that if we just new enough about the basic bits of stuff that make up the things in the universe, we could know everything. The brilliant mathematician, Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749 - 1827), went so far as to say that for an intellect large enough to hold all of the bits of information about all of the bits of stuff in the universe, at any one moment, the whole of the future would be known.
Because it works, after a fashion, reductionism has persisted into this new, more holistic and all-encompassing age. The Human Genome Project is a gigantic reductionist exercise, designed to bring the talents of hundreds of geneticists and other researchers to the task of mapping the combinations and permutations involved in the elaboration of human DNA. Perhaps the most spectacular version of the reductionist method still being employed is found in super-colliders - those immense star-chambers where the tiniest particles are accelerated to speeds close to light speed, and smashed together to track the traces of the constituent bits of stuff that are released or revealed or scattered in the collisions.
So, what exactly is the Tool that I'm suggesting? It works this way: when you're faced with a problem, or investigating a phenomenon or a thing, break it down into smaller bits, whenever you can do that sensibly. How does that work? Here's an example. Your government announces that it is about to sign a Mutual Non-Aggression Pact with a nation that it had for some time in the past characterised as a "rogue State". In your analysis, you can use the reductionist tool by breaking the phenomenon down into many constituent parts. You can list the key players involved in promoting the pact and formulating it, and then examine their vested interests, where they're discernible. You can break the pact itself down into its constituent components (clauses and paragraphs), and examine each one to see who benefits or loses from them. You can also break down the critical commentary on the issue that appears in the press, until a basic set of constituent critical elements emerges, and then you can examine the various versions of a "consensus".
Let me give you another example. Suppose a friend of yours does something quite uncharacteristic - say, cutting you dead in the street without a word or a glance as she walks by - that leaves you bewildered. Suppose you try to talk to your friend about it, but she won't take your calls. If you use the reductionist tool, when you think about what happened, you'll break the event down into its component parts and take a long look at each one. How do you do that? You can make a list of all the elements that went into what it was that your friend did. You can start with the time, the place, what your friend was wearing, what expression she had on her face at the time, what her body language was like, what occurred the last time you two spoke to each other, what your other friends have to say about the matter, what you know about your friend's state of health, what you know about your friend's close relationships at the time, and so on.
Now this is a very simple example, but I'm only providing it to show that the reductionist tool can be applied to many situations - not just hard scientific questions. As another example, if our field of study is group behaviour (how groups of people and objects behave collectively in the real world) - and it will be something we'll study in the coming months - we can apply the soft reductionist tool to examine the various forces and factors involved in any group action, as a way of coming to a better understanding of the group action itself.
In a sense, the reductionist tool is really a way of developing the art of "reading between the lines" of any phenomenon. But to do that well, you need to become adept at peeling back the surfaces of things, and pulling them apart, gently, until you can find bits that are small enough to grapple with and understand.
As a final note on Tool Number 2, the soft reductionist tool, I want to make it clear that I use this soft reductionist approach in conjunction with a comprehensive, holistic, inter-connectivity theory, and not as an end in itself. Later in these seminars, we'll be taking a detailed look at the fact of universal inter-relatedness, or the interconnectedness of all things. If you want to read an uncompromisingly hard (and darn well-written) critique of the reductionist approach (and the harm it can do), find a copy of The Death Of Nature, by Carolyn Merchant. It was written in the early 80s, and isn't always easy to find, but it's well worth the effort. Another book in a similar vein is Pythagoras' Trousers, by Dr. Margaret Wertheim (I'm a big fan of hers, and I recommend anything she has ever written). And anyone who wants to get a somewhat gentler head start in this area can do very well by reading Fritjof Capra's wonderful book, The Web Of Life. I'll be talking about that and other books in the field of connectivity, and explaining the limits of reductionism in some detail. So, a word of caution: please don't take the soft reductionist tool too far into your investigations, or expect too much of it. But if you develop the habit of breaking things down into constituent parts, and reading between the lines, you'll sharpen your intellectual skills and push yourself toward more profound analysis.
The last Tool I want to give you in this seminar is one of my own. I call it Combinance Theory. You won't find that word in a dictionary. I invented it, to convey the meaning of the theory. Even though the word "combinance" is new, it may well be that the Tool it was invented to describe has been elaborated by many other thinkers - and if it has some truth in it, it's even probable that it has been stated before. Still, I've never come across a formulation of the idea that's exactly like my own, and I haven't seen it stated as an axiom, which is what I'm doing here. The Tool goes like this: in any apparent contradiction of opposites, each of which purports to explain a given phenomenon, a combination of the two opposites has a higher order of probability of being an accurate explanation of the phenomenon, than any one of the explanations on its own.
What does that mean, exactly? Let's take an example, which might make things a little clearer. For a long time, scientists from various fields argued passionately (and occasionally violently) with one another about the question of Nature versus Nurture. One side (I'm putting this very simply, for the sake of the example) argued that we're born what we are, with almost all of our behaviours and talents and inclinations "hard-wired" into us by nature (DNA, etc.). The other side argued that we were much more the result of factors and influences that act on us from the womb until death: nurture. My theory, Combinance Theory, holds that when we encounter an apparent contradiction of opposites such as this, with each one claiming to provide the answer to a question, the truth is more likely to be found in a combination of the two, than in any one by itself.
So, in the case of the Nature versus Nurture debate (which still continues for some scholars), my theory predicts that the resolution of the debate will involve elements of both fields of study, rather than from just one alone.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you should apply Combinance Theory to each and every situation. There are limits to all things (another one of our seminars, in the coming months, is on just that subject: the limits that exist in the universe), and we can only take the combinance argument as far as it remains sensible. Moral questions, for example, are very slippery and resistant to the application of rules, axioms, and general theories. But very often, when we're confronted with contradictory explanations that are poised as arguments against one another, we'll be well-served if we apply Combinance Theory, and look for a combination of the two explanations, rather than limiting ourselves to just one or the other.
The names I've used for the first two of these Tools - The Razor and The Hammer - are commensurate with the way of thinking in the scientific tradition that developed them. Occam's Razor has always been known by that name. Considering the "atom-smasher" nature of the super-colliders, which I cited as an example of the reductionist method, the word "Hammer" seems a fair choice. And when we consider that the Third Tool, Combinance Theory, seeks to pull elements from opposing explanations and blend them together, the word "Rope" seems accurate enough.
But, the fact is that I don't see these important tools as weapons or dangerous implements (which razors, hammers, and ropes might be seen to be) and although I used those names in this seminar, to give the tools a sense of their origins in various fields of science or scientific traditions, I think there's a better name for them. For me, these very important tools are Philosopher's Crystals, in the Newtonian sense of prismatic refractors of light, which we can use to give ourselves a new and clearer view of a given event, thing, or phenomenon. I hope that you find these tools or crystals useful, and as we move on through these seminars, I hope you'll add them to our growing toolkit of intellectual techniques, methods, and devices.
Good luck, good thinking, and good wishes to you all.