Sunday, 23 July 2017

Reflections on Human Inquiry-4

Introduction (Continued)

The chapters
Each chapter in this volume is accompanied by a substantial abstract that lays out the theme of the chapter. What I plan to do now is to give some idea of the family of concerns that link these chapters in a variety of ways. As noted, the starting point of this exercise is the idea of science. When we face the entirety of human inquiry in its kaleidoscopic state, we need some categories to describe the spectacle. The idea of science seems to offer that handle. Modern science represented a very classical conception of human knowledge as an objective quest for the real properties of the world. With its grand mathematical architectonic, physics was able to develop tools of investigation that unearthed deeply hidden features of the universe. But its highly esoteric form of discourse and extremely theory-internal conception of the world makes physics unavailable to the general cognitive agent, including the physicist outside his specialist forum. With the advent of modern science then it looks as if humans engage in two basic forms of inquiry: let us call them scientific and cultural, respectively. As we will see in the chapters that follow, the labels themselves are of less value than details about the underlying forms.
  In the scientific mode, human inquiry claims knowledge of reality: the knowledge constitutes the truth-claims of science, and the reality constitutes the joints of nature so postulated. The discourse is assumed to be absolute and objective. The truth-claim no doubt is a human action, but the truth—such as, the earth is round—is independent of any agent, community, tradition, textual and social context; in other words, truth lays bare the world as it is. It is commonly believed that the scientific conception of the world is objective in the sense that it does not have a (preferred) point of view; Thomas Nagel (1986) called it the view from nowhere.
    In contrast, much of our lives includes a subjective point of view, the point of view of the human agent; these may be thought of as views from somewhere. As Nagel (1986) and Davidson (1991) pointed out, the two views need to be reconciled in order for us to lead a meaningful life including social and political lives. Nagel then goes on to show how the reconciliation is to be achieved to address a range of classical philosophical problems, such as the mind-body problem. Speaking roughly, the distinction between view from nowhere and view from somewhere is one way of formulating the distinction between the scientific and the cultural.
  My interests are markedly different from the suggested distinction. I think there is another distinction between the scientific and the cultural which is related to, but not sufficiently captured by the subjective-objective distinction. As noted, both the subjective and the objective perspectives are needed to reach human thought and action (Davidson explicitly adds the inter-subjective perspective to the other two); human thought is the result of a reconciliation of these things in any case. I think a scientific-cultural distinction arises even after such reconciliation is reached. The first two chapters in this volume discuss the issue.
   The starting point is the conception of knowledge. In the first chapter (Human Reality), it is shown how the concepts of knowledge, truth and reality are intimately related; if a conception of mind-independent reality is unavailable, so are the concepts of knowledge and truth. The problem is that human knowledge and, therefore, the conception of reality are necessarily products of how humans are designed; if humans were designed, say, as bats, the conception of the world would have been very different. So if the notion of objectivity is understood in terms of a mind-independent reality, then that notion appears to be problematic, if not downright incoherent. There is much room for skepticism then regarding realist claims. Within the design though, it is striking that the human mind can sometimes detect formal/mathematical regularity in the external world. The phenomenon is poorly understood but its shining existence cannot be denied. Perhaps it is possible to recover some version of the notions of knowledge, truth and reality around this phenomenon. I discuss the possibility with more constructive details in the second chapter.
   However, the formal mode of inquiry is rarely available in the vast stretch of human cognitive life. This suggests a broad distinction between forms of inquiry regarding the presence and absence of the formal mode, which amounts roughly to the distinction between the scientific and the cultural. It could be that the world and the knowledge of it are reached in very different reflective terms between the two forms of inquiry. In that sense the world lost in our analytic pursuit may be regained in our poetic form of inquiry in which the world is grasped by immersing ourselves in it. The elusive world, that we are unable to discover except in rare cases by looking at it from the outside, is cheerfully embraced as a lived world from the inside.

  The second chapter (Science and the Mind) focuses on the historical fact that the scientific mode is a great human achievement, but it works in very restricted domains of simple systems. That’s the price we pay for our penchant for objectivity. Genuine scientific understanding is reached primarily through the formal mode—the Galilean style—which is available only for very simple systems. The chapter points out that the arts also sometimes search for formal/minimalist conception of aspects of the world, but the method of search is distinct, resulting in a vastly different form of inquiry. It is reasonable to expect then that a genuine science of the mind is also likely to be restricted only to those aspects of the mind where the formal mode is available. Human language is perhaps the most promising example of such an aspect of the mind. There are serious limits to the inquiry even there, as the next two chapters suggest. 

(To be continued)

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