By Kurt Cobb
Epistemology is the study of how we know things. All of us cycle between two main ways of knowing in our modern culture: 1) the rational, reductionist way and 2) the holistic, relational, intuitive way. By far the most dominant way is the rational, reductionist way and our institutions, scientific, economic, financial and organizational are governed by this way of thinking.
For the reductionist thinker, everything in the universe is made up of parts. If we can understand the parts, we can understand the whole. Depending on the field, the physical world is nothing but atoms and molecules and the social world is nothing but self-maximizing, rational actors. The reductionist view is very powerful and filled with “nothing but” statements. It never occurs to the thoroughgoing reductionist that the idea of “parts” is merely a mental construct.
In our everyday relationships with friends and family, in our nonrational pursuits in music and the arts, in our religious lives, we tend toward the second way of thinking, holistic, relational and intuitive.
We cycle back and forth between these ways of knowing almost effortlessly and for the most part unconsciously. That seems to work well for us as individuals—except when we miscalculate or misperceive a situation and bad consequences follow. Mostly, we regroup and recover and go on, adjusting for what we have learned.
Can the same be said of society as a whole? Yes and no. Global human society can be likened to a superorganism that has its own logic and modes of action. Each of us is strongly influenced by its trajectory and constrained in our actions. We may wish fervently to address income inequality or hunger or climate change. But the complex interactions and power arrangements in our global society make it difficult to do anything but make a small dent. Even our personal destinies seem to be caught up in a flow of events which we cannot control, but rather must react to.
The reductionist way suggests mastery through manipulation of carefully measured forces: mass, temperature, vectors of force, energy gradients (both physical and chemical). We build machines that use energy to build yet more machines. We erect great public works, dams, bridges and roads that create the arteries through which commerce and people flow. We douse the land with chemical fertilizers boosting farm yields to feed hungry billions.
The holistic way suggests mastery through alignment with natural and social forces. We say that it is best to “go with the flow” in both the physical and social dimensions of our lives. Such words imply an intuitive apprehension of an entire pattern. Recognition of patterns becomes the master key to understand the world. But what is a pattern? It is certainly something that repeats, but not always exactly.
Mark Twain is often quoted as saying,”History never repeats itself but it does rhyme.” The mystery of comparison is the engine of perception, cognition and our resulting cultural outputs of literature, art and music.
The holistic way tries to see the entire picture including all the messy consequences. Knowing that those consequences ramify infinitely, it can only intuit the extent and significance of any pattern. The holistic way knows ahead of time that it will never see the whole, only “feel” its meaning.
Both ways are general approaches to modeling the world we see. We create mental models of how the world works and fits together. When we mistake those models for “the truth,” we can get stuck, failing to adjust to new information and experience. We begin to dismiss information contrary to our model rather than embracing such information as a new insight for our process of adjustment. You can hear the dismissal happening when people say, “That can’t be” or “Everybody knows that…”
Heraclitus says, “Nothing endures but change.” The global superorganism—described by Nate Hagens in the piece cited above entitled, “Economics for the future – Beyond the superorganism”—keeps changing but in a direction that constantly undermines the survivability of humankind (and many other organisms and animals). That organism perceives the world as parts to be controlled and exploited, not just partially and temporarily, but completely and permanently. The perception that the universe is a seamless whole where a victory of mastery in one place means a perilous defeat in another, never occurs to this superorganism.
As Hagens describes it, the global human superorganism does not understand that there is a future in which the consequences of its actions will be manifested in a colossal systemic collapse. There is only the hungry maw of now, of immediate control and mastery, of immediate gratification, of immediate power.
The point is not to banish the reductionist way of thinking. Rather, it is to recognize it for what it is, but one model of perception that has its limitations and will never embrace the entire universe—a model that is as prone to error as any other model and one that will never get close to “the truth” because as Heraclitus tells us, “the truth” of the universe is always changing.