Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Whistling at a different pitch

Having exorcised Mrs Merkl’s Swabian housewife, let’s get back to some more thinking.
I want to explore a sample explanation of why the Farmer and the Cowboy can’t be friends. Obviously, this is apropos of my concern over the effective communication of climate issues and environmental issues in general.
We recently discussed Truth – it’s easy to agree that this takes us in tricky directions. It can be hard to agree what makes a truth, and hard to agree the specific cases of whether something is true or not. So I’m going to move the focus on to the notion of Understanding, instead.
However and whatever forms of ‘knowledge’ we acquire (or, reducing it further, form of meaningful communication with which we agree), we tend to come to an understanding of reality, truth, fact, whatever, from two distinctive and often contradictory ways of understanding things. This is what Wikipedia says about Reason:
Reason is the capacity for consciously making sense of things, applying logic, for establishing and verifying facts, and changing or justifying practices, institutions, and beliefs based on new or existing information.[1] It is closely associated with such characteristically human activities as philosophy, science, language, mathematics, and art, and is normally considered to be a definitive characteristic of human nature.[2] The concept of reason is sometimes referred to as rationality and sometimes as discursive reason, in opposition to intuitive reason.[3]
Reason or "reasoning" is associated with thinking, cognition, and intellect. Reason, like habit or intuition, is one of the ways by which thinking comes from one idea to a related idea. For example, it is the means by which rational beings understand themselves to think about cause and effect, truth and falsehood, and what is good or bad. It is also closely identified with the ability to self-consciously change beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and institutions, and therefore with the capacity for freedom and self-determination.[4]

You’ll note that the article distinguishes between DISCURSIVE and INTUITIVE reason. This is what the Wiki says about Intuition:
Intuition is the ability to acquire knowledge without inference or the use of reason.[1] The word intuition comes from Latin verb intueri which is usually translated as to look inside or to contemplate.[2] Intuition is thus often conceived as a kind of inner perception, sometimes regarded as real lucidity or understanding. Cases of intuition are of a great diversity; however, processes by which they happen typically remain mostly unknown to the thinker, as opposed to the view of rational thinking.
Intuition provides views, understandings, judgements, or beliefs that we cannot in every case empirically verify or rationally justify. For this reason, it has been not only a subject of study in psychology, but also a topic of interest in various religions and esoteric domains, as well as a common subject of writings.[3] The right brain is popularly associated with intuitive processes such as aesthetic or generally creative abilities.[4][5][6] Some scientists have contended that intuition is associated with innovation in scientific discovery.[7]
Both Reasoning and Intuition are legitimate ways of reaching understanding. Further, there is often reasoning embedded in intuition, and intuition likewise informs reasoning.
Science in general, say Mathematics as a paradigm, is basically rational; it has rules, structure, processes, precedents and checks. Without necessarily being complete or absolute, Mathematics is a profoundly rational activity. If you have learned the rules and the conventions, you can apply them to any number of problems of increasing complexity. It is largely consistent and logical. The ‘truths’ of Mathematics are results derived from within the syntax and semantics of the system, and their value is a function of their formulation, which is neither arbitrary nor contradictory. In other words, within Mathematics, 2 + 2 always = 4. The only way you can change this ‘truth’ is to change the rules or convention by which you understand the expression.
On the other hand, many people have an understanding of their world from an intuitive perspective, of which religion is an example. Let’s consider Buddhism as the paradigm. A person who ‘understands’ the underlying truths in Buddhism, the ‘Four Noble Truths’, does not necessarily understand them in a consciously rational manner. But this does not imply that her understanding is inferior to the understanding of a mathematician of the truth of the axioms of number or addition.
These are different ways of ‘understanding’. But they may not be quite so contradictory as you might think. For example, to reach a new solution or hypothesis, the mathematician may well start by having an intuition that something is wrong, that a certain type of procedure might correct the error, or have an insight into the nature of a problem which informs new possible resolutions. And the four noble truth of Buddhism can be laid out in a strictly formal logical ‘proof’, which suggest that, though understanding them may be intuitive, their meaning has a formal structure which allows them to make sense to our thoughts.
Religions have a long history of Reasoning associated with them in East and West. Some of the great thinkers in history were dealing with problems arriving not from science, but from a religious, intuitive source. But many religions also recognise, implicitly or explicitly, that understanding, or wisdom, about the world in the context of the religious system concerned, comes to the individual from a deep personal insight or understanding. Furthermore, this understanding is often opaque to communication; ‘The way that can be spoken of is not the true way’. Can we argue that wisdom is impossible under these conditions? Can we argue that the understanding of the Buddha is a false understanding? We can’t, for two reasons; firstly, because we have not nor can we ever strictly reach the same understanding that the Buddha has. Our insight must be our own, a personal understanding which might parallel what we have learned or experienced. Secondly, because the full detail of the nature of the understanding is beyond language (any language); it is a lived experience.
What am I getting on to? Well, obviously, people ‘understand’ Global Warming in different ways. A lot of people reach their understanding by reasoning, analysis, interpretation and evaluation of evidence, argument, and by testing the mechanisms and processes. Why would anyone look at it any other way?
I am speculating that one of the reasons why people might look for a different way of understanding Global warming is because they don’t trust what science is. Sometimes, the contradiction of the science is simply fuelled by ignorance – it is easy to distrust what you don’t understand, especially if you feel threatened by it. Sometimes a person can have such a strong negative prejudice about a message that they choose to contradict irrespective of understanding – this is why such behaviour is often labelled as ‘denial’.
But there are other people who are otherwise reasonable who turn away from the evidence and the arguments because they believe that science is something they cannot trust.
The problem is, Science is an institution as much as anything else. It works in relation to rules and conventions, exists within other institutions, is paid for by institutions. Science, it seems, has authority because it is an Authority – in this sense, it is a part of the ‘System’. More than this, Scientific argument is often derived from an apparent appeal to authority –precedence, existing assumptions, previous work, peer-review. It is an ‘Institution’ par excellence.
And a lot of people don’t trust Authority, They don’t trust Institutional models or processes, they see an underlying circularity in the self-justifications of scientific ideas, and they believe that, since Science is about authority, it suffers from the same weaknesses as other forms of authority.
This association is the problem. A person who is consistently ‘let down’ by a social or legal system, who is not protected but persecuted, who experiences injustice or repression at first hand by the hand of the System, learns in real experience that Authority and The System are inherently untrustworthy. This understanding is intuitive as well as evidential, so it has a strong force in the understanding. For such a person it is probably quite natural to mistrust and be cynical about anything which makes claims to authority. The natural default based in the understanding which exists is that first you assume the authority is either wrong or is lying, then you assume the authority has a self-serving intent and is indifferent to you, and is therefore fundamentally corrupt.
For young people, who often have an innate mistrust of the system in some form, or for those whose experience has led them to believe that no-one can be trusted, asking them to see things from a rational point of view has limited use. It is not the way their understanding has been formed. For ignorant people with strong prejudices it has no use, because they cannot even acknowledge the possibility that another understanding can exist at all. But it doesn’t mean that discussion is impossible.
Even the most intuitive person recognises the underlying formal structures which allow meaningful discourse to happen. They can accept the idea that an effect must have a cause, that if you add something to something you end up with something ‘more’. An ‘intuitive understander’ can be quite sophisticated, and even see the logical inconsistencies of their understanding. Simple logic and simple reasoning can work within a discourse to the point where a person can recognise contradictions and inconsistencies and acknowledge that these might undermine their understanding, so that, even if they sustain their understanding from intuition, they can agree that their understanding is irrational. It doesn’t mean, to them, that they are wrong.
So, can the Farmer and the Cowboy ever be friends? I would suggest yes, this is possible, but first they need to accept that what is already understood does not rest on mutually agreed conventions. But for a discourse to happen at all, there must be the possibility of logic. To start a discourse, to establish the conventions and terms of dialogue, the most important thing is to listen first, and avoid passing judgment based on your own conventions or understanding.
Possibly there will be more on this later, it depends.