What I’ve Been Up To – The Epistemology Edition

Everybody starts somewhere in their ability to have a perspective on themselves, others, and the world around them. And, for all of us it seems, that “somewhere” is square zero. Not square one–“one” implies that there’s actually something there. “Zero” is a state of total innocent ignorance. Psychologists tell us this normal developmental stages lasts for about 2 years. Somewhere between the ages of two and three (which is also, as neurologists tell us, about when our prefrontal cortex, responsible for recognition of self, begins to develop), most of us start to pick up on the idea that “I” am separate from the world around me, and most importantly, Mom (or whoever is filling the archetypal nurturer role) isn’t a mind reader who can take care of all of my needs. This is where things get interesting.

Of course, not being able to remember anything from way back then (since my hippocampus probably wasn’t developed enough yet), I can’t say if I started out as a anxious kid, or I just got that way later. I do remember (and have had confirmed) that, right in those early stages of setting my little toddler feet on the path of individuation, some traumatic stuff went on. I didn’t know what to make of it or how to talk about it. And I felt needier than seemed to be approved of. I often took things way more personally than need be, which ended up in me making messy displays of oversensitivity. Which, of course, as a kid got me teased to no end. (It’s fun sport to pick on the cry baby and make her cry.) I was nervous. A lot.

What has this got to do with epistemology? Well, quite a lot actually. The way in which I learned to manage my anxiety set up my foundational epistemological framework. You see, I somehow figured out that to avoid further embarrassment, I should not put my thoughts, feelings, needs out to the world unless I could first determine that I was in a valid, solidly defensible position. I quickly separated from myself, became my own observer (which probably wasn’t too foreign of an experience after the dissociation I had experienced during the trauma). Plus, I grew up in a household where reason and practicality were valued for their ability to lift us out of ignorance, bigotry, and superstition into a lives redeemed by self-determination. I was a child rationalist.

Rationalism \Ra”tion*al*ism\,
The theory that reason is the foundation of certainty in knowledge.

That, combined with what feels like simply a congenital left-brain predilection, meant that the day-to-day tasks of interrelating became increasingly complex. I was constantly trying to foresee how conversations would go and running “what if” scenarios in my head by way of questioning my feelings and trying to invalidate my own reasoning and debunk my own theories of how and why my world was. I had a very active mind. By the time I opened my mouth to postulate something to someone, you could be damn sure that I only did so because I was fairly confident that I had already predicted the challenges to it and formed my rebuttals. This went on for years. As you can imagine, I felt fairly isolated.

Now, this meant in order to stay intact psychologically, I ran to the lowest common denominator of what could be considered “truth”. And so a skeptic was born.

Skepticism \Skep”ti*cism\, n.
1: doubt about the truth of something [syn: incredulity, disbelief, mental rejection]
2: the disbelief in any claims of ultimate knowledge [syn: agnosticism, scepticism]
Source: WordNet ® 2.0, © 2003 Princeton University

Modern day skeptics love logic. It puts us on firm philosophical ground because we can provide arguments that demonstrate by reasoning that a thing is true. And to me it seemed all people, or at least anyone that counted, could communicate through the common vocabulary of logic. The problem with this is that propositions are built on postulates, and, as a logician peels away the layers of assumptions, she finds more layers which must also be validated by way of further arguments right on down into what philosophers call “infinite regress”. (Hence the reason why ancient Greek skeptics eschewed logic, although it’s hard to imagine today that, once upon a time, skepticism and logic were in opposite camps. Anyway, back to the 1970’s BCE ….)

I analyzed anything and everything that scampered through my mind. I fried my little 8-year-old brain trying to figure out if I really loved my parents and if they could really love me because (1) What, after all, is love? (2) How can it be observed or proven? How can I detect it emanating from myself? (3) Are my methods of perception trustworthy? (4) How does the brain work anyway? Was I to take in on “faith” that what some scientists had discovered about the workings of human sense organs were actually accurate, or, to be on firm ground, did I need to study it for myself? So, pretty soon, I was reduced to attempting to understand things way beyond my grasp and getting paralyzed into an intellectual stupor. I figured, until I could tell for sure, I better hold off on any grand professions of anything I wasn’t sure about, especially where other people’s feelings were involved.

Unbeknownst to me, the philosophical dilemma I was having was reflective of the very problems that generations of philosophers much smarter and better informed than I had struggled with and failed to resolve. These epistemologists had gotten down to the point where they threw up their hands and declared that real knowledge of anything is not possible or at least has never yet been seen.

Philosophical skepticism – either the claim that we don’t have knowledge or that we can’t have knowledge.
Scientific skepticism – a scientific, or practical, position in which one questions the veracity of claims, and seeks to prove or disprove them using the scientific method.
Source: Wikipedia

I wasn’t a skeptic in the Western philosophical sense of the word. In fact, far from it. I did believe there was such a thing as truth and I pursued knowledge of it as if it was possible, reasonable, and even incumbent upon me to acquire. Had I been more gifted in the study of chemistry and physics, I probably would have wound my way down into the microcosmos and become not just a scientific skeptic but, more specifically, a realist type of empiricist.

Empiricism – the view that knowledge derives from experiences or observations. Once reproduced widely enough, the information resulting from our observations and experiments counts as the evidence upon which the scientific community develops theories that purport to explain facts about the world.

  • Scientific realism (or naïve empiricism) – the view that the universe really is as explained by scientific statements.
  • Instrumentalism – the view that our perceptions, scientific ideas and theories do not necessarily reflect the real world accurately, but are useful instruments to explain, predict and control our experiences.
    Source: Wikipedia

I gave the natural sciences a go in school, but I didn’t show a natural ability for them. And I eventually made peace with not having firsthand knowledge of their revelations by concluding that it didn’t really matter whether or not there were such things as molecules and magnetic fields; the concepts and theories of them are sufficiently useful instruments for explaining and predicting experiences for them to float my boat. In other words, I fell into the instrumentalist camp of empiricism. (It was interesting for me to discover later in life that instrumentalism is based on pragmatism which itself was influenced by William James, whose area of research had earlier grab my serious interest both personally and academically. Funny how, in life, the end is often signalled in the beginning. But I am getting ahead of myself….)

As I was saying … not just in school but in daily life, I noticed that no one would argue with solid logic, and I figured if I could wow people with my critical thinking, then I’d be respected, even admired, but, most importantly, no one could make fun of me for being ignorant, careless, or dull-witted. Not surprisingly, when I happened upon computer programming as a teen in school, I was thrilled to find something creative whose execution was largely solitary and yielded definite, correct answers with simple logic and persistence. I easily did better than everyone else in the class, and I knew right then what I wanted to do for a living.

In terms of where the rubber meets the road in my inner life, when I experienced an emotion–sadness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise, contempt, and sometimes even happiness (the “big 7” universal emotions)–I wouldn’t really let myself just have it (I mean, really feel and not try to stay separate and observe it at the same time) unless I could first understand why I was having it, understand its mechanism, and then deem the emotion an appropriate response to the situation. After how unpopular my emotions made me when I was younger, I had pretty high standards for what was considered to be “appropriate”, especially for the more negative emotions. Likewise with trusting in such woo woo concepts as love. I wasn’t gonna be played for a fool, deluding myself about what was essentially idealized dependence or need. Mom and Dad said they loved me. But what did that mean? I mostly noticed in my relationship with them a lot of approval seeking (from me) and approval giving (from them). Perhaps it was that unsatisfactorily simple.

This sort of excessive self-analysis, or, should I say, self-criticism and self-doubt, just continually eroded the already compromised self-esteem that I had salvaged from my childhood. But, had you known me at the time, you probably wouldn’t have taken me for a person with low sense of self-worth. I got good grades, eventually had friends, eventually got dates (although I didn’t really think the boys liked me, they just wanted something from me, which was acceptable to me since I was lonely and wasn’t going to be picky), was gregarious and active in organizations, and was often in leadership positions. But I didn’t know I was particularly smart. (The thought didn’t even occur to me until I was somewhere around 30 years old.) I didn’t feel attractive. (That kicked it around age 35.) I didn’t trust in myself much. I did, however, get that people saw me as a person who could see what needed to be done in a situation and then make it happen and they appreciated this ability. So, underneath it all, regardless of what people said, I developed a suspicion that the reason anyone liked me was because of the things that I could do for them.

I was OK with that. I had found a niche and learned to survive. But there is an unfortunate, well-studied statistical correlation between low self-esteem and loneliness. And I felt constantly lonely inside. Nobody could say anything that really reached me, really made me feel moved or feel seen as I saw myself from the inside. Pile on top of this the ridiculously high standards I had for myself (which I was exhausting myself trying to meet). I started having suicidal thoughts around age 8 which continued to plague me on and off through the years into adulthood whenever my anxiety and sense of isolation got intolerable. I was sharp but I was withering inside.

As I became more and more self-sufficient into early adulthood, this sort of philosophical and emotional constipation made having relationships built on intimacy and interdependency pretty difficult. As is normal in adolescence, my inner questioning took second place to peer acceptance and relationship building. I grew from an anxious, pensive young child into a lonely, depressed older child then on to a neurotic, overcompensating young adult. (I know, this is dark, depressing stuff. It gets better, I promise.)

Neurosis, according to Sigmund Freud, arises from inner conflicts and could lead to anxiety. In his formulation, the causal factors could be found roughly in the first six years of life, when the personality, or ego, is weak and afraid of censure. Source: Answers.com

Neurosis is the avoidance of legitimate suffering.” – Carl Jung

Eventually, at age 24, I did find my way into an intimate relationship in which I didn’t feel like I constantly had to prove myself and defend my thinking in order to warrant loving companionship. And then all sorts of messy business came spilling out of my unconscious. I had to deal with insecurities and memories I hadn’t known were inside of me. I started crying all of the time. Sometimes I couldn’t even explain why. My clever mind was no help at all. And when I finally couldn’t keep it together anymore, I got help. At first, I found a counseling organization whose model of working was centered on containing and discharging emotional responses so as to not pollute one’s thinking and rational decision making capabilities (which were the real virtues of humanity). I felt right at home. The counseling theories and process did help me accept that happiness was OK to embrace and, through their loving, patient encouragement, the counselors convinced me that I was lovable and worthy simply in who I was rather than in what I can do for others. And I accepted this because, if nothing else, it just made good functional sense. (Not much point in pure objectivity if it leads me to the grave or to such a state of depression that I can’t think clearly.)

Utilitarianism \U*til`i*ta”ri*an*ism\,
The theory that the the moral dimension of human actions is determined by their capacity to produce happiness.

When, after a few years, my emotional discharge process slowed from a flood to a trickle, I started to realize how completely unworkable such strict adherence to logic was. I noticed that sometimes thinking about things made them worse, whereas, after a good cry, I suddenly saw a whole new range of solutions to a previously intractable problem. I accepted that there were some experiences in living that just were not explainable by the reliable information I had at hand, but I could at least come to some sort of meaningful, working relationship with them by applying a more metaphorical understanding.

My interest in applied logic waned and my interest in psychology grew. I participated in a lot of therapy and self-discovery type activities (eventually moving away from more cognitive models to depth models). I started having an experience of living that resonated with my heart as well as my mind. My guiding myth shifted. Now, instead of looking at any difficulties I had as a problem of faulty logic, I explained them in terms of my childhood issues. (I tended to be on the nurture side of the “nature versus nurture” argument.) But still there was this question about the nature of love as well. And, although I still didn’t have a good definition of it or explanation for its cause and effect, I at least trusted in the experience of it more.

At age 31, I fell in love again. This time, hard. It didn’t matter that he didn’t love me back in the same passionate way. In fact, his taciturnity just created a vacuum in which I could unselfconsciously allow myself to incautiously dote on someone. I was ready and eager to stop second guessing myself and just throw myself into feeling with as much abandon as I had into thinking. Objective observation had given me intellectual clarity but left me standing on the outside looking in on life through the glass window. It was possible, I granted now, that there is no way to truly understand an experience unless one gives oneself over it. Fully. In the rest of my life, my (now, second-nature) rational abilities could keep me employed and managing logistics. But when it came to love and to learning about my truest nature, I became a romantic.

Romanticism \Ro*man”ti*cism\,
An artistic and intellectual movement which stressed strong emotions as guiding principles and an individual imagination as the critical authority.

I loved being in love and feeling so free to express it without constantly questioning it and protecting myself from the unpredicted outcomes. And, at about the same time, I had started wondering if this depth of longing that I had been trying to undo with psychoanalysis and catharsis was actually not stemmed in some unfulfilled childhood needs. I mean, I had really been giving it my all in counseling for years. But this particular kernel wasn’t cracking. And, now that I thought about it, it didn’t have the same quality of feeling that my past hang-ups did. I’m not sure I can explain it because it was so inward and personal. It just felt like it sat differently in my brain. It was at my core somehow, and, although it wasn’t a happy feeling, my longing (for what, I didn’t know) didn’t seem particularly pathological either.

It was the right time for someone to throw me a spiritual rope. The right time in that I had come to an understanding of myself that I might actually not poo-poo it, but only if it came from the right person (someone whose critical thinking and practicality I trusted). It was a tall order to ask for a scientific mind to lead me to God, I know. But the right someone did. And I grabbed the rope. And [much hand waving here] it rocked my world. It was not all angels and light. Actually, it was a lot of dark, messy soul-searching. I unravelled again for a while, , trying to make peace with it, in long episodes of grieving that I couldn’t make much sense of and an underlying, persistent fear of false hopes and disappointment. But I was clear, if I was going to go looking for answers, and if I was going to allow them to affect me, then I couldn’t stand on the shore and watch the fishies swim. I wasn’t allowed to hold myself back from the experience. I had to just let myself fall into the deep end and get lost for a while. And I did. And it sucked. And, much to my surprise, there was beauty in the pain. In fact, sometime the agony and the ectasy existed in the same moment and seemed inseparable. And so my personal myth shifted again. Now, instead of looking at any difficulties I had as unresolved childhood needs, I thought of them in the context of a possible personal, primordial destiny or drive. I was no longer a victim pinball in the big arcade of life, but every ricochet and tilt seemed to serve to push me towards this fantastic unfolding of which I was now getting a glimpse.

In a short time, things about myself, things that I had never told anyone before and had largely forgotten myself, started to make sense in the big picture. Fleeting experiences I had had earlier in life of feeling connected yet alone that I could not explain before (and so I had just dismissed) now had a place in my worldview. And whether or not the meanings I derived from my experiences of life were scientifically grounded, they worked for me.

Nowadays, a few years into this new myth, life seems less logical but less random as well. I have little patience for unnecessary complexity in life anymore. I do still engage in the dialectic of prayer versus sophistry, but it no longers seems like a dichotomy. My capacity for critical thinking is pretty well developed. And I think that is so, so important. I didn’t mention this before but that foray into unadulterated romanticism turned out to have some pretty negative consequences. I got myself into some interpersonal dynamics that were unhealthy and painfully repetitive because I was so attached to the experience of feeling passionately devoted and proving that “love” could conquer all. If I had to say how thinking and feeling interrelate and guide me now, I guess it’s that my relationship to the external world (including people relationships) is more influenced by my thinking and my relationship to my internal world (i.e., how I relate to myself) is more influenced by my feeling. I don’t know how those will come together when I fall in love again and have a chance to live that through. At some level, for all experiences of “falling” into something that has a visceral, emotional appeal, I trust my mind to first do its due diligence with logic, and so I accept that I have to provide it with enough satisfying information so that it will agree to step out of the way and let something inexplicable happen.

But it is hard to hold this personal epistemology in a culture that is so steeped in literalism. Every day, I see people discount their experiences or those of others because they don’t fit into the modern day paradigm where science is supposed to tell us how the world really is. By “science”, I am not referring to the world of scientific research and inquiry for the sake of knowledge. (The individuals who practice this are often non-linear thinkers who are able to turn common perception on its end.) I mean instead the practice of the systematic arranging of facts, explained in terms of some natural order, as the common mode of assigning value to and making sense of our experiences. So, what happens when we don’t have enough information to adequately make sense, and therefore assign value, to something? What happens if we don’t know that we don’t have enough information.

It seems to me, as a collective, we are constantly begging the question of where to draw the line between personal subjectivity and truth. At what point are ‘delusions’ dysfunctional? What things are best discerned by thinking and what (if any) by feeling? These are important questions to ask. The Renaissance-inspired act of culturally condoning them has relieved us of the limitation of myths based in superstition, liberated us from tyrrany, and provided us with the information necessary to take responsibility for our influence on the world around us. I do appreciate that operating solely out of one’s emotional or imaginative centers is a great set up to be led astray by unfounded biases and spin and can even degenerate into a reign of terror. But now, it seems, that even objectivity is showing its limitations.

Our relative mastery over the microcosmos that we have acquired has led to a sort of narcissism in which we feel it incumbent upon ourselves to eliminate mystery and control everything. And, yet, more and more of us complain about this being a soul-less world in which people and things are atomic entities treated as resources wandering through mechanical lives. Is it possible that science as modern myth as outlived its purpose for this stage of our collective evolution of consciousness. Are there enough of us now that couldn’t even be superstitious if we tried? Is there enough of a base of objectivism that we can now move forward? Not backward! Not a return to naivety. But perhaps a Hegelian synthesis. If I’ve learned anything in life so far, it’s that if I can only see two, seemingly opposing solutions to a problem, then I’m simply being blind or am not ready or willing to accept other perfectly good alternatives. The third option, the resolution that eventually arises, often neither completely discounts nor blindly accepts the first two. It takes the best from the both and moves forward. For me, that synthesis is informed participation (born out of uninformed participation and informed observation).

Everything I’ve experienced in my life until now tells that I’m alive right now to question the limitations of objectivity and find its proper, utilitarian role. I have lived in ignorance and it was painful to be tossed about on the seas of life. I have deified reason alone and it betrayed me. Skepticism has shown itself to be another kind of cognitive distortion, proving its own hypotheses within a closed system of logic.

“The standard mistake that fundamentalists make is to posit a partial cause as the whole cause. Yes, the neurons are there. That’s a partial cause of what’s going on. What these neuroscientists are missing, though, is the top-down action in the brain, which is the part that gives life its actual meaning. And if you only choose to look from the bottom up, youll never see that meaning. Think of a jumbo jet flying. The bottom-up view of why it flies is because the particles are impacting the wing from below and moving a bit slower than the particles above. The top-down version of why the plane is flying because someone employed a lot of draftsmen using computer-aided design tools to design the plane to fly. The same-level view of why the plane is flying is because the pilot is sitting at the controls and making it fly. Now, the physicists tend to miss both the same-level and the top-down view. And it’s the same with these neuroscientists. To return to our flight analogy, they would say that all that’ enabling the pilot to fly the plane is the firing of some neurons in his brain. but then they would be missing the fact that actually he had decided to be a pilot when he was a boy. He got enthusiastic about it, he raised the money for his training, and all the rest of it. They just mess all of that up. They are unable to see those higher levels because they’re focused on the lower levels.” – George Ellis (Templeton prize-winning cosmologist) as quoted in “Is God All in Your Head?” by Craig Hamilton in “What is Enlightenment?” magazine, Issue 29, June – August 2005

As James Hillman put it, fundamentalism (scientific, religious, or any other kind) is a disease of an impoverished mind. A left-brained bias sees any suggestion of letting go of logic as a threat to the integrity of the system and defends itself by overgeneralizing against the right half of the brain. Greedy reductionism may be a good starting point explaining macroscopic systems, but when things get complex, it leads you to lose useful context. It’s the old “missing the forest for the trees” problem. Or, as I often experience it, sometimes if you dissect a human heart, all you get is a dead human.

Greedy Reductionism – a term coined in the book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea written by Daniel Dennett which refers to forms of reductionism that try to explain too much with too little.Source: Wikipedia

Will the “spiritual” experience eventually be explained by brain chemistry? Probably. Will that invalidate how deeply my inner experiences have affected my values, world view, and my sense of self and purpose, in other words, how “real” it is to me? Hell, no. For me, the thing that seems to make all of the commuting, time killing, and bill paying worthwhile is that they are punctuated with unexpected moments of complete awe and humility in which all my efforting seems simultaneously crucial and yet so wonderfully insignificant in the face of what else is possible. What a relief.

I’ve tried living by the power of my own will and discovered that, although I could I can accomplish quite a lot, I eventually get bored of proving myself to myself (or anyone else). Nowadays, I find the preoccupation with personal will actually offensive. And so too strict adherence to the scientific method because it is based on reproducibility to assess validity and reproducibility implies control over outcomes and some things we don’t have control over even though they are real. And for that I say thank God. 🙂

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