consciousness within them." --Rudolph Virchow
For years, I've been trying to answer the question how, especially for the purposes of democracy and peace, we can be better at knowing and understanding what we need to in order to competently manage our lives, those of our communities, towns and cities, states and nations, and the planet (for we do have great planet-wide problems).
The deep lack of trust between holders of different ideologies particularly in the U.S. is perhaps as bad as it ever was -- as bad as in the years leading up to the civil war. We might as well be speaking different languages, as in the Tower of Babel, except we tend to think we understand things that we don't, and get highly offended, sometimes to the point of violence.
There is some good reason for lack of trust. All sides use facts sloppily, and we lack institutions that would make facts more ready to hand than slogans, insults, and oft repeated and distorted vignettes and sound bites.
I really need to take exploration and attempt to engage with others in a new direction, away from piecemeal struggle with falsehoods and propaganda. Awareness of how inadequate this project has been has driven to me read widely, not to mention feverishly across many disciplines some of which I never heard of before I started; even to applying text-to-speech translation to academic papers and books to use the time I must spend doing tedious work.
Is there any chance of a "movement of truth" that would make truth more ready to hand and remove the fantastically strong perfume that disguises the smell of the bullshit? There have been some huge turn abouts in our dominant ways of thinking.
Let me start with a couple of success stories, one unequivocal, and the other unfortunate in my view, yet inspiring in a way.
The first is what we usually call the Scientific Revolution. Most of the early foundation of modern science comes out of the works of the Royal Society of London. I'm sure this claim is contested, but I will eventually spend some time trying to justify it, and the society is easily of immense importance, as it included Newton's theory and the experiments with the vacuum pump which lead to the first systematic chemistry and ultimately to the theory of the atom -- indispensable to modern technology. And those are just a couple of the many direction in which it went.
The Royal Society was in turn very largely inspired by the work of Francis Bacon, and in particular The New Organon. This, at least, is the argument of Margery Purver's The Royal Society: Concept and Creation.
My first clear view of the seminal importance of the Royal Society, and its publication, Transactions of the Royal Society, came from a popular book, Daniel J. Boorstin's The Discoverers. I took away the distinct impression that the most important principle behind this work and the Scientific Revolution was "Focus on the knowable, and never mind the ridicule you will take for spending so much time with such trivial matters. (my formulation). As a result, many, including Jonathan Swift, ridiculed the society for its interest in meticulous descriptions and drawings of lice and newly discovered microscopic organisms, observed under the recently invented microscope.
For Boorstin, as for Francis Bacon, knowledge was seriously retarded up to that point by premature systematizing, the natural result of our impatience to know important things, like general principles of how the body functions. Because it is important, people are eager to know something about it. And so an at the time plausible sounding theory of human bodily malfunctions due imbalance in the four primary bodily fluids, or "humours", became, for want of anything better, the cornerstone of medicine for many centuries - it was the justification for the infamous practice of "bleeding".
The problem: there was simply no way to sound understanding of the body except by a convergence, over centuries, of minute observation on top of minute observation, and eventual systematization of layers upon layers of far simpler understandings than that of the body, such as general systematic understanding of the cells from which all higher living things are made, of blood, or blood circulation, of microscopic organisms, of aspects of chemistry, (which all gets us to a 19th century level of understanding), and dozens if not hundreds of whole disciplines of studying various specific organs, etc.
Bacon could not have foreseen all of this, but he could see that the academic world of his time prattled on about things that were far from well understood, and might not exist, for that matter, and he had the insight that some much simpler things could be understood with enough work, and the understandings of simple things could form the foundation of understandings of more complex things.
Bacon's New Organon, besides putting forth the key insights, provides a catalog of everything that leads the mind astray when looking for truth. E.g. (somewhat paraphrased courtesy of Jonathan Bennett, a scholar of Bacon's time)
"There are and can be only two ways of searching into and discovering truth.
(1) One of them starts with the senses and particular events and swoops straight up from them to the most general axioms; on the basis of these, taken as unshakably true principles, it proceeds to judgment and to the discovery of intermediate axioms. This is the way that people follow now.
(2) The other derives axioms from the senses and particular events in a gradual and unbroken ascent, · going through the intermediate axioms and · arriving finally at the most general axioms. This is the true way, but no-one has tried it"
"For the mind loves to leap up to generalities and come to rest with them; so it doesn't take long for it to become sick of experiment. But this evil, though it is present both in natural science and in dialectics, is worse in dialectics because of the ordered solemnity of its disputations."
To call it a catalog of hindrances to clear thinking is no exaggeration. He anticipates many of the conclusions of modern scientists like Kahneman and Tversky of "motivated reasoning", and the "availability fallacy", and others, lead us astray. Bacon defines four classes of "idols" (suggestive of the "golden calf" and other illicit objects of worship from the Old Testament). There are the "idols of the tribe" (those inherent to being human), the "idols of the cave" (those of individuals distortions and prejudices), and the "idols of the marketplace" (largely semantic misunderstandings). And finally, there are "idols of the theater, because I regard every one of the accepted systems as the staging and acting out of a fable, making a fictitious staged world of its own. ... The human intellect is inherently apt to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds there. Many things in nature are unique and not like anything else; but the intellect devises for them non-existent parallels..."
He does not rest with such a general critique, but provides an extensive list of things and qualities to be examined in the search for natural laws. E.g. heat - "If for example we are to investigate the form of heat, we need a table of instances of heat . This is my First Table:
1. The rays of the sun, especially in summer and at noon.
2. The sun's rays reflected and condensed. . . .especially
in burning glasses and mirrors.
3. Fiery meteors.
5. Eruptions of flame from the cavities of mountains.
6. All flame.
7. Burning solids.
8. Natural warm baths.
27. Even keen and intense cold produces a kind of
sensation of burning.
This is just an outline for 20 dense pages of recommendations, including some of his own experiments, for trying to get at the truth about heat.
He enumerates 27 angles from which to approach an object of study, giving each one's advantages and peculiarities.
His subtle analysis of heat from many perspectives even leads to something strikingly close to a correct theory -- i.e. that heat is some kind of vibration or agitation, whereas after Bacon's time it was misconstrued up until two centuries as a sort of "fluid" known as "caloric".
[to be continued]