In Part 9 of this series (which starts here), I discussed “Reductionism” and argued that, yes, we can be reduced—and that, no, we cannot be reduced. If that seems contradictory, then you should go back and read Part 9! In this post I will describe what will be the final layer of emergence in my Model of Everything. In subsequent posts, I will discuss what I see as the model’s implications regarding meaning in life.
Let’s get started then—the final layer of emergence I call human endeavor, and it is here that we not only begin to recognize the context of ourselves and our lives, but we also begin to chase a concept called “truth”. Now that’s certainly a loaded term, so when I say truth I mean something like this: “An observation or theory that coheres with our collective experience of reality”, and it includes the caveat that further information may require us to restate our observations or reform our theories. I fully acknowledge that my definition of truth relies on a kind of inter-subjective agreement. I believe we can only speak about truth based on the kinds of beings that we are—that is, limited by the way we experience reality and/or by the way deeper realities can be revealed by technology.
Broadly, I see human endeavor fitting into 3 major categories: first, Horizontal Truths. These are activities such as visual art, storytelling, religion—activities that are organic to our human experience.
The truths uncovered here provide insight and commentary on the human condition in context of the human condition—as it is lived—as it is felt—and I think that is a certain kind of truth.
Horizontal truths are not preoccupied with our component parts; these truths do not surface by breaking us down—they do not lay us out or dissect us into explicable parts. These are truths revealed by great paintings, poetry, music, and even religion. Can we learn something truthful from a poem or a novel? Sure—though we needn’t think the characters are real. Can religion provide insight into human psychology? I believe it can, but it provides us no reason to think that gods or devils actually exist. I see religion as a horizontal framework for understanding and makings sense of the world—different only in scope from other (if more narrow) frameworks such as Impressionism or the fictional world of Moby Dick.
The second major category of human endeavor gives us what I call Vertical Truths.
These endeavors depend on absolute clarity and repeatability—on emotionless, subject-disinterested, lab-driven observation, and they are overwhelmingly concerned with the mechanics and machinery underlying a given property. The hard facts grounding these disciplines are the object of much of our technological tooling, and it is these facts (when we reduce our existence to them) that “reductionist!” shout-downs begin.
And yet between these two sets of disciplines, between these two kinds of truths lie a vast and interesting middle ground: Curvy Truths.
These endeavors attempt to explain the human subject, not just its object parts, but also in terms of science and the methods its developed. To understand feelings, for example, in terms of underlying function while also retaining a clear understanding of how feelings feel. One cannot explain the psychology of love without coming to terms with what is meant by “love”. One cannot study emotions (effectively) without being in touch with real emotion. These curvy, connecty sciences are crucially important—these are the disciplines that unite the subjective and objective—they provide the bridge between the lived human experience and the mind-blind sciences. And so, when I say that horizontal endeavors provide truth, it is because they hook into these curves—which are, in turn, underpinned by “hard-science”.
I consider primatologists and anthropologists to be scientists as much as I do physicists; their informed human interpretation of primates and culture is what makes their work interesting science. The fact that they may deal in probabilities and intuitions, the fact that their theories do not always hold or may be proven wrong, does not make them less scientific. Conjecture is part of science, so is speculation, and so is being wrong. Wasn’t Newton doing science? Wasn’t Freud? Science is the human endeavor to understand the natural world, and those understandings come in ranges of probability (as I discussed in Part 2)—sometimes wider, sometimes more narrow—and the possibility of revision lurks always in the background. I consider (even poor, old) Philosophy as science, for if science is the human endeavor to understand the natural world, and if philosophy is the love of wisdom, they must surely be dealing with the same thing. Philosophy exercises critical thinking and logic while at the same time it pushes the limits of knowledge and understanding. Yes, Philosophy often wanders into realms one might better call intuition or conjecture, but I see nothing unscientific about that (unless, of course, one rigorously clings to a philosophy after it’s been disproven, or been determined to be vanishingly improbable, or found to be in some other way superfluous). Philosophy is the science of science, centered not so much on providing answers, but asking questions, in probing-out the weaknesses of other truth claims. Lastly, philosophy holds the burrito together—it attempts to reconcile and cohere other disciplines into a comprehensible, sense-making whole. But again, if a particular philosophy becomes demonstrably or logically false, that philosophy should be regarded as so much caloric and luminiferous aether.
And so, when I say that horizontal truths are unconcerned with being reduced, I contend that should we reduce them, whatever we’d be prepared to call “true” (about art or music or religion) can be traced into the folds of some curvy discipline—and in those curves we will find connections to the vertical. Where religion, for example, makes true claims about the human condition—about our psychology, about the importance of meaning in our lives or our ability to change and transform ourselves from within—those truths are traceable back through other human endeavors (i.e. the curvy sciences). Where religion makes claims about the existence of gods, demons, devils, heavens, hells or the like—where it talks of implanted souls and father-figures in the great beyond, I count it about as likely as meeting Ahab hauling in a great white whale.
The whole of these human endeavors—horizontal, vertical and curvy—help us to understand ourselves, our context, and through them we find expression for what is meaningful. Now a particular challenge when talking about meaning is answering the question: “What do we mean by meaning?” or “What does meaning mean?” But that is for another time, for now let’s put it all together— here is my Model of Everything!