Interdisciplinary Education for an Interdisciplinary World

Part of the problem with education is students do not know what relevance many topics they study have for them.

I remember throughout grade and high school that I thought math to be utterly unimportant and irrelevant to anything I was ever going to do. And throughout most of my early years I had wanted to be a scientist. How could teachers have allowed me to think that math was not important? I did not really learn math was important until I took chemistry in high school. It was only then that I truly understood fractions for the first time.

And, even though I loved to read, I thought literature pointless (it did not help that in high schools they seem to go out of their way to find the most boring literature available –- I learned how wonderful literature was in college, when we were made to read books and stories that were actually interesting). Literature had nothing to do with biology, after all, and that was what I was going to go into. This attitude is not unique to me or to high school –- it prevails in most students, and through college.

It was only later, after I had decided to pursue literature and especially after I started working on my Ph.D. that I began to see how interconnected everything was. For my dissertation, I was able to use my biology (after all, I wrote a dissertation titled Evolutionary Aesthetics), and I further discovered that it would have been a much, much, much better dissertation if I had known a great deal more math (fractal geometry and statistics in particular) and had learned to program (I actually needed to learn how to program much, much earlier than my Ph.D. dissertation, for my first attempt at grad school, but after I dropped out of my Master’s in biology, I didn’t think I needed to learn the programming I had needed to learn to finish my Master’s thesis–wrong again!).

I learned as I progressed through grad school that I actually needed many more tools from many more disciplines to do the work I wanted to do. For my dissertation, I needed to know social psychology, evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, economics, linguistics, neurobiology, molecular biology, mathematics, chaos theory and fractal geometry, programming, literature, and philosophy. And I didn’t know the math or programming I needed. I found a programmer, fortunately, but even then it would have been much better if I could have done it, and I couldn’t do the math I needed to do certain analyses to more definitively prove my thesis.

The disciplinary approach to teaching is breaking down. Students are siphoned into what they enjoy, and these same students then ignore everything else, complaining about anything that intrudes on the one thing they want to learn. This kind of hyper-specialized education is fine if all you want to produce is worker bees. But if you want creative thinkers, those who can come up with new things –- the kind of people who will make more wealth and produce more value in and for the world –- then disciplinary-only educations will not work.

What we need is a truly interdisciplinary education. We need interdisciplinary thinking, interdisciplinary classes, and interdisciplinary education. Only an interdisciplinary education will allow students to see how disciplines are interrelated. Only an interdisciplinary education will create interdisciplinary thinkers who can create more value in and for the world. We need chemists who love Bach, biologists who love Goethe, businessmen who love Aristotle. We need philosophers who love biology and business and artists who love physics and economics. Only with an interdisciplinary education will we have people who think this way, across the disciplines, through the disciplines, complexifying their thought so new things can be thought. What would the world be like if our politicians actually knew and understood the economics of Ludwig von Mises, the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, the plays of Sophocles, the linguistics of Chomsky and Pinker, the novels of Kafka, chaos theory, systems theory, evolutionary theory, the poetry of William Blake, and ancient Greek history? Could interdisciplinary thinking finally give the country great statesmen instead of demagogues? Could an interdisciplinary education create more ethical businessmen, since they would understand that there is not a conflict between ethical action and profit? Imagine a businessman who knew the value of a dollar, of his workers, and of a van Gogh. Imagine what an interdisciplinary education would do for teachers. Wouldn’t it make them – teachers? How can teachers teach when they know nothing? Teachers more than anyone should be interdisciplinary. They should know and understand the reason for having an interdisciplinary education, to understand and know the connections between the disciplines, and be able to help their students understand the importance of all the disciplines for understanding any one of the disciplines.

What is interdisciplinarity? It is not multidisciplinarity, where we have just a hodgepodge. It is not having students doing writing exercises in math class, or quadratic equations in literature class. That does not show students how the disciplines are interrelated. To have an interdisciplinary education, students need to know the value of each of the disciplines, how they relate to each other, the history of the disciplines. Students do not know how modern science arose out of natural philosophy and religion. Misunderstandings of ideas such as entropy make people reject evolution on the argument that more complexity could not arise in an entropic universe, where everything is becoming more random (this is, incidentally, not quite what entropy is about). We need to teach students about systems and complexity and information, so they can see how all disciplines relate to one another. This will give students an interdisciplinary education. And they will need an interdisciplinary education if they want to have an edge in this increasingly interdisciplinary world.

A Brief History of Western Ideas from an Emergent Complexity Perspective

I. Introduction

Complex systems theory shows that the more elements there are in a given system, the more complex the system’s behavior. New rules evolve that govern the behavior of the system, helping to coordinate activities and make the system work in a better and more complex manner. Further, when complex systems contain different hierarchical levels, such systems act in even more complex ways – fluid hierarchies increase complexity of behavior, while rigid hierarchies and flattened hierarchies decrease the complexity of a system’s behavior. This is true in quantum systems giving rise to chemical/Newtonian physical systems, to chemical systems giving rise to life, to neurons in the brain giving rise to thought and intelligence in animals, including humans, and even to the interactions of human societies.

Claire Graves, Don Beck, and Christopher Cowan theorize that both human thought and human societies develop in a particular way, and in a hierarchical fashion. If we start with animal survivalism, we move into tribalism, and from tribalism into a heroic culture (i.e. Achilles, and the Greek and Roman gods), from heroic culture into aristocratic/theocratic culture, from aristocratic culture to capitalist/scientific culture, from scientific culture into statist culture, and even now a move from all of these into ideas of world confederacy, and even into more complex, more holistic ideas. Thought also follows these patterns: mere survivalism leading to tribalistic thinking leading to conquering, heroic leaders leading to belief in order, law, regulations, and discipline to build character (typically “religious” thinking) leading to belief in the virtue of competition and progress and knowledge leading to egalitarian thinking leading to time-bound, hierarchical, pluralistic thinking leading to holistic thinking. The thinking always precedes the social development, but the thinking itself cannot jump levels any more than can societies, or than biology can leap suddenly out of quantum physics, skipping the chemical level. In other words, to move from tribalism to a culture led by heroic conquering leaders, we have to have people who begin to think in the new way while the culture itself remains in the old form of organization. It is this phenomenon I wish to investigate here, so we can understand why different thinkers were thinking as they were, and what value they have for the present day, and in the future.

We have to recognize, too, that each culture contains elements of the levels below, including people who continue to think this way. The first thing that we should note is that to say a culture or a person is in one of the lower levels is not to say that it or they are inferior to a higher level. We need the lower levels to help hold up the higher levels – this is how nested hierarchies such as emergent reality and evolving cultures can exist at all. If we take capitalist, scientific culture, for example, we can see that it can and should continue to have religious elements to it, that it will continue to have heroic people, such as athletes, in it, and that it will continue to have tribalistic elements in it –- primarily as families, friends and clubs. This is most important to point out to those levels that most tend toward communitarian thinking, including tribalism, religious thinking, and secular egalitarian statism, which evolve in reaction to the more individualistic levels (heroic, capitalist/scientific), since the heroic and the capitalist levels consider the communitarian levels below them to still be important. Further, higher level communitarian thinking also tends to reject lower level communitarian thinking -– secular egalitarian thinking tends to consider religious thinking as ignorant and something that is best done away with (consider the French attitude toward religion now, starting with the French Revolution). In the worst cases, communitarian thinking is racist and exclusionary -– tribes exclude other tribes, religions exclude other religions, communists must eliminate all non-communists or anyone else who does not fit into the world they are trying to create. So it is important that we be aware of this danger, and do what we can to avoid and prevent it.

Overall, the communitarian forms of thinking and social organization tend to be, regardless of the level of complexity, community-minded and, thus, order-oriented, interested in stability, ethics, faith and truth, are fundamentally religious in outlook, centralized and rigidly hierarchical (today, bureaucratic), and have a belief that time is circular, or eternal, and that it will become this way at the end of history, where all progress will end. The individualistic forms of thinking and social organization tend to be, regardless of the level of complexity, individualistic, libertarian, able to deal with change and chaos, pragmatic, fact- and science-oriented, decentralized, and embracing of time and change, having a fundamental belief in some sort of continual progress. As stated above, the communitarians tend to dislike the individualists, but the individualists tend to work to protect the immediately lower level of communitarian thinking and society, while seeing emergent levels of communitarianism as a threat.

We need to move beyond this way of thinking, and into more complex ways of thinking. The way to do this is to understand all the levels, what their values are, and integrate them. That will get us into the next level of thinking and social organization. And from there, we must next understand everything as being part of a single, dynamic system – more than just pluralist, but unified as well, with unity in its variety. In doing so, we must not forget that lower levels simply cannot understand the ideas of higher levels -– for example, someone who is a religious thinker would find egalitarian thinking, especially late egalitarian thinking, like postmodernism, to be completely incomprehensible –- confusing nonsense in the extreme. To get such a person to the level of the postmoderns, one would have to get that person to first be thinking as a capitalist/scientific thinker, and then move the person into early egalitarian thinking before moving them into postmodernism. Part of the role of the integrationist and holistic thinkers is to help to move all people and cultures into more complex levels, and to integrate the elements of lower complexity into an even more complex whole.

II. The Levels and their Thinkers

All of this is necessary in order to understand the evolution of thought and the history of ideas in their proper context –- past and present. It seems that tribalism is associated with pre-literate times, and that the first writing evolved during heroic culture – the oldest story we have is Gilgamesh, and it is a story of heroism. With Homer, we have a heroic thinker in a heroic time. Achilles is an archetypical hero of this sort.

The movement from heroic culture into the next level begins in the Greek culture with the pre-Socratics, who are beginning to think in more orderly, purposeful ways while living in heroic culture -– this is typically seen as the beginnings of the movement from archaic into median culture. We have with the Greek tragedies an art form designed to move Greek culture safely and non-violently into the next level –- each tragedy starts with a heroic individual who must be destroyed in order for a new level of organization to come into being. The Greek tragedies are art forms that indicate that the culture is going through an emergence into a new level of complexity. Tragedies are how a culture gets safely initiated into a new level of complexity. This is why Nietzsche identified tragedy as being simultaneously Dionysian and Apollonian –- Socrates in Plato’s Phaedrus identifies Dionysus as the god associated with the madness of initiation and Apollo as the god associated with the madness of prophesy -– and Greek tragedies aided in the initiation ritual into a new level of complexity of thinking while prophesying what that new level would be like. Sophocles prophesies the emergence of the emergent median way of Greek thinking, while Shakespeare prophesies the emergence of the scientific/capitalist age to come, though he was writing during a time when Medieval/religious thinking was still going strong. After the initiation into the new level of thinking in ancient Greece, we get both Plato and Aristotle arising as the greatest thinkers within this level of complexity.

But emergence into new levels of complexity is not certain. In the West, we get a backward movement with the rise of the Romans –- the Roman Republic and Empire was a heroic culture, and was exemplified by people such as Julius Caesar (consider how similar in character he is to Achilles). With the rise of Christianity, we see the Roman Empire moving into the next level –- Jesus was a religious thinker during a heroic time. The Christian Romans and Christian medieval Europe was clearly organized in a rigid religious hierarchy, with the hierarchical Catholic Church and the hierarchical forms of government in serfdom, monarchy, and aristocracy, all supported by the Church. The Christian thinkers St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas found such a strong connection with Plato and Aristotle, respectively, because they recognized in them thinkers on the same level of complexity.

The Renaissance helped move Europe into the next level of complexity –- the capitalist/scientific level. We see in Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo some of the first, transitionary scientific thinkers. And the work of Machiavelli and Shakespeare both helped set the stage for capitalism and science. Newton and Descartes moved the West even more into this realm of complexity – and the height of such thinking occurs in people such as Voltaire, John Locke, Adam Smith, David Hume, Immanuel Kant, G. W. F. Hegel, and the American Transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau. All material and scientific progress occurred precisely because this level of thinking and social organization arose. We also see the abolition of slavery for the first time in human history precisely during this time (it is no coincidence that slavery still exists in regions of the world that have yet to enter this level of complexity). The United States’ form of government is the exemplary of the form of government that arises in and through this way of thinking – which makes it all the more ironic that it was the last of the Western countries to abolish slavery. That is, until you realize that the American South was one of the last places in the West where religious/authority thinking remained (and still remains) strongest. Because the next level was forced on them, the South has taken over a century to recover and get caught up with the rest of the United States -– becoming scientific/capitalist just as the Northeast has become egalitarian in its world view. But the religious way of thinking is still strong -– which is why the creationism-evolution (and its latest variant, Intelligent Design) debate still goes strong in the United States, particularly in Southern and Midwestern states.

With Rousseau, we get the first of the egalitarian thinkers –- and it is his ideas that led, more than anyone else’s, to the French Revolution, which was the first example of the modern State (while it is true that the idea of independent nations arose with the Enlightenment, after the Renaissance, the peculiar institution of the modern State as typically found in Europe arose with the French Revolution). It was based on secularism and egalitarianism, and this example, along with the ideas of Marx, led to the rise of the Soviet Union and other communist states, which combined this way of thinking with religious/authority thinking, while tending to throw in a heroic leader for good measure. Nazi Germany was yet another example of this kind of state, though they combined it with tribalist ideas, leading to the atrocities of WWII. Of course, the Soviet Union’s avoidance of tribalism did not prevent them from killing even more people – the difference simply being that the U.S.S.R was more personal in its murders, while the Nazis liked to kill people in groups. But both are based on the same way of thinking, and were reactions against Enlightenment thinking. This helps us to understand why people who think this way tend to support communist and fascist dictatorships, and cannot see the difference between them and democratic republics (in an egalitarian world, all forms of government are equal –- equally bad, and equally good). Further, the tendency to see people of lower levels -– especially those still stuck in tribal or heroic thinking and societies –- as victims, and modern-day environmentalism are also based on this way of thinking, and the latter is distinguished by the idea of nature as unchanging –- notions of the eternal, the end of history, etc. being part of communitarian thinking, both religious and secular. This is why much secular communitarian thinking, like environmentalism and communism, closely resemble religious thinking. But these are not the only forms of egalitarian thinking. Darwin introduced an even more fundamental form of egalitarianism when he suggested that humans evolved from apes, and that all animals were fundamentally related to one another. Thus, humans and animals were put on the same plane of existence – and it is this that creationists object to. The hierarchy between humans and animals, placing humans in a place definitively above animals, was flattened by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Among the more recent thinkers in this more recent egalitarian tradition include Heidegger (who was, not coincidentally, a Nazi), Sartre (a communist), and various Marxist and postmodern thinkers, including Derrida. Some of these latter, the postmoderns, have come in toward the end of egalitarian, statist thinking, and have thus begun the move into the next level of thinking. This is perhaps because they claim a great deal of influence from Nietzsche, who was perhaps the first thinker in this tradition, in reaction to the German State and socialism. Since most of the philosophers and theorists influenced by Nietzsche have in fact been egalitarian, statist thinkers, they have mostly misunderstood Nietzsche’s ideas. One can understand clearly levels below oneself, but there is difficulty in understanding levels above oneself, unless one is trying to move into that next level oneself. As for societal organization, since this next level of thinking is new, there seems to be but a few societies based on this thinking, including the present-day United States and Great Britain, having gone through a lot of statist thinking, while retaining the essential form of the previous level, making it possible to be more pluralistic and hierarchical and inclusive), with organizations like the U.N., the W.T.O., and the World Bank acting to coordinate the world’s governments in a very loose confederacy. Perhaps because the U.S. and Britain were more solidly democratic republics than other Western countries, which attempted to create egalitarian States, this new form of more complex thinking appears to be most common in these two places, and less so in continental Europe. It is all-inclusive, and considers all the lower levels to be important constituents of society as a whole. It believes that there is a basic human nature, and that humans can nonetheless adapt and evolve in extremely complex ways -– that we have instincts, but also highly plastic brains, which allow us to have highly complex ways of thinking. Further, this new level of thinking has so far occurred less often among philosophers, and more often among scientists, such as Victor Turner, E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Jeff Hawkins, Benoit Mandelbrot, and Ilya Prigogine.

The next level, the holistic level, is very new, and includes very few thinkers in it – the only one I know of being the poet-philosopher Frederick Turner. We have yet to see what possible form of social organization will come out of such thinking. Even though we have learned that other communitarian forms of social and government organization have been dictatorial every time, it seems likely, since this is a much more complex level of thinking, that it will be some sort of world federalist democratic republican form of government, where individuals are encouraged to be communitarian thinkers, while the government does not get in the way of people self-organizing into communities of their choice.

III. Implications for Understanding Philosophy and Philosophers

As we can see, there can end up some overlap in thinkers. Just because an egalitarian, communitarian thinker comes along, that does not mean that capitalist/scientific thinkers go away – and most scientists and business people are in fact still thinking this way. And not just the average person, but philosophers and scholars as well. Most of the clergy of the Catholic Church are clearly thinkers in the religious tradition – as well they should be. The Pope should only be a religious thinker, and should not have moved into the capitalist/scientific way of thinking (even if his thinking begins to play on the borderlands, his thinking should mostly be firmly rooted in religious thinking). Do we really want a Pope who is interested in profit? And certainly we should not have a Pope who is a secular humanist. Yet, it has profited the Church considerably to integrate in scientific understandings of the universe, rather than continuing to oppose them. Thus, the Church performs its proper role in maintaining truly religious thinking – and in maintaining it in its best traditions, rather than its worst (which we should have learned from, and learned to avoid, by now).

I am certain, in making these identifications, that I have stepped on some toes regarding peoples’ favorite thinkers and philosophers. We do not like to think that Plato and Aristotle are less complex thinkers than some people are nowadays – or even are less complex thinkers than, say, Machiavelli. Such objections will undoubtedly be made, but they are made precisely because of two errors in thinking: 1) we project our own thinking on the thinkers of the past, and read our own complexities into those past thinkers, and 2) there are inevitably those who themselves think at the level of, say, Plato and Aristotle, and thus consider, say, Machiavelli, to be a highly complex thinker, precisely because their own thinking is only just now becoming as complex as Machiavelli’s was. For these people, someone like Derrida is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible in what they are trying to communicate.

The important thing we must remember is this: Plato is not a thinker. Aristotle is not a thinker. Machiavelli is not a thinker. They were thinkers. They were thinkers of their time, place, and complexity. This does not mean they do not have their values now, in our more complex times, because those levels of thinking still exist, are still relevant, are the base on which higher levels of complexity are built. Machiavelli could not have thought what he thought had Plato and Aristotle not thought what they thought. Machiavelli could not have moved us into a culture and society of capitalism and science from the Platonic/Aristotlean world view without this world view to move from. And each of these thinkers provide excellent basic models from which to build new, more complex self-similar levels. But we must not mistake any of these thinkers from the past for who they are not. They are not present-day thinkers, thinking in present-day complexities – they are thinkers from the past, thinking in their own levels of complexity. Oftentimes we forget this when we talk about them or read them. When we read them, we must remember that, and we must remember that we read into them, we don’t read them for what they meant at the times when they were writing. We interpret them over and over (individually and socially) into the present, making and keeping them relevant for today and the future. The same must be remembered of present-day thinkers. Should I be read in the future, you must remember not to mistake me for someone else. I am a thinker now; I will have been a thinker at some future time. And my thoughts will be relevant for the hierarchical level of thinking I am presently in, which will exist as a lower level in the nested hierarchy of some future level of complexity. I will seem relevant to future scholars who think at my present level of complexity; a mere source and spur of thinking for future thinkers, who will recognize too the relative simplicity of my thoughts compared to theirs, though it occurs as a spur to each higher level that is self-similar to my own.

There are a few things we must remember when considering the history of ideas in this way: 1) each higher level of complexity necessarily needs the lower levels on which to build and rest, while the lower levels do not need the higher levels in the least (this does not mean, however, that within a person, the lower levels are not affected by their own higher levels – family for a tribal thinker is different than family for religious thinker, which is different than family for a capitalist/scientific thinker, or even an egalitarian thinker, though the family unit remains at the same level of complexity-thinking for each) , 2) each level has its own values, benefits, and shortcomings, and 3) there is no upper limit of complexity. Let us consider these in order.

In this model, each of the levels must be traversed in order to reach upper levels. In this, Marx was correct in identifying different levels societies go through, and in realizing one must necessarily go through each lower level to reach upper levels. For example, countries like Germany and France have extensive welfare states that are based on the egalitarian world view. Since these welfare states were built on a solid foundation of capitalism, they have lasted quite a long time without extensive or severe human rights violations (though when Germany adopted a different version of this level in Nazism, they clearly did commit severe human rights violations, as has egalitarian France in is former colonies). If those welfare states are currently on the decline, as they indeed are, it is because those societies have for the most part rejected the levels below them – they are knocking the foundation out from under themselves. But this is a different problem from level-jumping. When the egalitarian/communitarian world view was imposed on an aristocratic society in Russia, we got Soviet-style communism, and thus a mixture of aristocracy and communitarianism, without a capitalist/scientific level (the Soviet rejection of science can be most clearly seen in their acceptance of Lysenko’s biological theories). Thus, a true egalitarian/communitarian society was not reached, while places like France and Germany came closest to accomplishing such a goal. However, one of the problems with each of these levels up to the egalitarian world view is that each also tries to reject the other levels, and the egalitarian world view seems most keen on getting rid of both the capitalist/scientific and religious world views (mostly just capitalism and religion, since it does have its own brand of science in systems science, relativism and probablistic science). When lower levels are rejected, the effect is, as said above, to try to kick the foundation out from under oneself. One of the benefits of those levels above the communitarian level is the recognition of the value of each of the levels, and even the holistic integration of them all. The reason we need the lower levels is the same reason we need lower levels of reality. Atoms give rise to chemicals which give rise to cells which give rise to complex organisms, one of which is humans, with our complex thinking. We can destroy cells without destroying chemicals, and we can destroy chemicals without destroying atoms, but we cannot destroy an atom while keeping the chemical around. The atom, though at the lowest level of complexity, is the vital foundation of each of the emergent levels above it. In the same way, the noosphere, the sphere of emergent human thought, contains the biosphere within it, since the biosphere can get along just fine without humans or human thought, while humans cannot get along without the biosphere (this idea is Ken Wilbur’s, from A Theory of Everything, 98). The relationship may in fact be a more complex feedback loop than even Wilbur admits, since one could also point out that other organisms that are clearly less complex than the biosphere as a whole could also be wiped out, without any real effect on the biosphere as a whole. The important thing here is that human thought is more complex than biology, including the entire biosphere. And more complex levels contain less complex levels, not vice versa. Thus, nature is a part of us even more than we are a part of nature. But I have gone through this to point out that levels of human complexity are also nested hierarchies, self-similar to the nested hierarchies of nature itself. Like atoms to molecules, the higher levels require the lower levels to exist at all.

Thus, we have to remember too that each level has its benefits –- as well as its shortcomings. The lowest level is the level of pure existence. We cannot deny our needs for food, drink, sleep, and sex if we are to survive as a species. But this is what animals do, and we are more than mere animals in our cognitive abilities and social organization. Thus, the first fully human level is tribal. This is the level of family and family ritual and, in the present day West, athletic teams. However, this level is fundamentally racist –- anything non-self is considered bad by those who stay in this level. The next level, the heroic, is associated with Homer’s heroes, the Greek and Roman gods, and Roman emperors. Here we also find athletic superstars. However, this level is extremely egocentric and can be very destructive (again, consider our athletic superstars). The next level is authoritarian and theocratic. What we now think of as religion -– exemplified by Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, etc. –- with its emphasis on giving life meaning, direction, and purpose, and a world that is well-ordered by God. However, these codes are so strictly enforced that they result in things like the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. The backlash to such extreme measures gave rise to the next level, the capitalist/scientific level, which “seeks truth and meaning in individualistic terms” (Wilbur, 10), is rational, believes that the world is knowable through science, gave rise to immense material gains through capitalism, abolished slavery, and developed ideas of human rights. However, due to the fact that this level needed lots of resources, there was perceived exploitation of lower classes both within and without capitalist societies, and Newtonian physics was coming up against quite a few contradictions, both of which led to the next level. The egalitarian/communitarian level insists on the equality of all people, sees the world as a system, and encourages ecological thinking and pluralism. However, this level, even more than the rest, seems determined to destroy every level below it. This is in part due to its opposition to hierarchy and its extreme form of equality. As we can see, each of these levels comes with its own set of benefits –- benefits which we need to both acknowledge and embrace. We need stronger families, a healthy sense of self, lives with meaning, direction, and purpose, but with material well-being and a scientific understanding of the world and how its works, and respect for all people regardless of religion, race, or color. Family, heroism, religion, science, economic and ecological thinking, and pluralism all have their place. And should.

Teleological thinking is something humans commonly engage in. In fact, one could go so far as to identify it as one of the human universals. Thus, we should not be surprised if and when people use it with a model such as this. There is no highest level in this model. The holistic level, the highest level of thinking we currently have, is not the highest. Whatever the next level will look like will have to wait until the integrative and even the holistic levels become realized more in social organization. We cannot know exactly what it will look like, only that it will have a family resemblance to the other individualistic levels, since it comes after the communitarian level of holism. And there will be a communitarian level after it, etc. This is another reason why we should not mistake thinkers from the past for being more complex thinkers than they were. It is unlikely that a higher-level thinker will in fact mistake a lower-level thinker for thinking as he or she does, but there are those who may be on the same level as a past thinker, who may mistakenly think, just because he is in a more complex culture, that his thinking is also necessarily of the most complex form, and therefore think that a past thinker –- say, Plato, who is an aristocratic thinker –- is, say, a holistic thinker. This is particularly true among those who think that holism is necessarily the highest form of thinking possible (it is not –- it is only one more rung on the emergent ladder).

Thus, if we take the integrative and holistic approaches, we can begin to see the importance of knowing thinkers from each of the levels of complexity. Plato and Aristotle have their places in helping to give our lives meaning and direction, and to provide an ethical basis for action. They can inform the way we think these issues even today – since it is a level that is necessary for us to live meaningful, ethical lives. The next level, the capitalist/scientific level, allowed us to individualize those ethics, to consider the origins of ethics and the justification for them, and develop ideas of individual rights and personal responsibility. At the same time, the pluralism of the egalitarian level allows us to apply those ethics to more and more people in our ever-expanding tribe. This is admittedly a utilitarian approach to understanding the great thinkers of the past – but if we are honest with ourselves, we are already utilitarian with them, studying them to write essays and to develop our own philosophies for our own times. In the latter case, we have to know where we’ve been in order to know what’s already been done, and what still needs to be done. And for the integrationist and holistic world views, knowing each level is vital to understanding how each level should relate to each other, and be used to develop more complex levels of thinking and social organization. As we become more and more self-aware (the dictum to “know yourself” applied in a larger and larger sense), we will come to understand how important it is to integrate the levels and to appreciate and affirm each level for the benefits they bestow –- for both the development of new levels, and scholarship to understand each of the levels, particularly in how they relate to one another, and lead into new levels.

Another way we can come to understand these levels is suggested by Ken Wilbur: I-we-it-its. He talks about how we need to integrate all these aspects together –- but we can also come to understand each of the levels through these four aspects. The tribalist level contains none of these in any real sense. There is not yet a real sense of individual identity, or the difference between individual and group – and technology is very primitive, and is not seen as really separate from the tribe. With the development of heroic culture, we get “I” culture. With the development of the authoritarian culture of Plato and Aristotle, Christianity and Islam, we get “we” culture. With the development of capitalist/scientific culture, we get “it” culture. And with the development of egalitarian culture, we get “its” culture (with systems theory, etc.). Wilbur argues that I-we-it also corresponds to beauty(aesthetics)-ethics-truth. Thus we can begin to understand what is happening when Aristotle says ethics aims at to kalon, which can be translated as either “the beautiful” or “the good,” since Aristotle has an ethical “we” philosophy that is also strongly “I”. Also, we can begin to understand John Keats’ equation: “beauty is truth –- truth, beauty,” since Keats is an individualist living in scientific culture (romanticism was an attempt to recover aspects of heroic culture). And we can also begin, with more integrationist thinking, to understand that beauty, the good, and truth are all one and the same thing – and with the systems science of “its,” we can also begin to really understand for the first time how deeply embedded all of these are in time. And if we include the idea developed by J. T. Fraser of time as a nested hierarchy, we can begin to understand more and more deeply how everything is related.

IV. Conclusion

Obviously these ideas need to be further expanded -– but that is the topic of a full-length book, not an essay introducing the idea. With the idea of emergent complexity that contains the lower levels in a nested hierarchy, we can include too the I-we-it-its as well. We get a new idea of “I” when we move into the “we” of the authoritarian level, and a new idea of each as we move into both the “it” and “its” levels as well. And each of these aspects will change as we move into the intregrationist and holistic levels –- change, while at the same time containing their original meanings. The “I” investigated by Homer and Socrates influenced Freud, but the “I” developed by Freud is clearly of a different kind, emergent and more complex. And the “we” developed by Plato and Aristotle influenced Heidegger, but the “we” of Heidegger is clearly of a different kind as well –- influencing the “we” of postmodernism, including its worst aspects, such as political correctness. And while the ancient Greeks did have science and technology, it is clear that the science and technology of the scientific culture is of a different kind, emergent and more complex. And the highly complex systems science that has since developed and become more dominant had its origins in some of the thoughts of Goethe, and even Aristotle.

One might ask, “If Aristotle were alive today, would he still be an authority thinker?” Naturally, this is impossible to say. That may have been his natural disposition to such an extent that it would still be his disposition today. However, it is also just as likely that Aristotle, being the genius he was, and the most complex thinker of his day, would be among the most complex thinkers of today. There is nothing in Aristotle that makes him inherently incapable of our level of complex thinking –- what made him incapable of it was his living and thinking in the time and culture in which he actually lived. In fact, every person living today, no matter what level they may currently be in, can also think in each of these levels –- though if they are at a lower level, they would of course have to move through each level, in order. Level jumps in complexity of thought are just as impossible as atoms skipping molecules to create life.

Milton Wilcain’s Intelligence

Milton Wilcain was obviously not a very smart man. Sure, he went to college, eventually receiving a Master’s Degree, and he ran a business employing three hundred people, but we know he was unintelligent nonetheless. Despite these seeming contradictions, we can come to this conclusion because if he had been intelligent, he would have been allowed to keep his money to spend as he wanted and he would have been allowed to live as he wished, without anyone telling him how. Instead, other people took what he owned and used it better than he could have. But Milton was not content at being unintelligent, so he decided to run for the city council.

Milton soon proved that, as dim-witted as he was, clearly he was more intelligent than his opponent, and he was easily elected. As he took his seat on the council, he was certain he could feel his intelligence increasing. He was certain at the very least that he was more intelligent than the rest of the men in the city, save perhaps his fellow council members and the mayor. He did many brilliant things for the city, including figuring out a way to take more money from the lower and middle classes so a brand new Opera House could be built, and managing to keep the potholes down to a mere ten per block.

It soon became clear to Milton, though, that his rise in intelligence was not enough. He was certain he knew very well what the city needed, but since he was not allowed to make many decisions, it soon became apparent that he did not. Milton was at first confused. He was certain he knew more than either the state or federal government what the city needed, since he was living there, but then he remembered that as a private citizen he was obviously unaware of the best way in which to live, so he could possibly be wrong about whether or not he knew how to run a city better than the state, which is why Milton decided once again to try to raise his intelligence.

The run for the state legislature was rougher and closer, but Milton managed to prevail, clearly showing his superior intelligence. He moved with his family to the capitol, and as he neared it, he was certain he could feel his intelligence growing. But it was when he took his seat in the legislature that he became certain his intelligence had become higher than he remembered it. He became certain he was far more intelligent and knew the right and proper things to do than did the city governments and especially the private citizens. He made certain the cities, which were obviously run by a bunch of idiots who had no idea how to run a city let alone make peoples’ lives better, did exactly what he decided they should do, whether he had been in the city or not. After all, as a state legislator, he knew what was best for the people, more than those morons running the cities. They were always asking for unimportant things like tax cuts and more money for roads. Milton had more important things to do for his citizens, such as building a new airport at the capitol and preventing new licenses from being given out so the state’s largest company would not have any competition.

But again it did not take long before Milton came to realize he was not as intelligent as he could be. It was growingly obvious that, since he was not trusted to make the right decisions for his state, there were people more intelligent than he. Otherwise, they would have obviously allowed him to make more decisions about his state, since he lived there and therefore should have known more about it than the federal government. But this was clearly not the case. And Milton decided that he wanted to be more intelligent than he was.

Having won much praise from his fellow party members, he easily won a seat in Congress. With this win, it was apparent that Milton was one of a handful of the smartest men in the state. He could feel his intelligence increasing as he boarded the plane and took his seat. The rapid takeoff gave his mind a jolt of intelligence unlike any it had experienced, and he grew smarter and smarter the closer he came to Washington. Upon landing, he was bewildered at how intelligent he had become. He suddenly knew exactly what everyone needed and how they should run their lives. But it wasn’t until he stepped into the capitol building that he really began to realize how important and brilliant he was compared to the average citizen, who he was certain could not feed, house, or clothe themselves without his legislative assistance, let alone educate their children or make good decisions, especially with their own money. So convinced was Milton of this later conclusion, the first thing he proposed was a tax increase, to make certain more of the citizen’s money was spent properly. He was also convinced that the states, counties, and cities (need we include the ultimate example of mental dullness, the private citizen?) were full of idiots who were completely incapable of making good decisions for their citizens, and he worked to make sure the federal government had more and more power and was more capable of dictating to the local and state governments how they should be run. Milton was one of the country’s most successful federal legislators and was highly praised by his party. After all, he managed to make sure more federal money was spent in his state than in any other, whether it was new bridges linking little-used roads or his fight for a new atomic clock being placed in his state (you can’t be too certain what time it is, after all). In fact, before Milton arrived in Washington, nobody knew there were that many brilliant unknown artists in his state. There were few who had little to show for all they had done and spent. He was Washington’s most successful legislator.

After many years, Milton decided to retire. His pension was large enough to live comfortably on and he was very happy with what he had accomplished. When his term ended, Milton cleared out his office and had everything sent back to his home state, which he hadn’t seen since his last campaign. After the retirement party his comrades had thrown for him, Milton boarded his plane to leave his beloved Washington. But when he did, an amazing thing happened. His remarkable intelligence was beginning to disappear. As he crossed the country, Milton became dumber and dumber until finally, upon landing, he realized that he had become as stupid as he had been before he had embarked on his famous career. We know this because if he had been smart, he would have been allowed to keep his money to spend as he wanted and he would have been allowed to live as he wished, without anyone telling him how.

After Postmodernism: Epistemological Ecosystems

The economy is an epistemological ecosystem. It is not the only one, but the kind of knowledge created through the unimpeded price system makes it a very efficient and effective one. Some epistemological ecosystems–such as art, literature, philanthropy, philosophy, and others–suffer from the ambiguities inherent in reputation as the primary medium of value-exchange. Science works better than these with its peer review, but is still not quite as efficient and effective as is money-mediated trade. Technological innovation participates in the economy precisely because its winners and losers are chosen through the price mechanism. That fact also makes technological innovation effective, efficient, and wealth-producing.

All of these are knowledge-producing activities. To refuse to trade therefore means one is purposefully trying to remain ignorant, and to make sure that others too remain ignorant. Reducing trade–whether through trade barriers, wage and/or price controls, taxes, and so on–increases ignorance. We cannot know what would be the best use of raw materials, capital, capital goods, or human capital any time prices are distorted. Price distortions not only include the list above, but also include subsidies, regulations, and monetary inflation/deflation (real inflation/deflation, on the other hand, communicated information more accurately).

Insofar as postmodernism is a kind of radically skeptical epistemology, denying the existence of an objective reality (or at least an objective social reality), insisting that all knowledge is merely constructed and can therefore be deconstructed, denying any sort of human nature, and therefore that knowledge itself is impossible, we can see that postmodernism is an active denial of the very existence of epistemological ecosystems. It is not that it’s not true that there is an element of knowledge-production (or else how could one even have an epistemological ecosystem), but rather that for there to be an ecosystem of any sort, there has to be foundational organisms to interact with each other and co-evolve. The ecological equivalent would be for postmodernists to deny the existence of organisms or species because there is evolution.

If knowledge-production is in one sense impossible, and in another sense nothing but imposition of power/power-relations (another postmodern claim), then any sort of structure is as valid as any other sort of structure. What matters, if knowledge is nothing more than the imposition of the powerful on the non-powerful, is who has power. We can begin to understand pretty much every postmodernist position from that perspective.

If free markets are simply ways business people create power relations that benefit themselves at the expense of others, and business people are bad (for some reason or other that seems to involve “greed”–never mind that postmodernists are also supposed to be radically skeptical of moral “facts” as well, meaning we could just say “greed is good” and accept that for just as much or little reason as anything else), then we need a system that benefits some other group of people instead. The most popular are the victim classes–which seems to somehow include something like 90% of the world’s population–as those who somehow properly deserve the reins of power. It all thus becomes a bunch of arbitrary choices being made by self-appointed secular saints who are all somehow right-thinking, even though if they were consistent with their own postmodern epistemology, there could not be any such thing as right-thinking.

If knowledge truly were power, I’d be President now and not Donald Trump. Those who hold power in our governments around the world are the surest falsification of postmodern epistemology possible. But postmodernism means never having to say you’re wrong.

The understanding that there are in fact epistemological ecosystems helps us retain the insights of postmodernism while evolving well beyond their nihilistic conclusions. It’s not a choice between structuralism and poststructualism, but both simultaneously. It’s not a choice between The Truth and radical skepticism, but rather truth as a strange attractor, with truth statements coming closer or moving a bit away, but always circling, circling–and often generating more truth attractors. This is how all ecosystems–natural or epistemological–exist over space and time. Yes, we create knowledge, but that doesn’t mean the knowledge we create isn’t true. Yes, there is socially constructed knowledge–which makes that knowledge useful rather than denying its existence–but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t facts in the world which we must live with, by, in, and through.

What comes after postmodernism? It’s already been around for a while. Epistemological ecosystems is what comes after postmodernism. Given that people like Hayek and Michael Polanyi developed this idea, it’s a bit ironic that the postmodernists were already behind the times when they came up with their ideas, since their replacement was already being developed before they even came on the scene.

Suggested Reading:

Michael Polanyi:

Personal Knowledge

The Art of Knowing

Knowing and Being

Meaning

The Tacit Dimension

The Logic of Liberty

F. A. Hayek:

Individualism and Economic Order

Law, Liberty, and Legislation

The Fatal Conceit

Mathematics as Non-Transcendental Knowledge

When people want to defend a transcendental world view (particularly against science), they often bring up mathematics.

“How can you scientifically prove that two plus two equals four?” they ask.

Since you cannot, mathematics must be transcendentally true. However, this shows a misunderstanding of how one can use science to understand aspects of philosophy. Using the scientific method is not the only to prove something is factual (“true” in Nietzsche’s “uninteresting” sense in his “Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”). If we can show it is natural for the brain to process the world in such a way that we can make statements such as 2+2=4, then we have a science-based (though not “proven” scientifically per se) explanation for math, meaning we do not need a transcendental explanation for it. A science-based epistemology will do just fine.

Math is the abstract expression of relationships in nature. Words are sounds representing conceptual categories, which are derived by observing many objects and placing those objects with certain similarities into categories. Take the Bactrian camel. We categorize camels as either Bactrians or Dromedaries, because the Bactrians have two humps, and the dromedaries have one. All the Bactrian camels more closely resemble each other than any one resembles a dromedary, or any other animal, for that
matter. So we categorize two-humped camels as Bactrian. But are Bactrians in fact identical? No, each one is different—we erase the differences so we do not have to create a different category for each individual object in the world, which would be very cumbersome (this, despite the fact that we do oftentimes give an individual its own category, as when we name our pet dogs and cats, because we become so familiar with them that they become more individuated in our eyes). Our brains, to be more efficient, conceptualize. If brains did not do that, the owner of the brain would not recognize that the cat that ate a member of the group was similar enough to the approaching cat that it would be prudent to try to escape. This is why and how vervet monkeys can have a different call meaning 1) big cat, 2) eagle, and 3) snake, which each result in different responses.

The same is true of the one who needs to eat: one must be able to recognize what is not-food and what is food. To eat, one cannot have to relearn this information each time. Life was much simpler for one-celled predators: eat anything that moves (or, more accurately, whatever binds to the outside of the cell, meaning there is a kind of conceptualization even at the chemical level in the surface proteins). Those who could not make these judgements about the world and create concepts such as these would have died either from eating something poisonous or from being eaten. Any animal that could not make proper judgments regarding the reality of the world they were in would not have been able to survive. Those who were better able to make those judgements would be able to survive even better. I give as evidence a human population of over 7.5 billion people at present.

Due to the complexity of our brains and our use of language, humans are able to create more conceptual categories than any other animal. Further, those categories can overlap, and they can exist in nested hierarchies. The Bactrian camel is simultaneously a camel, in the camel family (which includes the humpless llama and its relatives in South America), an herbivore, a mammal, a vertebrate, an animal, and alive. Thus a Bactrian camel shares similarities with other herbivores—elephants, rabbits, buffalo, manatees, etc.—in that they all only eat vegetation. We call it a mammal because it has hair, is warm-blooded, and feeds its young milk, just like platypuses, whales, koalas, and leopards. It is a vertebrate because it has a backbone and an internalized skeleton, like fish, birds, reptiles, and amphibians.

At this point, you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with math.

“Two” is a conceptual category. It is necessary to keep track of group members (we are a social species after all), and to make proper divisions in a group (as chimpanzees share meat from a kill). It would also be useful information to share if one is hunting or gathering. “Yes, there are two of them. We need more hunters.” “Two” is a conceptual category in the same way as “Bactrian camel” is. If we have two humps on two different camels on two mountains with two rivers flowing from the two mountains, then the relationship among humps, camels, mountains, and rivers is “twoness”—a conceptual category we designate by using the word “two”. Once we eliminate all the differences among these examples, the only commonality they have are number. The sound “two” may be an arbitrarily chosen sound to represent this concept, but the concept, and the fact that a word exists to represent it, are not arbitrary. Number is a high-order abstract concept.

The rest of the equation is relationships. Relationships are inherent in nature. Math describes nature so well because all of nature is relationships, each object has and is in a relationship with other objects (objects here including pure, substanceless energy). “Equals” is such a relationship. If there are a number of objects that we call (in English) “two”, and we have another number of similar objects that we would also call “two” due to the number of objects being equivalent, then we have a number of objects that we designate in our language as “four”. If “four” represents this many objects: * * * * , and two represents this many objects: * * , and 2=2, then 2+2=4. A transcendental explanation is not needed in the least. All we need is a proper understanding of how concepts are formed in the brain, and we can learn that through cognitive psychology, which is science. Thus, while science cannot prove using the scientific method that 2+2=4, while 2+2 cannot equal 5, and never can as long as we use the language and notation as we presently do, I have shown that a proper understanding of science can help us use philosophy to understand the source of mathematical statements as non-transcendental.

Further reading: Diaphysics