Saturday, April 20, 2013

Knowledge and the Hidden Real

In Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), Nicolescu speaks of the core human crisis that transdisciplinarity tries to address:
The unprecedented increase of knowledge in our era raises the challenging question of how to adapt our mentality to being. The challenge is enormous, because the influence of the Western-type civilization around the globe is so pervasive that its collapse would be even more devastating than the destruction we suffered in the two world wars. (40)
The comment "adapt our mentality to being" immediately raises a question for me: must epistemology adapt to ontology? This seems to be the normal way of it. After all, we can change our minds, right? At least much more easily than we can change reality. Therefore, our minds should fit to reality, not the other way around. Our minds can be in error, after all, while the Real cannot be, right? Isn't one of the big goals of education to adapt the mind to the Real?

I'm not so sure, and I'm not sure that is what Nicolescu means to say. Rather, the issue may be more nuanced than simply saying that epistemology must adapt to ontology. Let's try to tease this out.

Nicolescu makes a distinction between the Real and Reality. In his book Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice (2008), Nicolescu writes:
One has to distinguish between the words "Real" and "Reality." Real designates that which is, whereas Reality is connected to resistance in our human experience. The "Real" is, by definition, veiled for ever, while the "Reality" is accessible to our knowledge. (4)
I am somewhat uneasy with this distinction, but I don't know just why, so for this discussion, I'm willing to concede the point. The Real, then, is that which is, independent of our knowing, and Reality is that which we know. The Real is, by definition, hidden forever. By definition? Who defined the Real that way? Perhaps quantum physicists, which Nicolescu is.

Just this past week, I listened to a lecture entitled The World as a Hologram (2011 Nov 04) by Leonard Susskind of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics, in which he discusses the indestructability of information and the nature of black holes. In this lecture, Susskind defines entropy as hidden information (18:38), and he says that the unseen Universe is 1000 times larger than the seen Universe (52:40). Most of the Real, then, is hidden to us, literally. It is flowing down into black holes from which no light returns, thus no information, and out beyond our seeable horizon. In another Big Ideas lecture entitled The Universe from Beginning to End (2010 Jun 18), astronomer Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University says (41:20) that of the Universe we can explore, only 4% is composed of normal, everyday atomic stuff that we can see (both with our natural eyes and our instruments), 24% is dark matter, and 72% is dark energy. We know almost nothing about dark matter and dark energy, except that dark energy is the stuff responsible for creating our expanding Universe. Schmidt notes (50:10) that eventually the Universe will expand out beyond the horizon of what we can see, as the expansion pushes galaxies apart faster than the speed of light. For us, then, most of the Universe will simply disappear in a few hundred million years.

So most of the Real is hidden, within the internal horizons of black holes, beyond the external horizons of an expanding universe, within dark matter and dark energy, and within the tangled strings of quanta. At the moment, we cannot know the Real, not even with our magnificent telescopes, microscopes, and particle colliders. The overwhelming majority of the Real is hidden from us.

Of course, most people are not at all concerned with black holes and expanding universes, and perhaps rightly so. Still, educators are in the business of making and sharing knowledge, and this idea that most information is hidden must be sobering (I'm using information here in its popular sense, which is different than physicists such as Susskind and Nicolescu use it).

It is also a delightful thought. As I have noted before, there is more in this World to know than we will ever be able to know. And given that we are in an increasingly expanding Universe, no matter how far we push the horizons of our knowledge, the Universe is pushing farther and faster yet. So if you think learning is a lifelong journey, it just became much more. It's a journey for a species, for a planet, for a galaxy. We may as well enjoy the journey, given that we'll never get there. Perhaps there will be an end, but there is no destination.

PS - Just after I pressed the publish button for this post, I read an essay entitled Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely by South African philosopher Paul Cilliers (thanks to Jenny Mackness' blog for connecting me to his work), and I want to add some of his insights. What initially captured my attention about Cilliers' essay is his own exploration of the relationship between epistemology and ontology. If I understand him, then in a nutshell, he argues that because complex systems are open systems with more interactions, both inside and outside the system, then our knowledge of the system must involve a reduction. As he says, "If an infinite number of interactions have to be considered, the production of meaning will be indefinitely postponed. … It would not be possible to have any real meaning if the number of relationships is not limited" (85, 86). Fortunately, Cilliers explains, knowledge is "constituted within a specific context where some components are included and others not" (86). This context, then, restricts for the moment the almost infinite meanings that any complex system can have at the moment, leaving us with a few reasonable options that make sense within the context.

Of course, we humans manage often enough to misunderstand the contexts of events and thus to botch the meaning. This slippage and mismatch between context and event is the source of much TV comedy. Still, Cilliers' point helps me understand that, even within the part of the Universe that we can see and engage (never mind the stuff that has slipped down the black holes), we cannot know the Real, which includes all possible connections within and without a complex system. The number of connections is very large—for the sake of simplicity, let's say it's infinite—and we cannot deal with that much information at one time. To create knowledge, we must reduce the amount of information, and we try to do that in a way that works within a given context. But this means that much remains hidden, not just because it is physically beyond us (down black holes and beyond the horizon), but also because we cannot hold all the details and make sense of them.
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