Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reality as a Zone of Engagement

So I've distinguished the Real from Reality and accepted that most of the Real is hidden, probably forever and not just from me but from my entire species, both because we physically cannot encounter it all and because, even if we could, we can't hold it all. Hmm … perhaps. This last point troubles me. I accept that I cannot hold it all, but what about we? Can we hold it all? Perhaps not, but we can certainly hold much more knowledge than I alone, and that may be sufficient for whatever tasks our species encounters. This is a thought that I will keep. Hold that thought.

At any rate, I now have the Real, Reality, and Knowledge. If I understand Nicolescu, Reality is the zone of engagement between the Real and the knower. Nicolescu describes this zone in, for me, rather interesting terms:
By "Reality" (with a capital R) we intend first of all to designate that which resists our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, or mathematical formulations.
Reality, then, is first that zone within the Real that in some way resists my pushes outward. Reality is the stuff I can bump into, the stuff that I can draw or sculpt or construct, the stuff that I can describe in words or mathematical formulations. Reality is the stuff that sends back a signal when I ping it. Group knowledge, I suppose then, is that zone within the Real that pushes back in similar enough ways when any of a group of us ping it.

I'm immediately troubled by my knowledge of those things—say, the Greek gods or Yoda—that I can push against and describe, but that I don't want to admit into the realm of Reality—and certainly not the Real—but let's not think about that for the moment. What I like about this description of Reality is the dynamic process of engagement between the Real and the knower, or between ontology and epistemology. Reality, I think, is first an emergent property of the interaction between my push outward and whatever pushes back. Of course, sometimes the Real pushes in first and I push back in response. In other words, reality as a zone of engagement is a reciprocal process, but the key is the dynamic interaction, the zone of engagement, out of which Reality emerges.

And here is the key for me in answering my original question: does epistemology take second seat to ontology? Perhaps it should; however, the moment-to-moment emergence of Reality within the interactions of the Real and the Knower seems to depend as much on the Knower (epistemology) as on the Real (ontology). I'm quite certain that Reality—the stuff that I know of the Real—depends as much, if not more, on my engagement with the Real and the processes by which I make sense of that engagement. In his wonderful book The Master and his Emissary (2012), psychiatrist and literary scholar (cool) Iain McGilchrist explores the two realities created by our divided brains, and he is quite explicit about the role we play in creating Reality:
In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being. A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding what it is that we come to have a relationship with, rather than the other way round. The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation.
When I connect McGilchrist's book to Zull's book about the neuroscience of learning, it seems highly likely that my and our Reality depends as much on my/our neurological apparatuses and processes as it does on the ontological features of the Real.

However, I think, too, that the Real as well as Reality is changed by engaging with the Knower. If I understand my readings in quantum physics correctly, then many physicists accept that engaging the Real changes all parties of the engagement, the Knower/s as well as the Real itself. This seems counter-intuitive in day-to-day life. For instance, most of us assume that our car remains the same thing ontologically whether we are looking at it or not and regardless of the angle from which we look at it, but quantum physics seems to suggest that this is not so. While fine quantum weirdnesses are often flattened out in the coarse structures and processes of everyday life, this is not always so. In his Big Ideas talk The World as a Hologram (2011), quantum physicist Leonard Susskind tells the story of two friends Alice and Bob and what they both experience when Alice falls into a black hole. From Alice's point of view, nothing happens as she crosses the point of no return where she can no longer resist the inexorable pull of the black hole. However, from Bob's point of view, Alice is incinerated in a flash of unbelievable heat and disappears forever. In one reality, then, Alice is fine, but in the other reality, Alice is dead. At the same time. This makes no sense, but here's a serious, world-famous scientist insisting that it is the case.

So I don't think that epistemology quite plays second fiddle to ontology. I am increasingly coming to believe that the interactions across the zone of engagement between me and the Real not only change me, but they also change the Real. Engagement changes all parties to the engagement, and the Realities that emerge from that engagement depend very much on the relative positions of the engaged parties.

So what does this have to do with MOOCs and quantum random walks? Much it would seem.
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