Rod Dreher

Further to the discussion on epistemic closure, consider science blogger Jonah Lehrer’s post about poker faces and brain testing. Excerpt:

The larger lesson is that the brain can’t escape its embodiment. Even abstract information – and what’s more abstract than a random number? – is subject to the heuristics of physical movement: Up means higher, down means lower. Because the mundane world of Newtonian physics is built into the mind at such a basic level, we are forced to re-use these same mental shortcuts when thinking about math, or playing poker. I think experiments like this also explain why it’s so much harder to understand quantum mechanics, or string theory. (I’m referring to an intuitive, visceral kind of understanding. As Niels Bohr once said, “Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory has not understood it.”) We simply weren’t built to think about wave-particle duality, or the possibility of 11 hidden dimensions. It makes no sense to us. Our eyes don’t know how to move.

(Via Andrew Sullivan.)
This is yet another reason for epistemic humility — or, in ordinary language, trying to account in our own deliberations for the fact that we don’t know, and cannot know, everything. Our bodies are not vehicles for our minds; they are rather part of our minds, which is not limited to the brain. Again, reading about the traditional Chinese way of interpreting the world is illuminating regarding the limits of our own cognitive models. As I understand it, for the Chinese, traditionally, all phenomena are relational, and cannot be understood separate from their relationship to other phenomena. This is why Chinese thought is so centered on harmony. The implications it has for seeing health and the human body are interesting in comparison to the Western system. As Dr. Ted Kaptchuk writes in “The Web That Has No Weaver”:

To Western medicine, understanding an illness means uncovering a distinct entity that is separate from the patient’s being; to Chinese medicine, understanding means perceiving the relationships among all the patient’s signs and symptoms in the context of his or her life.

The point is not that one style of medicine is superior in every respect to the other. The point is that both styles of medicine emerged out of different epistemologies, which is to say, out of different ways of interpreting the same sets of facts. Kaptchuk, a physician trained in both styles of medicine, believes there is valuable information to be gained from both.
I bring this up here because studying Chinese thought and medicine makes you realize how much there is to learn — and how limited one’s own Western paradigm of knowledge is. It may be the best of all the models of knowing, but it is not complete, and it can’t be complete, because our ability to think, to perceive and to know is limited by the bodies we inhabit. This is why I think the Eastern Orthodox apophatic method of theology (or “negative theology”) — which has a lot in common with other Eastern religions — makes so much sense. It’s a way of approaching God by describing what He is not — versus cataphatic theology, which makes positive statements about God. Western Christian theology is primarily cataphatic, while Orthodoxy employs both cataphatic and apophatic theologies to penetrate the Divine Mystery.
All of which is to say that I’m more impressed these days by people who admit what they don’t know than people who won’t shut up about what they supposedly do.
One final point in this kitchen-sink post about knowing. Some lines from the Tao Te Ching:

When everyone knows beauty is beauty,
this is bad.
When everyone knows good is good,
this is not good.

Taoism scholar Thomas Cleary writes:

According to Chen Jingyuan, this means that it is not good for people to take their own ideas for granted, or get too fixed in their ways, lest they become so complacent that they lose their ability to adapt to diversity or change. When it is forgotten that conventional conceptions are conventional conceptions, and they are taken for objective facts that “everyone knows” and no one questions, then narrow-minded bigotry and blind prejudice can develop unopposed.

Compare to Kierkegaard’s belief that when everybody in a society is a Christian, Christianity ceases to exist. What he meant was that when people take for granted that they are all Christians by virtue of having been born into a Christian society, the mystery that is true Christianity, and it’s radical claim on the life of individual believers, is lost. To believe one has “solved” the mystery of God by putting truth into a box called maxims and dogmas is to surely lose it. It must be similar with Truth, and living in Truth.

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