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Epistemic Issues in Science: Toward a Participatory Epistemology

Updated: Jun 8, 2022

In some of my projects, I have shown that scientific and esoteric approaches can benefit from each other via a Participatory Epistemology (PE), which is a philosophical model that entertains consciousness and the universe as a conversation about the patterns of complexity and universal regularity. PE's big picture relies on humility and recognition of the explanatory limits of rational consciousness and on the capacity of the mind to layer symbols into a holistic model of truth. In this project, I want to probe deeper into the implications of PE as a model of consciousness, by exploring some of the most significant epistemic issues on the nature of knowledge raised by philosophers and scientists alike, and the answers proffered by PE to explain these conundrums.

Participatory Epistemology and Complexity Theory

PE posits that consciousness makes sense of the world by the patterns that arise from the mind's relationship to nature, the former constructs models that help us make sense of the latter's designs. More controversially, the position argues that there is a symbolic kinship between the brain's models and the world's trends perceived by it, and the human narratives that influence them. Therefore, PE doesn't answer what the universe is but reconciles theory with nature's tendency toward self-similarity, complexity, emergence, and self-organization. As recap:

A self-similar object is exactly or approximately similar to a part of itself (i.e., the whole has the same shape as one or more parts). Many objects in the real world, such as coastlines, are statistically self-similar: parts of them show the same statistical properties at many scales.

Complexity characterizes the behavior of a system or model whose components interact in multiple ways and follow local rules, meaning there is no reasonable higher instruction to define the various possible interactions. The term characterizes something with many parts where those parts interact with each other in multiple ways, culminating in a higher order of emergence more significant than the sum of its parts. The study of these complex linkages at various scales is the primary goal of complex systems theory.

Emergence occurs when an entity has properties that its parts do not have on their own. These properties or behaviors emerge when the components interact in the broader whole. For example, smooth forward motion arises when a bicycle and its rider interoperate, but neither part can produce the behavior on their own. Emergence plays a central role in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry, and psychological aspects emerge from the neurobiological events of living things. In philosophy, theories that emphasize emergent properties have been called emergentism. Almost all accounts of emergentism include a form of epistemic or ontological irreducibility to the lower levels.

Self-organization is a self-spontaneous process where some form of overall order arises from local interactions between parts of initially disordered systems. The process can be spontaneous when sufficient energy is available, not needing control by any external agent. It is triggered by seemingly random fluctuations, amplified by positive feedback. The resulting organization is wholly decentralized, distributed over all the components of the system. As such, the organization is typically robust and able to survive or self-repair substantial perturbation. Chaos theory discusses self-organization in terms of islands of predictability in a sea of chaotic unpredictability. Self-organization occurs in many psychical, chemical, biological, robotic, and cognitive systems. Examples of self-organization include crystallization, thermal convection of fluids, chemical oscillations, animal swarming, neural circuits.

With these technical terms now on the table, the big picture I want to convey is reality as a complex adaptive system (CAS). Another recap:

A complex adaptive system is a system in which a perfect understanding of the individual parts does not automatically convey a complete understanding of its behavior. In complex adaptive systems, the whole is more complex than its parts and more complicated and meaningful than its parts' aggregate. The study of complex adaptive systems, a subset of nonlinear adaptive systems, is highly interdisciplinary and blends insights from the natural and social sciences to develop system-level models and ideas that allow for heterogeneous agents, phase transition, and emergent behavior.

They are complex in that they are dynamic networks of interaction. Their relationships are not aggregations of the individual static entities, i.e., the ensemble's behavior is not predicted by the functioning of the components. They are adaptive in that the individual and collective behavior mutate and self-organize corresponding to the change-initiating micro-event or collection of events. They are a "complex macroscopic collection" of relatively "similar and partially connected micro-structures" formed to adapt to the changing environment and increase their survivability as a macro-structure.

The Epistemic Issues of Science: Hume, Kant, Kuhn

The problem with CAS's ontology stems from the issues best debated by the philosophers David Hume and Immanuel Kant, which apply to any theoretical model arising from modern consciousness's faith on causality, and therefore, on the objectivity of the experimental method. Hume demonstrated the fallacy of causality. He said that the mind projects the concept of causality onto the world and not the other way around, as we have a psychological need to believe in causality to make sense of life. Kant, on the other hand, shows we can't ever know nature except via the mind's alleged categories of sense-making. He suggests the universe is meaningful insofar as the brain filters the world; what's behind those filters can't, therefore, be known. But Kant concludes that since the universe makes sense to subjective consciousness, we can safely believe in sense-making categories like time and space.

These critiques' challenges continue to pose deep epistemological problems to our contemporary understanding of consciousness. In Hume's vision, the sketch is a universe built by the subjective sensibility of knowledge, we can't absolutely know anything at all: the mind's critical ability and subsequent emancipation from previously trusted meta-narratives and their institutions has left us in a vacuum. This conclusion is equivalent to arguing in favor of metaphysical idealism: reality is, in some way, indistinguishable or inseparable from human understanding, all is a relative construction. However, Kant took Hume to task by suggesting that since reality makes sense, we can safely assume that space, among other objective categories, exists. As empiricists point out, natural laws are irrefutable facts. Gravity is gravity; it always obeys the laws that govern the interactions between masses. If I drop an apple, the apple will fall. We cannot think gravity away. Contra Hume, empiricists argue that the demonstration of such law happened via observation, and through a mathematical model that progressively best described the phenomenon. These facts don't mean that human bias distorted the representation, the data, or the mathematics that explained it; ultimately, the science teaching gravity holds. For every scientific problem, there is an intellectual history that culminates in its solution; as the philosopher Thomas Kuhn suggests, science undergoes paradigm shifts that open new ways of interpreting what is held valid by a community's consensus. Aristotle's incorrect geocentric model of the universe differs profoundly from Copernicus' correct heliocentric model, for example. But Aristotle's take on the problem of planetary motion allowed its future reformulation and solution.

Thus, critics of idealism, argue that nature pushes back at the idea that our minds influence the creation of reality. This response holds up to a certain point. In physics, empiricism fails to make sense of nature's microscopic world; wave-particle dualism is a prime example because it defies rational explanation. One doesn't need to go as far as the microcosmic world. The macrocosmic universe makes sense to the extent our models bridge connections among increasingly more complex patterns of interaction at larger scales.

Epistemic Issues in Idealism and Naturalism: Carroll, Stoljar, Hossenfelder

To bring home Kant's point, we have a psychological inclination to favor ideas that help us make sense and give meaning to our subjective flow of consciousness, which doesn't mean that our projections can't hold. Some of them will hold at different analysis; others will notthe ideas that don't might be springboards for future insights, and perhaps, paradigm shifts closer to the truth. The physicist Sean Carroll, calls this position Poetic Naturalism (PN), the idea that our scientific world-picture is the best account we have. It doesn't follow from this physicalist picture that our inner lives don't have intrinsic meaning. Carroll is careful to caution that while our inner lives are fundamentally meaningful, they don't have transcendental meaning. Consciousness is not an entity outside physical laws; it's a product of their sophisticated grandeur. The subjective flow of knowledge, and the values arising from that experience, says Carroll, give meaning to the canvas of natural reality. He thinks that we will be able to fit consciousness into naturalism at some point and that so doing will not dispel the magic of living. Yet, PN fails to fully satisfy the esoteric skeptic who thinks there is something more to consciousness.

According to mysterianism, a philosophical position adopted by scientists and non-scientists alike, there is no answer to the question posed by the hard problem of consciousness: Why is there a subjective human element accompanying the natural world's facts? As the position implies, it's a mystery that will never be solved. But contemporary scientists like to push back any challenge thrown at the common-sense view of physicalism and its muddy progression. The reason is that this position accommodates nature's undeniable presence, with the irrefutable existence of consciousness. And it suggests that the relationship will bear fruit with evidence and its accompanying explanations: a complete physicalist explanation of the universe and its laws. For example, non-reductionists in science hold on to two theses about mind-nature relations. The philosopher Daniel Stoljar describes them as follows: 1) Physicalism is real and mental states must be physical states, but all reductionist proposals are unsatisfactory. 2) Mental states cannot be reduced to behavior, brain states, or functional states. Stoljar's example is a classic case of human bias; physicalism must be true, even if we are perplexed by physical and non-physical states' contradictory nature! X-rays allow scientists to examine brains, but not thoughts.

On the topic of human bias, the physicist Sabine Hossenfelder argues in her book Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray, that something similar is happening in theoretical physics. Scientists, she says, have become obsessed with mathematical beauty. These beautiful mathematical constructs that have been historically efficient in describing nature and its laws have hit an impasse. They have failed to build upon the Standard Model of Particle Physics via the data, as it happened with the Large Hadron Collider, which was meant to unlock even more elemental blocks of nature. It didn't open anything that wasn't already known. Instead, Hossenfelder holds that science has become a race for aesthetically pleasing explanations of the universe, i.e., artistic projections imbued with meaning and wonder, but that have little reference to the data. They are no longer accurate descriptions of nature and its laws, but beautiful conjectures that might not prove right in the long run. Sure, Supersymmetry and String Theory are fascinating explanations of the cosmos, says Hossenfelder. Yet, it's not so evident that these best explain the available data. As she suggests, scientists have sneaky ways of manipulating the data to fit their models. She fears that the trend will poison the scientist's well by teaching the new generation of scientists to imagine sandcastles that are not there. In the absence of data to demonstrate a model's validity, Hossenfelder suggests that scientists seem to be doubling down to give meaning to their careers.

Is a Synthesis Possible? Gödel, Jung, Escher, Tarnas, Hillman

What, then, stops us from suggesting that PE is a beautiful conjecture, and therefore a philosophical explanation of mind-nature relations built from psychological necessity, without any hold on truth? Let's look at the theory. PE claims that there is a symbolic equivalence between the brain's models and the world's patterns perceived by it. The more sophisticated and inclusive the model, the closer we come to a complete picture, so it makes sense for PE to consider an interdisciplinary and non-linear optic as the best bet to understand the behavior of the universe. The opposite position would argue something closer to the classic view of the scientific method: we need to choose some significant variables to test their relationship and ignore all other variables operating within that system, for simplification's sake. The devil seems to be in the details: who is to say that there won't be a level of human bias at the moment of interpretation, at the selection of model via which to define and describe "interaction," at the scope and limits of the experiment, and on the choice of "meaningful data"?

Moreover, having an ontology that sounds right doesn't mean its true. This objection applies to our scientific worldview and the non-scientific, heterodox theories that rely more on controversial data, like images, dreams, and symbols. Which raises an epistemological issue: How to best quantifiably bridge content with the non-quantifiable? How do I quantify my beliefs? If we are to apply these "buts" to theory, we fall into a vacuum. No opinion is unbiased except perhaps for mathematics. But as the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel demonstrated with his Incompleteness Theorems, mathematics is not a closed-loop, either. Per the mathematician's wiki page:

"The first incompleteness theorem states that no consistent system of axioms whose theorems can be listed by an effective procedure (i.e., an algorithm) can prove all truths about the arithmetic of natural numbers. There will always be statements about natural numbers that are true for any such consistent formal system, but that are unprovable within the system. The second incompleteness theorem, an extension of the first, shows that the system cannot demonstrate its consistency."

The theorems imply that any system will need another one to demonstrate its truth and consistency. In other words, Gödel's theorems paint a world similar to that depicted by the artist M. C. Escher. Escher represents reality as mirrors within mirrors, patterns describing patterns. Psychological bias, subjective accompaniment in any conscious differentiation, seems inescapable. PE is guilty of bias, conjecture, and melancholy for beauty, as any language purported to describe the universe, even PN. Poetic naturalism interprets the world as a chessboard made up of non-negotiable rules. PE integrates this axiom but warns that these patterns represent something more profound and mysterious: abstract entities best articulated by the depth psychologist, Carl Jung. He called them archetypes. The philosopher Richard Tarnas bridges the psyche's alleged kinship to the universe by utilizing archetypes as the building blocks of the Participation Mystique (PM). In The Passion of the Western Mind and Cosmos and Psyche, Tarnas elaborates PM's thesis to mean that archetypes compose the transcendental language via which humans bridge values with facts. I interpret Tarnas' view to suggest that our symbolic narratives will profoundly influence any human theory, and that the symbolic kinship between our values and the facts of reality indicates a transcendental meaning in the universe. The depth psychologist James Hillman summarizes this perspective in his work Archetypal Fantasy:

"Let us then imagine archetypes as the deepest patterns of psychic functioning, the roots of the soul governing the perspectives we have of ourselves and the world. They are the axiomatic, self-evident images to which psychic life and our theories about it ever return... There are many other metaphors for describing them: immaterial potentials of structure, like invisible crystals in solutions or forms in plants that suddenly show forth under certain conditions; patterns of instinctual behavior like those in animals that direct actions along unswerving paths; the genres and topoi in literature; the recurring typicalities in history; the basic syndromes in psychiatry; the paradigmatic thought models in science; the worldwide figures, rituals, and relationships in anthropology. But one thing is absolutely essential to the notion of archetypes: their emotional possessive effect, their bedazzlement of consciousness so that it becomes blind to its own stance. By setting up a universe which tends to hold everything we do, see, and say in the sway of its cosmos, an archetype is best comparable with a God. And Gods, religions sometimes say, are less accessible to the senses and to the intellect than they are to the imaginative vision and emotion of the soul. They are cosmic perspectives in which the soul participates. They are the lords of its realms of being, the patterns for its mimesis. The soul cannot be, except in one of their patterns. All psychic reality is governed by one of another archetypal fantasy, given sanction by a God. I cannot but be in them."

According to Hillman, archetypes connect psychic life to the cosmos, by being the structural symbolic narratives of consciousness. These roots precede or accompany knowledge in the form of values influencing our picture of the world; it's an original language that integrates all other words into meaningful narratives—they become models of the human's relationship to nature and serve as a reflection of the state of human wisdom. Thus, mental pictures connect the archetypal story to the facts and tell us something about the evolution of consciousness. The complexity of our archetypal narratives—of the level of sophistication of knowledge—affects the events' meaning, in increasingly more encompassing, integral, and complex fashion—mirrors within mirrors. Imagination, therefore, allows a more profound and complete picture of the mysteries of the cosmos, as it evolves with its relationship to it—from an egocentric universe with the mind at the center of it, to an integral cosmology, wherein consciousness adopts an ethical, and therefore, collaborative role with nature.

Carroll and Hossenfelder would be appalled with this picture, but Tarnas and Jung would be with theirs. The former would charge the latter of using too many drugs. The latter would object to the former of ignoring the philosophical issues of the physicalist worldview. In my view, CAS is the best way to integrate the physicalists with the idealists, because the patterns of archetypal significance appear to be in full display when nature pushes back at linear mono-dimensional descriptions, while also reminding humans of the limitations of scientific orthodoxy. With its self-similarity, complexity, emergence, and self-organization, nature pushes the mind toward more mysteries than answers. Which leads me to my second point: at the moment we can't know what the universe is, or why it exists, but we can understand how it works, and there is increasingly more evidence of a profound, meaningful relationship between consciousness and nature, facts and values.

Concluding Comments

Science nor esotericism holds a premium over the existence or meaning of the cosmos; it is a dialogue that necessitates the best in humanity to keep one from falsely claiming to have reached an ultimate answer. An ontological distinction between the two is not needed, however. PN holds by doubling down physicalism on the long term of scientific advancement. PE, on the other hand, flips the script and underscores that the connection between values and facts is an affair that can only be grasped by an openness to a more profound mystery. Even Hossenfelder agrees with this sentiment:

"We know that the laws of nature we presently have are incomplete. To complete them, we have to understand the quantum behavior of space and time, overhauling either gravity or quantum physics, or maybe both. And the answer to this will without doubt raise new questions […] There's much work to do. The next breakthrough in physics will occur in this century. It will be beautiful."

By Fernando J. Villalovs

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