Knowledge ancient and modern

Ngaio’s facebook link to Can Ancient Maori Knowledge Aid Science

[ 3/June/22 ]

This opens many deeply complex aspects of understanding.

One place to start is the question – what is science?

Many people start with the simple idea that science uses observation and testing in reality to find truth.

Anyone who has spent more than a decade delving deeply into observing the world, and examining the history of understanding, will come to understand that science is an eternal process of refining understandings so that they become less wrong and more useful over time; without ever expecting any of those understandings to be anything more than some form of contextually useful approximation to whatever reality actually is.

There is a vast difference between the certainty of “True or False”, and the eternal uncertainty of “contextually useful approximation”.

One of the hard things is that we must all start our journeys from relatively simple beginnings. The simplest distinctions any of us can make are binaries (one of two possible states), like True/False, Hot/Cold, Light/Dark, Wet/Dry, Sweet/Sour, Right/Wrong. We must all (as children) necessarily start from such simplicity, and such simplicity is always useful when urgent decisions are required; and therein lies a major issue.

Evolution sorted out long ago that some situations demand rapid response, and don’t give the luxury of having time to deeply consider alternatives. We (and all other animals) have a lot of sub-conscious systems in our brains that are tuned by the deep time of biological evolution on this planet that are reasonable approximations to determining when rapid response is required – we tend to call them “Stress” systems.

When we feel “stress”, for any reason, then our brains subconsciously start simplifying things for us, until in extreme cases it does come down to an experience of Friend/Foe or Right/Wrong or Good/Bad or Light/Dark- and there are no traces left of any grey areas in between, nor any possibility of any alternative ways of understanding or relating.

If you are faced with a charging sabre tooth cat, then the last one to move and grab their spear is probably going to have their genes removed from the gene pool. There can be a great deal of selection pressure for making rapid decisions under stress, and that necessarily involves simple models of whatever reality is. But modern science has vast sets of information indicating that reality is neither simple nor certain; but rather seems to contain multiple levels of fundamental uncertainty – necessarily. Both of these things seem to be “true”.

Stress can come in many forms, hunger, social relations, environmental conditions (too cold, hot, dry, wet, etc…), economy, politics, etc.

There are some very powerful aspects of the Maori way of hui:
One is that everyone gets to introduce themselves, to place themselves in a place, in relationship to land and sea and environment, in relationship to history and present social relationships.
Another is that food is shared (so that the stress of hunger is removed, and the fundamental pleasure of being fed is experienced in a social setting).
Both of these things open possibility, aid in finding and building shared understandings and values.

When people are stressed, hungry, angry, … then there is no possibility of shared understanding of complexity and uncertainty – people end up splitting into one of two camps.

We can see that in many modern political systems; where people are kept under sufficient stress that they divide into two camps (liberal/conservative or whatever); rather than seeing that every person has their liberal and conservative aspects on every topic, and we all fall somewhere on that spectrum (and any other spectrum possible) on any particular issue. On some issues we can be well towards the conservative end of the spectrum, and on others well towards to liberal end. And we are all, necessarily, vastly more complex than a simple liberal/conservative divide.

So I am very anti the simple definition of science being about Truth, and I live from the sort of science that is an eternal process of becoming generally less wrong over time (and that isn’t always a linear processes, and sometimes we get over confident about some things and make more mistakes than we would like to consider, before realising and correcting).

For me, part of science is a kind of humility that accepts that all stories (all understandings) can be useful approximations in some sets of contexts; and that does not necessarily mean that they are useful in any other set of contexts.

One of the hard lessons of science (and life) is that our unexamined assumptions often blind us to possibilities we are yet to consider.

So while I do not give much credence to any culture’s “creation myths”, I accept that all cultures need creation myths (even science – the big bang and stellar nucleosynthesis and the modern synthesis of evolution being what I consider the best available set of myths currently); I can see that the stories of our ancestors often serve as vehicles that have encoded information that had high survival value for them, and from which we can learn valuable lessons even today.

So it is always the case, that if we wish to learn anything new, then we must be willing to relax the boundaries on what we consider known; and search the space of unknown and the unexplored (at least from our personal perspectives) for something both new and useful (always being aware that there are many more ways to destroy than to build, and a certain amount of caution in respect of novelty is always a good idea). How we each navigate such journeys with respect and tolerance is crucial to our survival as a species.

About Ted Howard NZ

Seems like I might be a cancer survivor. Thinking about the systemic incentives within the world we find ourselves in, and how we might adjust them to provide an environment that supports everyone (no exceptions) with reasonable security, tools, resources and degrees of freedom, and reasonable examples of the natural environment; and that is going to demand responsibility from all of us - see www.tedhowardnz.com/money
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