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i. Improving our Knowledge of Human Nature

Improving Our Knowledge of Human Nature

By “our knowledge of human nature”, I mean our communal knowledge rather than our individual knowledge. Most communal knowledge is now held on the internet and provided, by specialists in a particular field, for individuals to learn, if they so wish.

However, the problem with specialisation is, perhaps, best described by the following irreverent, but amusing, adage:

“Q. What is the difference between a scientist and an engineer? A. A scientist knows a lot about a little, and learns more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing. An engineer knows a little about a lot, and learns less and less about more and more, until he knows nothing about everything.”

Research has shown that there may be some truth in this adage. When writing papers, scientists refer to supporting information from other papers, i.e., they make citations. The Eigenfactor Project at the University of Washington, (http://eigenfactor.org/about.php), has carried out research showing the extent to which researchers in one discipline cite work from those in another. The results can be seen as an elegant diagram at http://well-formed.eigenfactor.org/radial.html. Each line represents a citation and, where it is between two fields, it is cross disciplinary. This diagram shows little cross disciplinary citation by researchers in the fields of psychology and economics. If true, this does not bode well for our understanding of human nature, as I will attempt to explain below.

The ancient Indian religion, Jainism, holds that physical objects and events are infinite in their qualities and, so, cannot be fully understood by the finite human mind. Thus, any individual’s understanding of an object or event is from his perspective or point of view. The latter is limited, and he cannot, therefore, have a full understanding. Today we refer to this concept as “perspectivism”.

Consider, for example, a helix. When viewed from an end-on perspective it appears to be a circle. When viewed from a side-on perspective it appears to be a wave. This is demonstrated by the diagram below.

Courtesy: Commons.wikimedia.org

Only the helix can generate both the circle and the wave. Now imagine that the circle and wave are both theories in different fields of knowledge. When the two theories are compared, they may appear to be contradictory or unrelated unless one is able to recognise that both are special examples of a third more general theory.

Knowledge helps us to survive and procreate. We use it to avoid threats and to seize opportunities. It is likely, therefore, that it is a pragmatic representation of reality. As the science of physics competently demonstrates, reality has structure. By “structure”, I do not mean the way in which things can be categorised like books in a library, e.g., history, geography, thrillers, etc. Rather, I mean “governed by the laws of nature”. However, just like the helix, these laws present themselves to us in different ways depending on the viewpoint of the observer.

I would argue that, to improve our knowledge of human nature, we need more generalists, that is, people who can research existing knowledge in several specialist disciplines, who can perceive the underlying truths that unite them, and who can propose new hypotheses for specialists to investigate. As both the arts and science are human activities, it may even be possible to draw cross references between subjects as diverse as these. This more general approach would have the following advantages.

It is well established that all knowledge which is true is also consistent. One item of true knowledge cannot contradict any other. If we do not consider multiple disciplines, then the risk is that specialists may pursue hypotheses which contradict theories well proven elsewhere.

By theorising from a single perspective, the opportunity to identify more fundamental truths of human nature can be missed. In previous articles, I have shown that the second law of thermodynamics has a very significant bearing on our behaviour. I have also shown that feedback loops have a major part to play. Both are concepts from the science of physics.

An understanding of the way that fundamental truths are structured can also reveal new knowledge. From my work in epistemology and symbolic logic, it appears that our knowledge has a binary structure but that we often overlook one side of the coin. For example, we have needs and their opposite, contra-needs. Although we are intuitively aware of the latter they have not previously been formally recognised. Try “contra-needs” and “opposite of human needs” and “needs antonym” in your search engine.

This concludes the series of articles on knowledge, beliefs, and predispositions. In my next post, I begin a series on human decision making and behaviour.

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