The Foundations Frontier

I wrote this title to suggest:

  • something doubly attractive – a frontier opening up in academia and knowledge work in general, where we work with the very foundations of what we do and how;
  • something hidden – as foundations tend to be, this frontier is, as it were, ‘hidden under the ground,’ and we have the challenge of making it visible.

In an article I submitted last Sunday to Quantum-Informational Medicine conference in Belgrade, which I will come back to in a moment, I faced this challenge by pointing at some very basic insights reached in 20th century science. Then the next day  Noam Chomsky gave a lecture here at the University of Oslo, in which he showed us a much more elegant way of unearthing the frontier.

Chomsky announced his lecture by an abstract that read rather like a riddle:

The machine, the ghost, and the limits of understanding: Newton’s contributions to the study of mind

Abstract

A familiar view is that the early scientific revolution provided humans with limitless explanatory power and that the theory of evolution grounds this conclusion even more firmly.

The great figures who carried out the revolution reached very different conclusions, for good reasons, which are supported still more strongly by Darwinian theory. The issues were understood at the time to bear directly on the study of mind and its place in nature, in ways that merit careful consideration.

Demonstrating an uncommon ability to find a simple, clear and non-controversial line of argumentation in a notoriously messy subject, Chomsky showed us a two-step solution to this riddle, that had only Newton and Darwin as key protagonists. In other words, he exposed the frontier without even mentioning the 20th century developments! Here is a brief summary.

Newton, Chomsky explained, did not free us of ‘the ghost in the machine’ in his Principia as it is often believed (i.e. he did not make the world understandable in purely rational-mechanistic terms, as Galileo and Descartes claimed it should be). He actually put the ghost into the machine! When Principia was published, Newton’s idea of gravitation as ‘action at a distance’ was criticized as an absurdity, against which the rational mind must rebel. “It is an absurdity,” Newton agreed. “And perhaps this ‘action at a distance’ will one day be explained in terms that will be satisfactory to the mind. But for the time being we cannot do that. All we can do is observe that the gravitation is there (it keeps us from falling off the rotating Earth and dashing into cosmos); and then develop a formalism that allows us to model what is happening and make predictions.”

Darwin appeared in Chomsky’s story line to remove even the possibility of ever getting rid of ‘the ghost,’ by showing that our minds, and also our concepts, are evolving as parts of nature. Chomsky evoked the image of rats who are manifestly unable to solve the prime-number maze, in contrast to other mazes – because they lack the concept of prime number. Similarly, Chomsky concluded, unless our minds and concepts are God given, they will always be at a certain stage of evolution, enabling us to solve certain kinds of puzzles, and hindering us from solving others.

During the discussion that followed I thought of asking Chomsky about the implications of his insight for us scientists. Could we still be caught up in the impossible task of ‘getting rid of the ghost’ i.e. of explaining phenomena in terms of the ‘mechanisms’ of nature—at the expense of all other interesting and useful things we might be able to do? Could we be ignoring, or even actively denying the existence of the phenomena that don’t seem amenable to such explanation? But I remained silent. I thought that the answers were obvious. And that Chomsky would rather leave them for ‘careful consideration,’ as he hinted in his abstract.

We begin to work on the foundations frontier when we consider the foundations for knowledge work – the concepts and methods we use, the social organization of knowledge production and sharing, and even the underlying assumptions regarding what knowledge work is all about and what purposes it should serve – as an integral part of the ‘building’ (i.e. knowledge) we are creating, rather than as something to be taken for granted. The basic insight that may motivate us to work on this frontier is that this most natural extention of our creative attention may do to knowledge work, and to our culture, what architecture did to house construction.

Why risk repeating in the sciences the error that the religions have been known for – of turning a certain specific way of doing things into an orthodoxy? Why not do in all walks of life what Newton did in physics – create concepts and methods, which can enable us to model and communicate what needs to be seen and understood?

But what might the work on this foundations frontier look like concretely?

In the mentioned article I introduced

  • polyscopy, my earlier work, as an illustration of how concepts and methods in knowledge work can be tailored to a purpose, and allowed to evolve;
  • Knowledge Federation, a buddying global initiative and my current focus, as an illustration of how social organization of knowledge work can become a subject of co-creative construction.

Knowledge Federation community-and-project is offered as a ‘place to stand’ where this type of work can be undertaken and developed. The details are in the article.

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