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Ian Morton's picture

Paul's Notion of Non-Foundational Inquiry: Summary and Thoughts

In his paper, From Complexity to Emergence and Beyond: Towards Empirical Non-Foundationalism as a Guide for Inquiry, Paul considers a notion held in science, the belief that we can come to an understanding of reality/truth through field specialization and the characterization of simple phenomena that give rise to complex phenomena.  The theory follows that from this approach we can establish sets of properties and rules that we can use to define and predict reality, constituting an understanding of reality.  Paul asks that we consider the implications of adopting such an approach to science and to question whether it is really the best approach for scientific inquiry.


Paul’s rationality begins with complex systems.  The complex systems perspective holds that simple things interacting in simple ways can yield complex outcomes, which accounts for our inability to find a simple relation between parts and wholes.  Following from this perspective, Paul agues that scientific inquiry should aim to investigate how parts with unique properties interact to yield the whole and its properties rather than searching for parts that share those properties of the whole.  Further, and perhaps more importantly, the complexity perspective challenges the notion that “understanding” should be invariably connected to predictability.  Instead, Paul wants us to consider the possibility that there may always be a degree of indeterminacy to reality.


The emergence perspective likewise focuses on phenomena as the result of simple components engaging in simple interactions.   However, the emergence goes a step further to recognize that organization can arise without the input of a conductor or architect, that organization can be the result of simple things interacting in simple ways in the absence of any intention.  With this notion in mind, one must face the possibility that the universe itself could be the result of an emergent process, devoid of an architect, intention or meaning; architects, conductors, rules and properties may be the result of emergent processes.  Paul stresses that we should not presume the presence of intent or an architect behind observed phenomena and that properties and rules should not be considered an unshakable foundation for inquiry.  Emergence, rather than serving as a way to explain reality, is the process by which reality arose, it stresses that phenomena are the result of and basis for an on going process.  The inquirer, then, like any other phenomena, is an object situated within this larger process and therefore a potential contributor to it.  Consequently, the world is both characterized by emergent processes and by the contributions made by architects/conductors.


The human brain is an example of a hybrid system, blending both emergence and architect function.  The brain itself is made up of billions of simple parts (neurons) interacting in relatively simple ways (chemical and electrical signaling across synapses).  From these interactions complex phenomena such as consciousness arise, hence the brains emergent characteristic.  A major pattern of brain interaction between parts involves a bipartite arrangement.  The brain consists of numerous specialized circuits of neurons that interact directly with the world.  These interactions occur simultaneously (in parallel) and unconsciously.  Reports of the activity of these systems are then sent to further sets of neural circuits including those in the neocortex.  The neocortex takes the inputs from unconsciousness activity are tries to create from them a coherent, simplified “story,” which works with a small representation of variables with simple causal relationships between them.  This allows the brain to rapidly conceive of goals and various options for achieving those goals, constituting our architect function.  However, as a consequence of this system we also develop a preference for rules and simple causal relationships. 


Paul argues that the bipartite nature of the brain allows us to make use of both emergence and properties/rules for understanding and characterizing the world around us, depending on which proves more useful at any given time.  Rules and properties allow for a simple understanding of the world, thus acting as a useful foundation for quick actions when there isn’t time for deliberation.  On the other hand, the storyteller function allows one to conceive of possibilities beyond observed rules and properties, allows us to conceive of the world beyond the restriction of previously experienced patterns of inputs.  The storyteller function gives inquiry a generative quality, allowing one to conceive of new possibilities for inquiry and for the notion of “understanding.”


So what implications do emergence and the bipartite brain have on the nature of inquiry, particularly within the context of hybrid systems, where both emergence and intent contribute to an ongoing process?  Emergence is not meant to replace field specialization as an approach to inquiry, but is rather a beneficial addition, suggesting that similar explanations may apply to phenomena across different fields.  When thinking about how we should go about reaching an understanding of reality, Paul would stress that we take note that first, as inquirers we are active participants/contributors to the very process we are inquiring into.  That is, reality should not be conceived of as an external, consistent phenomena (simply a set of properties and rules), but rather as an ongoing process, which is affected the very moment we inquiry into it.  Second, meaningful, complex phenomena can arise from simple interactions, in the complete absence of intent or an architect.


Following from these two important ideas, Paul suggests that instead of dogmatically approaching inquiry as a process of uncovering rules and properties to use as a foundation for understanding reality, one should rather treat inquiry as an open-ended process, for which there is no unshakable foundation.  By open-ended, it is meant that there is no absolute truth to uncover, for, as reality is an ongoing process, so too will truth be an evolving phenomena, not a fixed objective to be reached.  Inquiry, then, should be about “getting it less wrong” as apposed to being “right.”  The process of inquiry is facilitated by both defining what is and by conceiving new possibilities and the subsequent comparing/contrasting of these various stories (a transactional process).


I find Paul’s call for open-ended, transactional inquiry to bear a resemblance to an argument put forth by John Stuart Mill in his essay On Liberty.  Essentially, Mill argues that a degree of negative freedom (individual’s freedom from subjection to the authority of others) is necessary for reaching an understanding of Truth.  This demand for negative freedom stems from what Mill refers to as social tyranny or “the tyranny of the majority.”  Social tyranny refers to the manner in which customs, ideas and belief become integrated into society and accepted as true for no other reason than because they have become the most popular opinion.  Such a system runs the risk of establishing “truth” through people believing themselves to be right rather through reason. 


Mill argues that everyone should have the freedom of thought, speech and action, for to silence an opinion, be it right or wrong, is to deprive humanity of a more complete understanding of truth.  If the silenced opinion is right, humanity is deprived of the opportunity to exchange error for truth, and if the opinion is wrong, humanity misses an opportunity to better understand truth as understood through contrasting it with error.  Further, Mill believes everyone should have the freedom to act as they chose, to experiment with their lives and examine different opinions through first hand empirical inquiry.


Paul’s assertions reflect those of Mill in the sense that both Paul and Mill value the role of multiple lines of inquiry and communication between parties, so as to compare and contrast the results and value of different approaches.  However, Paul goes a step further than Mill to argue that there is no set Truth for us to reach.  Truth as a continually evolving thing further necessitates the need for freedom of inquiry and speech so that we do not tie ourselves down to a single “understanding.”  However, would Paul go as far as Mill to argue for a necessary freedom of actions?  To allow for freedom of action is make the argument a moral issue, and this became Mills’ greatest problem in his essay.  Mill includes in his essay a harm clause in which he says we may only right interfere with the actions of others when those actions may harm others.  However, there is no specification as to at what point one’s actions are harmful.  If we are to follow Paul’s suggestion and value multiple lines of inquiry, does that not mean we are also supporting lines of inquiry that could be potentially harmful (to animals, to people, to the environment, etc.)?  So how then do we confront the moral issues surrounding inquiry? 


Additionally, I must ask, if we are to believe there is no truth for us to reach, why inquire in the first place?  What is the purpose of engaging in an act that can never reach a set goal?  I suppose the most logical response is that inquiry allows us to better understand our reality (get it less wrong) and therefore allows us to more effectively act within reality.  However, maybe we shouldn’t require of inquiry and ultimate purpose and appreciate inquiry for what it is in itself.  As humans we are naturally inquisitive, so perhaps that is reason enough to engage in this ongoing process.  Or rather, maybe it should be understood that there is a goal to inquiry, to get things less wrong, which is not a set goal, but rather a continuous one.


I believe that many of the points Paul presents in this paper are of exceptional worth.  Particularly, I believe it is most important to consider reality in terms of an ongoing process of which we are involved and active contributors to, rather than viewing it as an objective/external thing for us to define.  Every answer is only a tentative one; there is no absolute “right.”  Consequently, it is important to view inquiry as a collective practice rather than an individual race to be right.  And as Paul himself would agree, this paper should not stand alone as something absolutely “right,” but should instead be understood as a contribution to an ongoing conversation about the nature of inquiry, as well as the implications of existing within a hybrid system.  Paul ends his paper by applying his notion of empirical non-foundationalism to teaching and to social structure, which he further examines in his paper Social Organization as Applies Neurobiology: The Value of Stories and Story Sharing.  I will discuss the social implications of Paul’s ideas in another post.


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