Saturday, September 11, 2010

Confronting Conceptual Conflicts

I’ve written about 3-5 blog posts in the last few days, and I had thought about posting them, but they all seem to be missing something. I pondered it for a while, and it struck me that the problem was, they were really all talking about exactly the same struggle, from several different vantage points.

The problem is one of categories, levels and points of view. One of the most incredible things about being human is the diversity of options available, in action but particularly in thought. For someone who aims for logical consistency, however, this can pose some problems. There are ways of living that are applicable in different circumstances, and acting differently in accordance with separate situations is perfectly rational and justifiable. Regardless, even if the modes of thought or action do not come into direct conflict, their orthogonality can be troubling. Sometimes, too, they do seem to be problematically counter-aligned, and I am forced to make a choice, or at least come at the problem in a more sophisticated or nuanced way.

In general, my feelings about orthogonality or interconnectedness or conflict between conceptual frameworks rest not on an underlying feeling that there actually are deep cracks in my worldview as a result of being a feminist and a scientist or a constructivist and logical postivist, or some such. My problem comes more as a result of the fact that other people tend to draw lines in the sand, and since I either agree with both or neither, the lines themselves, usually taking the form of false dichotomies, tend to make me very uncomfortable.

One of the supreme ways in which to understand the world better, more complexly and more deeply is to jump into different axiomatic structures and see where they take you. It is this opportunity that prompts my profound appreciation for a wide variety of fields, systems of knowledge, cultures, subcultures and simple sets of interests or hobbies. There’s not only the chance to open up new worlds, but also to see the old ones differently. In an idealized intellectual space, a holistic understanding could be reached by integrating ideas and strategies from every subset and class one could think of. Obviously, that’s not always, or maybe ever, possible, but with that as my ideal, it makes sense that hardline ultimatums about belief or thought are irritating.

I’m not saying that we should all be gently accommodating and discuss our differences over cheesecake and coffee. Obviously, strong belief arising from strong evidence is to be admired, and academic debates are actually pretty excellent. They tend to be based on a controversy that no one outside the field knows about, and new data comes in all the time supporting one or the other. That makes them birth grounds of new knowledge, ideas and conceptual frameworks, and also very very exciting. Gould vs. Dawkins (as a general debate) gripped me for over a year, and I just recently threw in my lot behind evolutionary psychology as an extremely important and relevant and valid field of study (for example). What’s especially wonderful about this kind of debate, however, is that at the end of the day, the debate went to rest. The punctuated equilibrists weren’t accusing the gradualists of being awful people who are ignoring the importance of science and empiricism. They fought viciously, certainly, but only within a scientific framework, criticizing the validity of findings or interpretations. On the other hand, Stephen Pinker (whose book was, in general, amazing, by the way, and who I respect a great deal) sounds like an idiot when he accuses intellectuals and Marxists of denying the importance of science and evolutionary theory. There’s just so much wrong with that.

Essentially, I think that the reason categorically throwing out disciplines and groups of people is that, if we don’t recognize the importance of multiple sides, with underlying assumptions of sufficient evidence and valid reasoning to make the time worthwhile, we’re going to get a ton of false negatives, and that has extremely deleterious consequences for an advancing, knowledge-based society.

I go into more detail with these examples:
1. The Academic Community
2. Having Opinions
3. Activism and Intellectualism

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