A "B R I E F" A N D C L U M S Y P H I L O S O P H Y T O G U I D E T H E T H I N G S I D O.
1. THINGS CHANGE. IN THE MEANTIME, WE OUGHT TO USE EVERYTHING THAT WE CAN.
Contrary to what the twenty-year-old text books in many of our schools suggest, science changes all the time. It’s not the static body of facts and figures that many of us pretended to memorize in college. It's not limited to questions that require a lab coat to answer. It’s really just a bunch of curious people who follow a specific set of rules to try to minimize how wrong they are about whatever it is they study - from history to psychology to physics - and that’s something that's never really done. Scientists, at their best, aren't trying to prove themselves right. They're constantly looking for ways to disprove themselves or each other (incidentally making them tons of fun at parties). And often, as our tools for examining the world improve or the number of studies done on a particular topic hit a critical mass, the things we once, tentatively, held to be true are replaced by more fine-grained, up-to-date, or complex explanations.
So you can see why science, as a changing, fluid canon of information, clashes with a society that praises consistency and certainty. We dismiss politicians who flip flop and distrust friends who don’t stand for enough. We promote “finding yourself”, as though there were such a thing as one, unchanging self to be found - which anyone who was ever 15 is likely to contest. And we have a system of laws that would consider tectonic movement to be fast paced change. Yet we are also dynamic beings that change our minds, change our selves, and, on good days, improve our own understanding constantly. Research is far from perfect, but nowadays, it's a pretty sweet deal for everyone involved. The people get an organized system of inquiry where a fraction of our population collects information about the world that we can all benefit from. Researchers get to make short films out of the smallest known particles in the universe, turn an entire human brain into a transparent, jello-like substance, or analyze mummified remains to tell us exactly what ancient Egyptians ate for lunch. Everyone wins, and it's a solid way to build a society that is as constantly evolving and growing as we are.
But to make it work, we need to first sit in the corner and think hard about what we've already done. We have some un-building to do, so that we can build a future that not only appreciates, but accommodates change and welcomes adjustment in light of new evidence. We also need to prioritize supporting and developing a system to ease the translation of science for public needs, and the translation of societal issues to shape scientific inquiry. Basically, we are collectively armed with everything we need to craft a world that we're proud to call home... but the tools are stuck; sprinkled across disciplines, fields, and perspectives without a direct line to the outside world. If we're serious about changing the world for the better, we need to get serious about communicating as well.
2. ART AND SCIENCE ARE BEING KEPT APART AGAINST THEIR WILL.
There is no social value in pitting art and science against each other. Throughout history, artists of all forms — music, dance, design, visual, literary, performance, humor — have expressed and predicted aspects of life that go beyond the scope of controlled empirical analysis. As one really thoughtful dude said, “At its best, art is an early warning system that tells the old culture what is beginning to happen to it”. Art provides an intuition, an insight, and a meditation that science can't compete with. Collectively, it can color the questions we ask, tailor the lenses through which we interpret evidence, and measure the pulse of the people that our most consequential evidence is intended to serve.
On the other hand, the scientific method provides unprecedented windows into what’s been, what is, and what’s possible. It provides tools, roadmaps to innovation, and something-like-truths that allow us to solve problems and dig more deeply into everything. It lays the foundation for the society that artists interact with and reflect upon. It puts our intuitions to the test, and hopefully, adds nuance to our worldview. Information is everywhere and these are two of our best tools for understanding the world and ourselves. Let's take "love", for example. It can be whimsical and intoxicating... at the same time that it’s an emergent neurobiological experience... at the same time that it's a culturally-informed, often unrealistic expectation of your boyfriend being Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy. By knowing all of these things, you better know love. Attaching yourself to the slice of experiences offered by a single perspective seriously limits the boundaries of your reality - also known as a fast track to Pleasantville, Big Brother, or our congress on bill-signing day.
Whoever decided to build an artificial boundary between these two was like that girl at the party that just introduced her friends Trish and Stacy, and they really hit it off, so she tells Trish that Stacy said something bad about her, and then tells Stacy that Trish said something about her... all because she's mean and doesn't want them to be friends and start doing brunch without her.
...Don't let "that girl" win.
3. We all really need to get over ourselves.
Our brains are really something; biological mechanisms that are built from a tried-and-true formula, while also being uniquely crafted to their environment. If someone described the human brain in a sci-fi novel before we knew better, Amazon would give it three stars for being unrealistic. It's awesome. Like neural fingerprints, no two are the same. Each is pruned and shaped by the unique sequences and characters of the environments they’ve passed through. Your brain is epically customized, which turns out to be one of our best traits, but also one of our worst. The modern world has changed faster than our bodies can evolve, leaving some of the functions that have (and in many cases continue) to serve major purposes to be hacked and used in ways that may not be as beneficial. So while we are experts in understanding everything we've ever personally experienced (kind of), some of those old school propensities towards categorization, labeling, and in-group bias often get in the way of our seeing beyond our own brains. We forget that everyone else's brain is also an expert in what they've experienced, and that what they come up with as a result is the product of the same basic mechanisms that our own thoughts came from. In a sense, we should be thinking about everyone else's brain as an extra opportunity to see what we may have known if we had lived their life. But instead, all too often, we treat it as a competition, a call to arms to prove that our own pile of data is better than theirs. Silly brains.
But now we know more about the brain than ever before. We not only know that we can do better, but we also have a few hunches as to how. We can beat the system, the bias, the ego that keeps us from seeing the potential in all the other brains we meet. But we have to start by learning more about what we're dealing with, and that means acknowledging those biases that filter literally every. single. thing. we think or experience.
By some masochistic oversight, we've allowed the "clique" model that terrorized our teenage years to sneak into our adult life. Except now, instead of pimples and musical preferences determining our affiliations, it's our professions, politics, race, religion, or class --- and instead of social reputation on the line, it's progress. We ignore competing perspectives and overvalue our own, limiting our ability to see beyond what our chosen worldview has to offer. With so much information at our fingertips, solutions will rarely lie within a single brain. We now know enough about how we work to do better. By studying and understanding ourselves, we study and understand those around us; and by understanding, we're far more likely to move forward. Bias is the greatest enemy of progress in all of its forms; economical, political, social. And bias serves an important purpose, else it wouldn't still be around. We need to be on a first name basis with our biases, in hopes that we can know where they do - and don't - belong.
We have to start by trusting each other, and deeply believing ourselves to be either (a) wrong, or (b) right in a world full of other just-as-rights. That's not to say we shouldn't stand for our beliefs or fight for our points, but change the enemy. The enemy is never more information about how another brain processed its experiences. The enemy is any solution that doesn't take full advantage of everything there is to know.