Foundation Frontier

I wrote this title to suggest:

  • something attractive—a “frontier” opening up, in academia and knowledge work at large, where we can update the very foundation of what we do;
  • something hidden—as a “foundation” tends to be, this frontier is, as it were, ‘hidden under the ground,’ and we have as challenge to make 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 this 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-controvertible way of unraveling a notoriously messy theme, 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! A recording of this talk is available and definitely worth seeing. Here is a brief summary.

Newton, Chomsky explained, did not free us from “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 observed 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. 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 very 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 handle certain kinds of ‘puzzles’ as “problems”, and compelling us to see others as “mysteries”.

During the discussion that followed I thought of asking Chomsky about the implications of his insight for us scientists. Could we 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 the abstract.

We begin to work on the foundation frontier when we consider the foundation for knowledge work – the concepts and methods we use, the social organization of knowledge production and sharing, and especially the underlying assumptions regarding what knowledge work is all about and what purposes it should serve—as an integral part of the ‘building’ (knowledge) we are creating; not 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 be to knowledge work, and our culture, as architecture is to house construction.

Why risk repeating in the sciences the error that the religions have been notorious for—of turning a certain specific way of seeing the world and doing things into an orthodoxy. Why not do in all walks of life as Newton did in physics—create concepts and methods; and model and communicate whatever needs to be seen and understood?

What might the work on the foundation frontier be like, concretely?

In the mentioned article I introduced

  • polyscopy, my earlier work, as an illustration of how the concepts and methods se use in knowledge work can be tailored to a purpose, and allowed to evolve;
  • knowledge federation, as an illustration of how social organization of knowledge work can be subjected to 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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