Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"Putting the Radical into Empirical" by Olav Bryant Smith

This letter from the editor appeared in the July 2012 issue of Empirical magazine. You can preview and buy the digital version here or subscribe to the hard copy of the magazine here.

Much of the emphasis in the introductions to our previous issues has been on what we mean by the term “empirical.” We love science at Empirical, but we don’t believe that narrowly defined science, as in the advice to not believe something unless you see it, tells the whole story. Science at its best is informed by the humanities, including art, literature, poetry, philosophy, history, religion, and even that sacred literature known as “mythology.”

That is what William James was after when he coined the phrase “radical empiricism.” His belief was that all of the evidence of our experience, much of it reported by the humanities, has to be taken into consideration as we attempt to arrive at the truth about the nature of ourselves and the world we live in.

Truth, of course, is often called a “relative” term, and the implication to many people today is that there is no Truth to be found. Radical empiricists, along with many scientists, of course, hunger after the Truth. This hunger is what drives us to weed out the untrue from what we find to be true. And we do this by gathering evidence and discussing it in light of other experience and other evidence.

The problem that arises in the pursuit of the Truth, and what makes our individual truths “relative,” is the fact that each Truthseeker is limited in terms of experience, and limited in terms of our ability to process the information of that limited experience. Most of what we know, we know through a process of induction. We observe patterns in Nature as we collect the data of experience. But we can never be sure that what we’ve seen in the past is an accurate representation of the limits of Nature. We can never be sure that there isn’t relevant information that we’ve left out. We do our best. But as William James told us, it only takes one white crow to prove that they’re not all black.

But we’re creatures of habit, and fortunately, the Universe seems to be made up of other creatures of habit. We see patterns, we accustom ourselves to those patterns, and we make due as best we can in most cases. And it works out most of the time. The last thing we want as we’re trying to finish a job is to see someone rocking the boat by saying that things aren’t quite the way we think they are.

About 2500 years ago, the Greek philosopher Plato told a story about some prisoners chained up in a cave. We’re not supposed to take this story literally. It’s an allegory. But like other forms of symbolic fiction, including our sacred myths, it lifts up truths that we’d find it hard to understand any other way. That’s why Jesus told parables. It makes it easy to understand the deeper truths.

So we suspend our disbelief for the time being when Plato tells us that these prisoners can’t see themselves or their neighbors. All they can see is some shadows on the walls that are created by some guys behind them carrying shapes in front of a fire. The prisoners’ fate depends on how well they can interpret the shadows, so some of them get quite good at it.

One day, we’re told, a prisoner is freed, but as he turns toward the fire, his eyes have a hard time adjusting. He is pulled up a hill toward the mouth of the cave, but he resists. He is afraid of the unknown, and he is disoriented. But making the best of what seems like a bad situation, the liberated prisoner adapts. Just when he thinks the worst is over, however, he is taken into the direct light of the sun, and then it is really hard to see. The prisoner had lived his entire life in a world of darkness and shadow with only the smallest hints of light breaking into that darkness.

Eventually, Plato tells us, this prisoner’s eyes adjust, first seeing a reflection in a pond, and then being able to see things as they really are. The prisoner realizes, in what we might think of as an epiphany, that being able to see the Truth about things is dependent on the light of the sun breaking into an otherwise dark world.

It is one of our great sources of hope and inspiration in literature that the prisoner does not rest self-contentedly with this new knowledge. The prisoner remembers his neighbors and friends and returns to the darkness of the cave to let them know that they are living in a world of shadow and illusion.

One is reminded here of the Buddha being told by Mara, “the evil one” of Buddhist scripture, that he should take what he has found, i.e., enlightenment, and leave this earthly realm. The Buddha is told that no one would understand what he had to say about Nirvana anyway. But the Buddha responded “Some will understand.”

Our liberated prisoner in Plato’s story evidently felt the same way. So he returned. But upon his return, his friends and family noticed there was something different about him. Something peculiar. He saw things in a different way than he had before. They might even tell him, “You used to be good at interpreting these shadows. Now you’re not even interested in it. What’s wrong with you?”

The liberated prisoner has become a “radical” in the story. He’s rocking the boat. It makes it uncomfortable for the other prisoners in the cave. They’re just trying to make do with a bad situation. They’re not sure there is a Truth, and they’re not sure they want to hear it even if there is one. Plato tells us that if the liberated prisoner keeps it up, he’s even likely to be killed. People don’t like “radicals” coming around with even the best of intentions.

Plato had Socrates in mind as the liberated prisoner. When Greek-educated converts to Christianity compared the story of Jesus of Nazareth with this allegory, they imagined Jesus in the role. As I’ve indicated, the Buddha fits the role as well. The fact is that all of these wonderful Truth-seeking and Truth-bearing radicals through history have found themselves in just this situation. The word radical itself comes from the word for “root.” These radicals get at the roots of the problems we face, and when they do that, it often means pulling up some weeds that we’ve grown quite accustomed to in our daily lives.

In this issue of Empirical magazine, we celebrate the radicals: people like George Washington, who rebelled against the British Empire in pursuit of justice and freedom; the Great Soul “Mahatma” Gandhi, who taught us the power of non-violent resistance to evil by leading his people to independence from the British; Martin Luther King, Jr., who built on this non-violent model to awaken the conscience of Americans who had slumbered through an American apartheid that we called “segregation”; Rosa Parks, who refused to accept that her “place” was in the back of the bus; Robert F. Kennedy, whose conscience would not allow him to sit idly by and ignore the injustices of that American apartheid; Susan B. Anthony, who had the “nerve” in the 19th-century to insist that women should be given the right to vote; and Caesar Chavez, who helped us to see and understand the plight of immigrant and migrant farm workers in America. The list is long, fortunately, of these spiritual heroes–more than I can name here.

Yes, there are many injustices that we are just too busy to notice. And there are many injustices that will require some uncomfortable change in order to find remedies. But thank God for the radicals who, upon empirically gathering the evidence of their experience, shine their reflected light on our otherwise dark worlds.

Read John B. Cobb's article, "The Importance of Being Radical" here.

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