The postmodern fallacy

This entire post is based on Ken Wilbur’s book A Short History of Everything.

In Western culture, there is a common misconception: That the only true knowledge is objective empirical facts. In actuality, there are 3 types of knowledge: Objective, Subjective and Cultural.

Objective facts can be measured and have a simple location. You can look at earth and point to Africa. You can point to cities and the organs of animals and the transport systems in plants. The language you use to describe this is the language of it. There it is. These are all the its that we know of and so forth. With science, there is only one truth, and multiple competing explanations are not allowed to all be true. Science cannot give you morality because facts are not inherently good or bad. Facts merely are.

This type of knowledge is taught in school curriculums and universities. Researchers spend their entire lives increasing this type of knowledge. They use the scientific method to propose hypotheses and then try to disprove them.

Subjective experience can only be understood from the inside. You cannot point to it and say: “There it is”. You cannot point to the location of a memory, a thought or a feeling. You only know that it is there, or you only know that someone else has experienced it. In this sphere of knowledge, the determining factor is truthfulness. Is this person telling the truth? Or is this person trying to deceive other people or themselves? You cannot prove that someone isn’t feeling in a certain way, or what they believe without communication. You have to talk to the person and then interpret what they say. There can be multiple truths that are all true for the individual. Competing truths can all be right. Some can be better interpretations than others, but in many cases, it is impossible to prove to someone that their experience is wrong. The same objective glass can be subjectively half full or half empty. And they are both valid interpretations of reality.

This is the domain of morality, values and spiritual development. Literature documents how people go from immature, selfish ways of thinking to caring for other people and moving beyond hate. How your perception of the world changes as you grow up and mature. This is the domain of meditation and spirituality that tells us how to live a better life and be better persons.

Culture is also a type of subjective experience, but one that is shared. It is an amalgamation of the subjective experiences of a group of people. The shared values, ethics and morals that they live according to. You can also not understand this without being a part of it and interpreting it. You have to talk to the people to understand their why. This is the good. When people talk about something being good or bad, it is within the domain of culture. As with individual subjective experience, there can be better and worse interpretations as measured by the consequences that they have.

Trying to push any one domain into another never works well. Science cannot tell you whether murder is bad or good. Or whether loyalty is more admirable than honesty. Or if social inequality is acceptable. Your individual thoughts and feelings are not a sufficient basis to create the culture that you live in. Culture cannot tell you whether arsenic is poisonous or if a high-sodium diet predisposes you to cancer. These domains all influence each other, but you cannot try and use one measurement framework for a different domain.

The postmodern fallacy is to think that the rational, objective worldview is all there is. To discount the influence of culture and our own internal narratives on how we live, and how we should live. This fallacy is thinking that if something isn’t objectively provable and has a location that you can point to, it isn’t useful. That it is truthful or good is seen as irrelevant because it isn’t empirically true. 

Science is very useful. Very very useful. We have much of our modern world thanks to the science that we have created.  But science alone is not enough. Science does not prevent Hitler. In fact, according to science, Hitler was not evil or good. That’s because science cannot show us what meaning to assign to events. Science cannot decide our character.

To happiness, and beyond!


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