Newsletter #49: Against Discipline

I don’t believe in objective truth, when understood as mind or society independent access to reality ‘out there’. All knowledge is conditioned by our location in Samsara, of finite beings with a limited horizon. However, this isn’t a purely negative comment, for our finite resources also reveal the world to us in ways that wouldn’t be available to a deity. Simply put, we see the world in living color because of a highly developed visual system. At the same time, devoting that much brain space to vision means we can’t smell the world as dogs and sharks do. The visual shape of a room is effortlessly available to us but we have no clue as to the smell shape of the same room, as canines clearly perceive.

Social conditioning is as pervasive as sensory conditioning. There’s the famous “Language of Thought” hypothesis which says that the language we speak affects the way we think, but I think that’s missing the point. Social conditioning operates primarily at the social level, not at the cognitive. We are social creatures - the social level is most of experienced reality for us. There’s no mystery here: if you work for Google, data is important for you; if you work for Citibank, debt is important to you. Your social context dictates values and incentives and makes some forms of knowledge more likely than others.

Within academia, the strongest social conditioning is around (scholarly) discipline. Physicists don’t think like mathematicians and neither thinks like a historian. As far as I can see, these disciplinary differences are irreducible. A historian looks back at the past and teases out narratives that illuminate human action. A statistician might look at the same period of time and tabulate war and famine fatalities. When done well, both lead to understanding.

However, as know from the Buddha onward, all conditions must pass. The disciplinary condition seems to be teetering on the precipice. Disciplines work well when everyone agrees upon the problem statement, where there’s a shared language and where the value of the solution is recognized by all parties. A discipline is a reasonable approximation of a closed social system that interfaces with the outside (scholarly) world on its own terms. I call it “knowledge in a box.”

Gods love boxes; they can capture all of creation in a box and admire their doing from afar. Humans in their hubris aspire to be gods, so they too have tried to boxify the universe. It worked for a while, but the problems we face today are no longer boxable; at the very least we have to think outside the box, but more likely we have to drop the box metaphor altogether. Instead, what we need is knowledge in the wild, knowledge that doesn’t just study the world, but also changes it. It’s an animal's view where eye and hand go together. Socially constructed human knowledge must take its cues from the humblest of bacteria rather than the gods in their heavens. Disciplinary knowledge has its virtues but what we need today is organic knowledge.