Mar 03, 2016 | By

My Big TOE – a Personal Lens to Knowledge Acquisition

My nephew Cody and his wife Natalie began a food blog called the Gantzery about a year ago focused on healthy and nutritious recipes, but with a strong personal flavor. It often contains interesting philosophical remarks. This week, these remarks asked about one’s “personal lens” in how we approach the world in the search for knowledge and understanding, and it inspired some deep personal reflection.  What is my lens? My Big TOE!

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Photo courtesy of The Gantzery.

If any of you are interested in food and nutrition, I recommend that you visit The Gantzery for great recipes and great ideas. The post for February 23, 2016, includes a recipe for ginger and turmeric meatballs, but what interested me most was the reflection about the lens one brings to the world. Cody reports: “Nat speaks Russian. Her bro, his fiancé, both sets of parents, and most relatives also speak Russian. I do not.  But I’ve learned a handful of words and phrases over the years… 80% centered around food…    Why: because food is my lens.  Lenses help us see things we can’t with the naked eye. Through a lens we can look deeper, or see farther… The food lens has helped me listen to hours of history lectures, and care about the chemistry in the Maillard reaction.”

In this Forum, we have frequently talked about bias and other limitations that interfere with our ability to know what is true (see: Rationality, Truth, Bias, Uncertainty). But Cody provides another perspective by pointing out that the lens we bring to the task of knowledge acquisition can also have a positive influence. The focal lens of our personal interest directs and motivates our inquiry and brings intensity and even passion to our efforts to acquire knowledge or master ideas. Passion, of course, can also cloud judgment, and personal bias can distort perceptions. The personal lens may have some significant flaws. Yet it is important to recognize the power of our personal focus in motivating the search for truth.

As I reflected on the question of my personal lens, I remembered the meditative technique taught in the Jon Kabat-Zinn program on Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) called the “whole body scan.” It takes about 40 minutes and in the MBSR 8-week program you are supposed to do it every day. You begin by focusing on your left big toe. Interestingly, this is a small body part furthest away from your mind, and it is rarely the focus of one’s attention (unless it is in pain), so it can be quite challenging to attend to it. Yet the effort is worth it, as the overall benefits of the MBSR program demonstrate. We focus on one thing intently – which brings benefits to the whole.

My conceptual Big TOE is, perhaps, the opposite. One could characterize it as focusing on the whole of existence in an effort to acquire benefits for the smallest of parts – a human life. I am referring to the concept of a universal Theory of Everything. This Big T.O.E. is the idea that a human could develop some comprehension of the arc of truth in all of life, all of being, in the entirety of the universe. Perhaps this idea is ludicrous, some would say arrogant, but the passion for it has called to many thinkers, great and small, across the millennia. Indeed, it can be argued that this passion has motivated much of theology, philosophy, natural science, mathematics and logic and, more recently, theoretical physics and information theory. Hollywood even made a movie about it!

The Big TOE lens is a reverse telescope. That is, when facts are observed at a detailed level, one telescopes out to seek the biggest perspective. How are these facts like others – what is common to all the facts – is there an explanation that brings understanding (order) to all of them? If there is order, or if there is not, what does that imply? What does that mean?

Each of these inquiries also feeds the meta-inquiry; what are the similarities with other inquiries, other spheres of knowledge? Is there a synthesis that brings them all together? Ultimately, is there a state of knowledge in which all of the known pieces (as well the still unknown pieces) can fit together? That is the Big TOE.

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That there is a Big TOE, I have no doubt, and I hope most would agree — the universe, life, consciousness and human experience constitute a whole reality for which there must be a whole explanation. In pursuit of this all-encompassing explanation, though, we are all like blind people trying to describe an elephant based on the piece of it we happen to touch – our perspectives are vastly different and fundamentally quite limited.

I have my own ideas about the Big TOE. One is that it is infinite in character and therefore inaccessible in its entirety to a human mind. Yet, as mathematicians have shown, one can talk intelligently about the infinite (as well as its counterpoint zero) in ways that add to the store of human knowledge. At the same time, one must be very careful of the inevitable pitfalls. (See: The Mathematics of Nothing).

Another truth about the Big TOE is that it has to encompass paradox and requires dialectical mastery. Just as the Zen novitiate must meditate on the sound of one hand clapping, a Big TOE novitiate must accept paradox.  Some very special questions have contradictory answers – and some have none. (See: Is the Universe Rational?, More Data is Not Enough!)  Indeed, we often have to answer questions where there is no answer, or conflicting answers.  We live much of our lives in a realm where logic or empirical study can never yield good evidence (or even any evidence), yet the answers we choose are incredibly important. There is room for, indeed a necessity for, intuition, insight, creative inspiration, revelation and transcendence. (See: Miracles, Irrationality).

This leads to a final truth about the Big TOE — that facts (from which knowledge is derived) include both the empirical and the personal.   As much as the empiricists might deny it, our subjective experience cannot be reduced to physical correlates without stripping it of meaning. The pixels of color on a canvas are physical – our appreciation of the whole as a work of art is not.   Written or spoken words are physical, as are the brain states that arise in response to them – but the understanding that dawns in our minds from the meaning of the words is not physical. There is room for intuition, creative inspiration, insight, revelation and transcendence — all non-physical influences intersecting with the physical — in my Big TOE.

Moreover, while choice and intention may be observed as patterns of brain activation or behaviors – physical things – what motivates those physical things is the personal freedom of will to choose and to act. Some neuroscientists may squirm and some physicists and biologists will scoff, but every one of them lives their life the same way we do — making choices and taking actions.

This is my passion. I hope that the path it is forging in these pages is moving in an affirmative direction and providing inspiration. Many thanks for your interest, and your comments.

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