Three interesting ways of knowing

Published on 2024-03-11

Number 3 - The scientific method

I like to imagine that science conceives the whole universe as a single black box.

The black box

It is the function, then, of science, to subdivide that black box into many smaller black boxes, by testing hypotheses that relate certain inputs to certain outputs.

In this sense, science doesn't uncover truth; it approaches truth asymptotically. There will always be more boxes to break up. Science will hypothesize about correlations forever, until the questions it begs to ask literally cannot be answered through direct observation

Science is about models. In the words of George Box, "all models are wrong, but some are useful."

There is one truth to science, however; it's a truth that's taken to be true not because it's provably so, but rather because without it, none of this works: it's given that science reveals "objective reality," and that that's meaningful in some way.

Scientific apostasy

That objective reality exists, that it is the world in which we live, and that it can be meaningfully revealed (or at least, approached) by the scientific method is taken on an act of faith.

Number 2 - The mathematical method

If science starts at the leaves of tree and works down the branches, mathematics starts from the seed.

Relatedly, mathematics also takes at its core a particular act of faith. There's some disagreement on where exactly we ought to place our faith. In fact, there are many different objects of faith we can hold from which you may be able to derive all other mathematical truths. They call these acts of faith the foundations of mathematics--the philosophical, logical and algorithmic systems that underpin all math we know and all that we could know.

Physicists would probably kill to be as close to their "foundations" as mathematicians are, and still there's philosophical crises everywhere you look. Physics, being a discipline of science, is cursed to spend an eternity on the leaves of the tree of knowledge, whereas mathematicians could write a thousand-page-long proof explicating mundane concepts in a way that unites what seem like totally disparate fields of mathematics--if anyone cares.

Math has a related problem: math is a system that can produce a virtually infinite number of objectively true, wholly consistent models, only some of which will ever be found to be useful.

Number 1 - The ecological method

Ecology is a scientific discipline, but let's ignore that for a moment. I'm going to stretch my definitions a bit.

The object of scientific inquiry is the black box on the edge of the understood universe; the objective of science is to unmask the black box to find its many constituent black boxes.

The objects of mathematical inquiry, on the other hand, are axioms: ideas we take to be true, and from which we can derive more truth. The objective of mathematics is to explore the branching tree of knowledge from its roots into increasingly abstract spaces.

The object of ecological inquiry, as I've decided to understand it, is the relationship between objects. The objective of ecology is to reveal the fundamental interconnectedness of all things.

What exists on a particular "end" of a particular relationship may or may not be a black box. It may help to understand its inner workings--its many constituent black boxes--but ultimately, that's unnecessary. We have sources and we have sinks, constantly exchanging resources to make everything we experience possible. Maybe those endpoints are interchangeable. Maybe they're intrinsically linked. That they are what they are is our act of faith, as we investigate the nature of how they relate.

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