“Of course it was cause and effect, but in the necessity of which one follows the other lay all the tragedy of life.” — W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage (New York: Penguin, 1984), 314
“We have to remember that what we observe is not nature herself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” — Werner Heisenberg, Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science
“The supreme function of reason is to show man that some things are beyond reason.” — Blaise Pascal
Western science traditionally distinguishes between the “observer” and the “observed.” A scientific experiment represents the point of closest approach between these two doctrinally separate states of existence. The gap between them is bridged, tenuously, momentarily, like a spark, by the observer’s interpretation of the observed as a result of the experiment.
There has been a long-running debate among many philosophers of science over the nature and interpretation of experimental results. It is a pretty esoteric debate. Most modern philosophers of science agree that there is some sort of relationship between the observer and the observed, but they cannot agree on what that relationship is, whether there is more than one type of relationship under different circumstances, and whether relationships have a causal influence on the outcome of an experiment. Much of the debate centers on the validity of the observed experimental result when viewed through the cultural, religious, and experiential filters of the observer. In practice, scientists generally avoid the whole question because “relationship” can’t be turned into an equation, can’t be quantified as just another variable in an experiment.
Unquestioned throughout the entire debate is the assumption that, given a proper relationship between observer and observed, human beings have the cognitive ability to grasp the depth and breadth of the universe. I suggest that this assumption be called “cognicentrism.”* Cognicentrism, as used here, is a bias that assumes — takes for granted, actually — that our senses, and the tools we have invented to extend them into the realms of the microcosmic and macrocosmic, are sufficient to apprehend all the forces and events at play in and around us. Maybe this is so, but for all practical purposes (and for pretty much all theoretical purposes as well) this premise, this vanity, is a matter of faith; that is to say there is no sound, logical premise upon which to base an assumption that humans can perceive and understand everything. I suggest cognicentrism is a natural result of our arrogant expectation that the small set of very specialized sensory apparati we have, and the intellectual and physical refinements of them that we have developed over the millenia, will allow us to fix everything — including ourselves and one another.
The cognicentric perspective takes it on faith that someday religion, philosophy, science, and/or technology will provide us with a physical or metaphorical mountain tall enough for observers to apprehend everything with their gaze, an ultimate “Archimedean point.” But as an observer, one will be “behind the eyes” that do the observing from this vantage point. It’s a duality that leads to an endless logical recursion. Or, as Alan Watts famously quipped:
There was a young man who said, ‘Though
‘It seems that I know that I know,
‘What I would like to see
‘Is the I that knows me
‘When I know that I know that I know.’
–From Alan Watts, “The Nature of Consciousness,” part 2
Like other historical “centrisms,” the vanity of cognicentrism requires, and encourages, dichotomy and separation. Observer/observed, us/them, clean/unclean, good/bad, right/wrong. One of these always ends up being valued more highly than the other, or thought to be better or more desirable. Thus cognicentric relationships permit hierarchies that are so essential to certain types of institutions that classify and limit spheres of action.
A simple example of a cognicentric bias is how we perceive separation between “objects.” Our eyes are sensitive to a narrow portion of the light spectrum. Air does not reflect light in that spectrum, but “solid” objects do — people and animals, tables and chairs, plants and buildings. So we see these objects as distinct islands of solidity separated by gaps, not as a continuum in which less-dense and more-dense clumps move around, like in a soup. (One interesting result of this is that we as a species learned a very long time ago how to build things out of solid stuff and float on liquid stuff, but it was only several hundred years ago that we got around to noticing the “invisible” gaseous stuff we breathe.) Or how we distinguish between “silence” and “sound” because our ears cannot hear every frequency.
A cognicentric approach also supposes that our sense of structure, as determined by logic, is mirrored in, and therefore vindicated by, what we observe in “nature.” Our science is based on the premise that all things are causally related (i.e. everything is the result of some prior event, and causes can be implicitly or explicitly identified by studying their effects). Scientific theories are validated when, in an experiment, our observations match our predictions and either a cause or an effect is identified. But something unpredicted always appears around the next corner, challenging scientists to expand their theory’s boundaries to annex each new, unpredicted observation or prediction. This suggests to me that our theoretical and explanatory systems are perpetually limited and reactive as long as they continue to posit causally-derived definitions. They may be explaining one “slice” of a much larger apple.
Even the terms “microcosmic” and “macrocosmic,” which I used above, are cognicentric; we have set ourselves as the basic unit of measure and divided the universe into “the part that exists on a scale smaller than us” and “the part that exists on a scale larger than us.” The various science disciplines have long been differentiated along these lines, and it has only been recently that the analogies and metaphors at the heart of scientific theories developed to describe phenomena at one scale have been borrowed and adapted to explain phenomena at the other. We must recognize that the distinction does not exist outside of our perceptions.
I’m going to venture into dangerous territory and stake a claim that I suspect is not widely shared — yet. The claim is this: someday, scientists are going to understand, as a matter of course, that the seemingly absurd and supremely complex behaviors of matter, energy, and numbers as described in quantum physics, chaos theory, and other cutting-edge sciences reflect not the actual behavior of nature, but rather the ragged edge of our ability to perceive nature.
In other words, we will eventually realize that 2,500+ years of rigorous experimentation hasn’t been telling us how the Universe works; it has been telling us how we work within the Universe. This is because science, like all cognicentric explanatory systems, does not tell us what is. It tells us what is observed.
That science does so more reliably and effectively than any other system we’ve developed so far is indisputable. The discoveries, insight, and understanding that science have made possible are no less valuable or useful for this realization. Rather the opposite; now they can teach us something fundamentally different from — and potentially tremendously more powerful than — what we thought we were learning.
Here are some other thoughts sparked by the notion of cognicentrism:
Our built environment follows our cognitive assumptions as well. To continue with the example, because we perceive gaps we build walls that are expressly designed to separate “inside” from “outside.” So many things we make, from jars to cars to libraries to political and social systems, are essentially containers. And with that comes a definition of use. The uses for a sink are different from those of a toilet, even though they are both bowls with water in them. If you use one for the other you are considered either an artist (if people don’t feel threatened by you) or insane (if they do).
Our notion that “form follows function” derives from our concept that created objects have specific uses. But when a created object breaks, its use evaporates like a ghost, and all that is left is a shell of something that has no more use. We build a wall for specific purposes; when the wall crumbles, it becomes a pile of debris that “proves” the notion of entropy — the idea that things fall apart. Or if the object is lucky, it is “repurposed;” its use is redefined as something else. In our mind, the object moves from discrete state (“wall”) to discrete state (“pile of bricks” or maybe “rustic setting”) in a leap. We define the smallest discrete unit as that which is useful. A wall is not perceived as an assemblage of bricks until the wall falls apart; at that point our perception shifts to the individual bricks because we can now use them to build something over here instead.
I think this excerpt from the Dhammapada goes toward what I am trying to express here:
Through the round of many births I roamed
seeking the house-builder.
Painful is birth
again & again.
House-builder, you’re seen!
You will not build a house again.
All your rafters broken,
the ridge pole destroyed,
gone to the Unformed, the mind
has come to the end of craving.
–From “Aging,” Dhammapada XI, verses 153-154 (tr. Thanissaro Bhikku)
When we are in a non-cognicentric relationship, we are not separate from what we are relating with. Such a relationship is difficult to describe using sentences where “subjects” “act” on “objects.” It is so much in the nature of our Old World thought processes, derived from the ancient Greek quest for logic and reason, that it even affects how we express relationships! Cognicentrism is so fundamental to our being that every language, regardless of how it arranges and expresses relationships, conveys this duality in some way. At its most basic, language is a symbolic representation of perceptions and relationships, which we express as sentences and stories.
I am suggesting that perhaps our cognicentric biases may be a source of many of our problems as individuals, families, and cultures. The quest for objectivity sets up in us unharmonious, dichotomous relationships with our surroundings. We try to bend and squish the entire universe until it fits in front of our lenses, yet we burden ourselves with feelings of failure and inadequacy when we cannot achieve the perfection we think we see through them. Cognicentrism places us at a distance, conceptually and practically, from our surroundings, from our fellow humans, and especially from our own selves.
* Long after I wrote this essay, I discovered that anthropologist Michael Harner had already coined the term “cognicentrism” many years before, in reference to a somewhat different, but I think a related, concept. I don’t intend to infringe or usurp the term here; quite the opposite, I gratefully acknowledge Dr. Harner’s primacy and I hope that he would consider my work to be in the scholarly tradition of further exploration of his pioneering research and writing on Shamanism and states of consciousness. I deeply admire his work, which has moved and inspired me in many ways.
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