Monday, October 5, 2009

A Blessing in Disguise

Title page to Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning...

Every now and then, the student loans really bug me. Not that I mind paying for an education -- someone has to do it. Nor is it the actual cost because a good education ought to be more costly. It's that I've had to pay to get the kind of education I've received over time. And it's at that point I try to stop grousing, because not only has it been my choice, it's been a blessing in disguise.

For example, as a result of having had to study philosophy, I've learned there is more than one way to ask a question. I've also learned the answers often depend less on the question itself than the disposition of the questioner. In other words, someone predisposed to see life only in terms of what can be demonstrated and empirically evaluated, is not going to be very satisfied by answers that defy quantification. But that limits their understanding because measurement depends on the tools you use and not everything can be measured by the same standard.

The anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss said, "The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers, s/he is one who asks the right questions." Somewhere along the line I think we've gotten away from this. I don't know if it was the threat of the Bomb and the end of the world as we know it or just the inherent ambiguity of life, but instead of looking to science to help us refine the questions, we seem to expect it to provide all the answers. And when it doesn't, instead of searching for another way of addressing the questions, we treat them as though they were the wrong ones to ask in the first place.

When Andrew Taylor Still, the founder of osteopathic medicine, declared the patient-as-person was an integral unit composed of body, mind, and spirit, he opened Pandora's Box. As long as medicine had only to deal with the body, science alone was more than adequate to the task. But once we decide there is an integrative principle involved we're thrust into the realm of phenomenology. Descartes, the French Enlightenment philosopher who might be regarded as the spiritual father of the scientific method, is a fine guide as long as we're content to misconstrue the nature of reality. Once we open the door to complexity, things change radically.

The true scientist resists approaching every problem as though it was a nail and all that's needed to beat it into submission is a large enough hammer. A person can do a lot of damage with a hammer, if they're not careful. One of my favorite maxims is, "He who has never traveled thinks mother is the only cook." If all we've ever learned is one way to think, we're going to be in big trouble when we run up against a recipe mom never heard of.


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