Dr. Christopher DiCarlo
UNDERSTANDING SCIENCE & CULTURE TO BETTER UNDERSTAND OURSELVES
I have developed a way for understanding the many different ways in which the various sciences understand ourselves and our place in the universe. This is called The Relations of Natural Systems (or RNS). This physical understanding of the natural world can then be combined with our understanding of the many different cultural ways in which our lives develop which is called appropriately enough: The Relations of Cultural Systems (or RCS).
Together, both the natural and cultural systems demonstrate just how vastly complex our lives, the world, and the universe is. Taken together, the two systems are interconnected in a complex interplay of activity resembling the multiple layers of the skin of an onion. I have appropriately named this model of understanding the Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge (or OSTOK). Using an onion as a metaphor for our combined systems of knowledge, we can understand how information about ourselves, our world, and the universe relate. The more we can understand the complex causal interplay between various systems, the deeper into and the farther around the onion we go.
The Relations of Natural Systems (RNS)
The Relations of Natural Systems began as a project I started over a decade ago. I wanted to be able to present to students a concept of the big natural picture in a single glance. In order to do this, I had to demonstrate the relationships all humans have with everything in the natural universe. And this was no easy task. So I began to think in terms of systems and the relationships that exist between them. When one takes a good look at life around them, on this planet, and elsewhere throughout the stars, it becomes apparent that everything we see is either a part of, or a conglomerate of systems.
Take yourself, for instance. What are you, physically, but a fleshy package of systems. You have a skeletal system which supports your body; a muscular system which allows for locomotion; a nervous system for inter-communication within your body; an immune system to ward off parasites and pathogens; an endocrine system to allow for hormonal transfer of information; a circulatory system to provide oxygen to your organs, etc.
If all of these systems work well in conjunction with one another, you can maintain a fairly healthy lifestyle. However if some of these systems, or their parts, falter, you may find yourself experiencing need of medical attention. Now ask yourself, what is a human as a conglomerate of systems?
We are a species (like many others) which function within ecological and cultural systems. These collective systems make up cities, municipalities, countries, etc. Together, we find ourselves functioning within political systems which overlap into other geo-political systems. All of these function on a fairly small planet we call Earth. The planet Earth is but one of eight in a planetary system . Our planetary system functions largely because of the star at its center (our Sun). As an open system, the Sun provides light and heat and is but one of many that is revolving in a system of stars called a galaxy. Of all the many stars which make up our Milky Way galaxy, this is only a single collection of billions of stars.
This single galaxy is simply one of millions that make up a cluster of galaxies. There are millions upon millions of galaxies throughout these clusters. And there are millions of galaxy clusters which exist throughout the known universe which is continuously expanding and increasing in immensity and which we define as all space-time.
examining the relationship...
Just as we can recognize our inter-connectedness on a grand scale, if we move in the opposite direction from ourselves and examine systems in smaller and smaller detail, what we see is that all of our systems within our bodies are made up of cells. Each type of cell works at a level of systems in order to communicate how each cell is to behave. Cells, themselves, are made up of smaller and smaller units: macro-molecules, chromosomes, DNA, RNA, etc. Each of these macro-molecules is made up of smaller units such as atoms. These, in turn, are made up of smaller units such as quantum particles. And once we move into the smaller realm of sub-atomic particles, we enter the arena of theoretical physics which maintains that there might even be smaller units which make up quarks (and everything else in the universe) called ‘superstrings’.
The point to note here, is that we must learn to recognize the immense complexity of cause and effect relationships between ourselves and the physical universe. Causality at one level seems to operate differently than at another level. For example, the forces which cause atoms to behave as they do is quite different from the forces which cause planets to behave as they do. However, we must recognize that we are connected in this very complex manner to the rest of the universe. In this way, we can see ourselves as being intimately connected to the world in many complex ways. If we can see ourselves in this way, then there is a possibility that we can establish some form of universal agreement regarding commonalities about ourselves as human beings. The nature of the Relations of Natural Systems project is interdisciplinary. It combines the various ways in which the sciences have contributed to our understanding of the physical universe and our place in it in an attempt to give us a very broad understanding of our current limits of scientific knowledge. It is important to understand this synthetic view of humanity with the rest of the known universe. What this collaborative and collective view of the natural universe will provide is a more comprehensive view of the complexities of humankind in relation to all known causal factors with which we are associated.
The Relations of Cultural Systems
Just as we can imagine a complex interplay of natural causes related in intricate ways, the same can be seen in the manner in which cultural systems have developed. To a naturalist, much of what we can know is the result of the ways in which cultural systems have developed over thousands of years. These systems include: family, ethnicity, education, economics, politics, morality, agriculture, religion, industry, law, health and medicine, sports, transportation, communications, the arts, etc. Humans interact according to the many complex relationships of these varying Cultural Systems.
There are many cultural factors which are going to affect the way we understand and act in the world. The world has over six billion people inhabiting it and a great many diverse forms of cultural systems which have developed over a fairly short period of time. We must now try to envision and understand how the Relations of Natural Systems (RNS) and the Relations of Cultural Systems (RCS) interact in a complex whole. So imagine these two systems intertwined into a ball with layer upon layer of complex interplay between them. And now imagine that the layers are like the skins of an onion.
The Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge is a very complex model which demonstrates the enormously complex interplay of natural linear and non-linear systems. Our knowledge is limited by the manner in which we can identify and attempt to understand what might be called ‘causal clusters’. These clusters are connections between events within these two overlapping systems. The better we can understand the causal forces influencing various effects in our lives, the better we can predict and control the natural world in an effort to survive and maintain a particular lifestyle.
However, there’s a bit of a problem; it’s called randomness. You see, naturalists have become so adept in understanding natural and cultural systems that they have even been able to identify a major problem in understanding causal clusters in the physical world. And what they have discovered is the immense amount of sheer complexity in the world due to the many ways in which the natural and cultural systems interplay inside the onion. How complex? Ask meteorite guy: Orvil Delong. My cousins from Cambridge, Ontario, have informed me that an acquaintance of theirs, Mr. Orvil Delong, has come very close to having his life cut short several times through extremely random events. On one occasion in October of 1977, Mr. Delong was in a very serious car accident. In the same year, he was struck by lightning while golfing in August. And on a third occasion while golfing, he was nearly struck in the head by a meteorite. A cast of the extra-terrestrial stone can be seen at the Doon Valley Golf Course in Kitchener, Ontario.
Now, think of the many events which placed Orvil (or ‘Orv’ as his friends call him) in the near direct path of that meteorite, lightning bolt, or automobile accident. What if, at any time in his life, he had missed a bus rather than caught it? Or decided to have steak instead of chicken for dinner on a given night? Or decided to watch a playoff sporting event rather than play golf? Any of these changes may have led to a series of events which would have taken place in slightly different ways because Orv’s decisions may, according to specific models of chaos theory, contribute significantly to vastly different outcomes. In one possible world of Orvil Delong, he acts slightly differently on a given day, and he ends up being struck by the meteorite. In other possible worlds, we can imagine Orv not even on the course that day or that he won a lottery and was on his new yacht.
Another example of randomness and causal complexities involves a brief email relationship I had with the highly respected American neuroscientist and neurobiologist Patricia Goldman-Rakic who was known for her pioneering study of the frontal lobe and her work on the cellular basis of working memory. On July 22, 2003, at 8:05 a.m., I emailed Dr. Goldman-Rakic to ask her a question regarding research I was doing at the time.
Here is my email:
Hello Dr. Goldman-Rakic,
My name is Chris DiCarlo and I teach philosophy at the University of Guelph. My interests are interdisciplinary and extend into areas of cognitive science and evolutionary psychology. I am currently working on a paper and I am considering cognitive aspects which may extend into your area(s) of expertise. I want to know if problem-solving produces any endorphin activity? In other words, does one get a bit of a high through the act of solving problems? If this is the case, any references related to this would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for your time and consideration.
Shortly thereafter, I received the following response from Dr. Goldman-Rakic:
Christopher - I am sorry that I have no information on the subject and I doubt that anyone has. But introspection suggests that there is a high from solving problems whether or not endorphins are involved. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire - certainly one can expect a biological foundation for euphoric experience.
On July 31, just nine days after corresponding with Dr. Goldman-Rakic, she was struck by a car and killed in Hamden, Connecticut. In trying to understand the complexities of the known natural world, we may inquire: To what extent did my email correspondence contribute to the vast number of events prior to Dr. Goldman-Rakic’s accident? Her obituary in the science journal Nature stated:
She died of injuries sustained after being struck by a car as she was crossing a heavily trafficked street in Hamden, near her New Haven, Connecticut home. While she did not go gentle into that good night, we, in the scientific community, her friends, and colleagues, alternately rage, and grieve, and remain in stunned disbelief that this vibrant and brilliant woman was taken from us by a freak accident that revealed the cruel menace of impartial chance.
Had I never emailed her, would this have been enough of a missing causal factor to have led her course of actions to be slightly altered to the point where she would not have been crossing the street at exactly the same time or in the same place in Hamden? In some ways, I would like to think not; but in others, how could my email not have had at least some causal affect on her chain of actions leading up to that fateful day?
My hope is that Mr. Delong’s and Dr. Goldman-Rakic’s experiences can demonstrate to you the vast complexities in which humans live out their lives. In trying to determine what can be known from a natural perspective, we must submit to humility and admit to ignorance in many ways. But although randomness plays a large part in the natural world, we can understand clusters of local causal elements quite well. Although scientists continue to examine the breadth of the degrees of separation between events, it is apparent that our understanding of natural causes has grown significantly. From work done by economist Steven Levitt in Freakonomics, we find many cause and effect relationships we might not have thought existed e.g. the cheating rates of sumo wrestlers and high school teachers and the negligible effects of good parenting on education. There has been a considerable amount of scientific study demonstrating the vast complexities of social networks and unusual causal clustering. As we saw earlier, in their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler examine how behaviors, habits, and other traits ripple along chains of friends which are contagious to three generations of separation. So if you are a smoker and are trying to quit, this may impact the success or failure of your friend’s friend who is also trying to quit smoking.
Understanding such complexity within the context of the Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge is hopefully going to make it a bit easier to understand just how complex our lives really are at the natural and small t level of truth and understanding. So whenever anyone discusses ideas and concepts at the natural level, we can talk in terms of how far we can go around and into the onion. For example, with regard to the very limited depth and breadth of my particular understanding of say, quantum physics, I can only travel a few scant layers into and around the onion skin whereas someone like Steven Hawking can travel much deeper and broader. But on other topics, I may have greater depth and breadth. The broader and deeper our understanding is of varying causal elements involved in the natural world (causal clusters), the greater our abilities to predict novel outcomes. And with prediction, comes control and greater perceived security.
Based on this understanding, we can now maintain that given our knowledge of ourselves within the natural world, it follows that with so many systems, we, like all other species, attempt to manipulate these systems to the best of our perceived advantage. In other words, like all other species, humans are system manipulators. And there are many systems to manipulate. Biologically, humans, like all species, must be concerned most with two things: survival and reproduction. How we manipulate various cultural systems in an attempt to survive and reproduce as a species is carried out in extremely diverse and unique ways. And this is because humans can alter their environments more than any other species on Earth. Politics, employment, education, healthcare, the media, all represent important cultural systems through which our species tries to survive and reproduce. Depending on where you live in the world will affect how much political freedom you have in order to gain the type of education or employment you want which may in turn, provide you with enough resources to live the type of lifestyle you want. But if you do not have access to sufficient healthcare, you may not live long enough to manipulate the other cultural systems in an effort to attain the types of resources you desire. So the many cultural systems through which we all must function determine to what extent we will be successful in surviving and reproducing. Based on the complexities of the Onion Skin Theory of Knowledge (OSTOK), naturalists recognize the incredible complexities which network through the natural and cultural systems. Acknowledging the role randomness plays in understanding aspects of these systemic networks leads to the development of understanding ‘causal clusters’ in an effort to make more accurate predictions and gain greater control over their environment.