I just finished reading The Tree of Knowledge: The Biological Roots of Human Understanding. I posted upon the book earlier, but I wanted to paste in the conclusion, which I think presents an interesting closure to their introductory thesis: “doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing”—a thesis the authors make a compelling case for.
The knowledge of knowledge compels. It compels us to adopt an attitude of permanent vigilance against the temptation of certainty. It compels us to recognize that certainty is not a proof of truth. It compels us to realize that the world everyone sees is not the world but a world which we bring forth with others. It compels us to see that the world will be different only if we live differently. It compels us because, when we know that we know, we cannot deny to ourselves or to others that we know.
That is why everything we said in this book, through our knowledge of our knowledge, implies an ethics that we cannot evade, an ethics that has its reference point in the awareness of the biological and social structure of human beings, an ethics that springs from human reflection and puts human reflection right at the core as a constitutive social phenomenon. If we know that our world is necessarily the world we bring forth with others, every time we are in conflict with another human being with whom we want to remain in coexistence, we cannot affirm what for us is certain (an absolute truth) because that would negate the other person. If we want to coexist with the other person, we must see that his certainty—however undesirable it may seem to us—is as legitimate and valid as our own because, like our own, that certainty expresses his conservation of structural coupling in a domain of existence—however undesirable it may seem to us. Hence, the only possibility for coexistence is to opt for a broader perspective, a domain of existence in which both parties fit in bringing forth of a common world. A conflict is always a mutual negation. It can never be solved in the domain where it takes place if the disputants are “certain.” A conflict can go away only if we move to another domain where coexistence takes place. The knowledge of this knowledge constitutes the social imperative for a human-centered ethics.
Quoting the conclusion here doesn’t do it justice since this comes proceeding 9 closely interlinked chapters, but I think the authors make a powerful statement.
But, to follow up, I’ve been wanting to throw the following quote into a post for quite sometime. The quote is from Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age and, as the book takes place in the future, is ostensibly a statement of our current times:
“You know, when I was a young man, hypocrisy was deemed the worst of vices. It was all because of moral relativism. You see, in that sort of a climate, where you are not allowed to criticize others—after all, if there is no absolute right and wrong, then what grounds is there for criticism?
“Now, this lead to a good deal of general frustration, for people are naturally censorious and love nothing better than to criticize others’ shortcomings. And so it was that they seized on hypocrisy and elevated it from a ubiquitous peccadillo into the monarch of all vices. For, you see, even if there is no right and wrong, you can find grounds to criticize another person by contrasting what he has espoused with what he has actually done. In this case, you are not making any judgment whatsoever as to the correctness of his views or the morality of his behaviour—you are merely pointing out that he has said one thing and done another. Virtually all political discourse in the days of my youth was devoted to ferreting out of hypocrisy.”
I want to add this quote because I think it throws into sharp relief the emphasized statement in the first quote: “every time we are in conflict with another human being with whom we want to remain in coexistence”. The ethical statement makes the case that all viewpoints are personally valid, but need not be embraced let alone tolerated inter-personally nor socially_—_nor geo-politically, if you want to go there. Though there is—as the case is strongly made in the Tree of Knowledge—an expansion of self, and thus knowledge, and thus realm of action, in that understanding of others. Which is important indeed.
(Also regarding that last quote: I also really dislike it when people whine about hypocrisy.)