How Involved Do You Need To Get To Understand Something


Saturday, 8.44pm

Sheffield, U.K.

The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed. – Martina Navratilova

From what I’m told the positivist school of thought still dominates research methods in the U.S. Writers such as Robert Pirsig describe how it affected researchers in the 1970s, forcing them to look elsewhere if they wanted to progress their academic studies, usually in Europe. And even now, forty years later, I understand that certain subjects cannot be published in North American Journals.

I suppose academics, like all other people, are trapped in their histories. We all find it hard to let go of ideas that have worked for us, and that we therefore believe are true. No one changes in an instant. What happens is that attitudes change over time, small variations happen until we reach a tipping point and then one set of beliefs is replaced by another. It happens in that instant where the balance tilts from fractionally on one side to the other, and then it seems inevitable.

I think that must also happen with the positivist viewpoint. As a reminder, positivism according to Google’s dictionary is “a philosophical system recognizing only that which can be scientifically verified or which is capable of logical or mathematical proof, and therefore rejecting metaphysics and theism.” Metaphysics, according to the same dictionary, is “the branch of philosophy that deals with the first principles of things, including abstract concepts such as being, knowing, identity, time, and space.”

Let’s focus on the bit of the positivism definition that has to do with scientific verification. That has something to do about repeatability – when something happens in a particular way regardless of who is watching. And that’s the first gulf because when you move from observing things like stones being dropped from a height, where we are pretty certain that the stones don’t know about or care about who or what else is involved, to observing people and groups who are quite often intensely aware of being watched, things stop being quite as repeatable and therefore not as scientific.

So we wrap it up in methods that look like science because they produce numbers – like questionnaires and surveys or, in these modern days, cookies and search histories. The use of this data, in theory, helps us predict what’s going to happen on average. This is a seductive approach, the idea that science will help protect us from the risks in the future through superior scientific methods.

But we know that doesn’t work too well. The last two decades should tell you that. Scientists are probably following economists in mostly telling you what’s happened rather than being right about what’s next.

So this is perhaps the big challenge for our time. We have mastered the world – the physical one around us and we know how to make it do things that no other creature can do. What we now need to do is learn how to master ourselves.

Preferably before there is no world left.


Karthik Suresh

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