VII. To Break the Horizon: Mapping the Adjacent Possible

Δ.The panoptic prospects of a scientific public sphere

Everyone takes the limits of his own vision for the limits of the world. — Arthur Schopenhauer
The horizon draws near: Our night sky in the deep future, as Andromeda approaches

The conceptual lens with which you view the universe is a magnificent device. With its network of pixels, individual building blocks of knowledge, your mind may grasp even the most complex scientific reasoning. The scientific pixel lens you have inherited as your birthright was built over millennia of hard intellectual labour by unquestionably brilliant philosophical and scientific minds; with each successive generation, the fires in our minds shine bright into the vast space of all possibilities; but historically, these minds have been hard-pressed to share knowledge, communicate, and cooperate with each other. An artificial horizon divides science and limits human progress. Our vision is bounded.

Uniting our efforts to break the horizon would allow us to stand taller and see further than ever before.


Nevermind Mind Over Matter

We often think of the natural sciences as separate and distinct from the humanities — these spheres of knowledge, we contend, do not overlap. We readily acknowledge that the atoms in our universe — which are governed by the four fundamental forces (gravitation, electromagnetism, weak and strong interactions) — are the same as the atoms in the neural networks of our brains. However, we tend to shy away from the notion that the arts, cultures and societies created by our minds were somehow causally linked to the same forces governing our grey matter.

It is as if humankind, firmly embedded and living in the universe, stands somehow apart from it. How is that so? Do the laws just stop working at some pre-defined frontier of matter between brain and mind?

Given that human action comprises events of physical causation, why should the social sciences and humanities be impervious to consilience with the natural sciences? — E.O. Wilson

We thus come to the foothills of the famous mind-body problem — human meaning lies out of reach of physical description because mind and body stand ontologically distinct from one another — This, the jutting cartesian cliff we take for granted at the heart of all knowledge. This, the gap between nature and the human condition. For this reason, the sphere of knowledge is not integrated. It lies fractured at its core, with dramatic consequences on both sides of the divide.

But this was not always the case.

Let us leap across the archipelago of time and pay a visit to some of the isles of human culture whereupon knowledge was thought of not as a linear jumble of discrete modes of thought, but as a holistic continuum devoid of barriers.

What an astonishing thing a book is. It’s a flat object made from a tree with flexible parts on which are imprinted lots of funny dark squiggles. But one glance at it and you’re inside the mind of another person, maybe somebody dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, an author is speaking clearly and silently inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people who never knew each other, citizens of distant epochs. Books break the shackles of time. — Carl Sagan
Photo by Mo Baghdadi on Unsplash

Temporal Topographies

From mythic figures to intellectual giants, many are the minds that have understood the unity of all knowledge. The four examples below illustrate this interconnectedness:

1. Indra’s net, or the filaments of infinite phenomena

Beyond memory, there was Indra, Hinduism’s sky-father deity, and a prominent figure in Buddhism. He is said to have possessed an endless net extending far and wide throughout the universe — its horizontal threads spanning space, its vertical threads spanning time. At each crossing of the threads, there lies a phenomenon, represented as a crystal sphere gleaming like a star; each sphere on this net reflects the light from every other sphere; each reflection, moreover, contains the reflections of all other spheres in the universe. In his groundbreaking book on minds, machines and self-reference, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid, Douglas Hofstadter “reflects” on the fractal nature of this cosmic allegory:

To my mind, this brings forth an image of renormalized particles: in every electron, there are virtual photons, positrons, neutrinos, muons… ; in every photon, there are virtual electrons, protons, neutrons… But then another image rises: that of people, each one reflected in the minds of many others, who in tum are mirrored in yet others.¹

The allegory illustrates the Buddhist notion of the connectedness of all things: “If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” From one thing, you can come to understand all things.

They [Buddhas] know all world systems exhaustively. They know all the different phenomena in all worlds, interrelated in Indra’s net — Avatemsaka Suhtra, Book 30
“They know all the different phenomena in all worlds, interrelated in Indra’s net”, Avatemsaka Suhtra, Book 30

2. Bacon’s human empire of knowledge

The concept of a united scientific pursuit of the truth originates with Francis Bacon, who contended that understanding nature was key to understanding ourselves, and was convinced “the entire fabric of human reason… is badly put together… like some magnificent structure without any foundation.”²

He believed the globe of all knowledge could be faithfully explored through a common scientific method of induction, with which to turn “with united forces against the Nature of things, to storm and occupy her castles and strongholds, and extend the bounds of human empire.”

His hope was that by trying “the whole thing anew upon a better plan… to commence a total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations”, his common methodology would allow all scientific efforts to chart with equal efficacy the natural world and the human mind.

In this fashion, Francis Bacon’s new instrument of science laid the groundwork for an inclusive scientific enterprise, from the natural to the social sciences, which was to exert an incredible influence on the thinkers of the Enlightenment.

Thus have I made as it were a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover. — Francis Bacon
“Thus have I made as it were a small globe of the intellectual world, as truly and faithfully as I could discover.”, Francis Bacon —Sylva Sylvarum (1670); Illustration by Internet Archive Book Images

3. The Republic of Letters meets for a cup of Joe

Using Bacon’s new way of thinking, natural philosophers came to believe the Universe ran like clockwork — stars and human minds alike. We ultimately have Isaac Newton to thank for this grand idea, but what made his insight possible was the unique progressive environment of the English coffeehouse.

The 17th century saw the rise of this now ubiquitous establishment, a cosmopolitan hotbed of scientific, political and philosophical ideas informed by free and reasoned debate across a wide demographic of the population. German philosopher Jürgen Habermas calls this emergent space a bourgeois public sphere, “a sphere of private people come together as a public”³ wherein authentic public opinion could manifest itself and depart from the views of the public authority (church, state, ruling class, and law enforcement). In this fertile proving ground, men of letters found a receptive audience for their remarkable thoughts.

Had it not been for a fateful coffeehouse discussion in January of 1684 between three intellectual giants, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and Edmund Halley, over exactly what equation governed the motion of astronomical bodies, Halley would not have bothered to ask Newton eight months later on a whim whether he had a solution to the problem; Newton would not have sent Halley his brilliant proof — none other than the outline of his universal laws of motion, scrawled on a manuscript criminally gathering dust in a Cambridge drawer for several decades. Halley would not have insisted it be developed further and widely disseminated. Serendipitously, the Principia Mathematica was born.

Isaac Newton, child at heart playing with his pebbles on the shores of a great ocean, had seemingly stumbled upon the entailing physical laws of nature…

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. — Isaac Newton

And from that point on, in theory, everything in the universe, from nature to culture, could be known.

As the child and the artist plays, so too plays the ever living fire…. Such is the game that Æon (life, cosmic time) plays with itself…. it builds towers of sand like a child at the seashore… the ever new awakening impulse to play calls new worlds into being. — Friedrich Nietzsche
Mid-17th century English coffeehouses — Image credits: World History Archive

4. Dark were the dungeons of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment dream — intellectual unity in the pursuit of knowledge to hasten the liberation of humanity from superstition and inequity — comes to a close in the dark depths of a dungeon cell with the death of the last luminary of this period, Nicolas de Condorcet, in 1794.

Condorcet’s chief contribution to the sciences is his development of political and social choice theory through the application of mathematical methods to the social sciences — he believed the processes which had achieved such tremendous successes in physics and mathematics could bridge the gap to culture; using mathematics to predict social activities would, he foresaw, lay the foundations for an egalitarian system within whose laws human rights for all would be enshrined.

His final work, Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Spirit, composed while in hiding during the dark years of the French revolution, sets forth the idea of progress as the bridging of the natural and social sciences to unshackle humankind from its sordid past. In it can be seen the influences of Bacon and Newton and the ultimate aim of Enlightenment thought — unifying all knowledge. But the sleep of reason continued to produce monsters unabated. Judged by the radicals of the Terror as lacking in revolutionary zeal, Condorcet was eventually caught, imprisoned, beaten, and forever silenced.

Alone in a sea of madness, the fire in his mind dims, the light flickers, and the dream dies with him.

No society that has not been enlightened by philosophers is immune from charlatans. — Nicolas de Condorcet
The sleep of reason produces monsters — Francisco de Goya, The sleep of reason produces monsters (No.43), 1799

The Unity of Knowledge

After the Enlightenment, the natural sciences continued to cover enormous ground while skirting the treacherous terrain of mind; in so doing, they diverged still further from the social sciences (sociology, political science, anthropology, economics, psychology). The latter fields continued to swirl around the riddle of consciousness without making any significant progress in uncovering its secrets. C.P. Snow diagnoses this growing divide as the root cause of science’s inability to solve the world’s major problems, in his 1959 book The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

Galvanised by the Enlightenment idea of unifying all knowledge, and spurred by Snow to bridge the two-cultures divide, E.O. Wilson revived the notion of Consilience, the “jumping together” of knowledge, first described by William Whewell in 1842. This principle maintained that a theory’s truth is corroborated when different sets of facts in different lines of inquiry give rise to coinciding proofs. Examples of Consilience include the unifying of facts in electricity and magnetism to form electromagnetism, or Einstein’s vision of a unified field theory that would unite gravity and electromagnetism.

Achieving Consilience, an Indra’s Net of all scientific theories and phenomena, debated in a public sphere, causally corroborated by Bacon’s method and Newton’s laws, and achieving Condorcet’s vision of indefinite human progress through the cultivation of reason, should be the overarching goal in science today. But the road is long.

As Wilson describes in his 1998 book Consilience: Unity of Knowledge:

Science… continued to double every fifteen years in practitioners, discoveries, and technical journals, as it had since the early 1700s, finally beginning to level off only around 1970… Yet the enormous success of reductionism… worked perversely against any recovery of the Enlightenment program as a whole. Precisely because scientific information was growing at a geometric pace, most individual researchers were not concerned with unification, and even less with philosophy… They were even slower to address the taboo-laden physical basis of mind, a concept hailed in the late 1700s as the gateway from biology to the social sciences.
There was another, humbler reason for the lack of interest in the
big picture: Scientists simply didn’t have the requisite intellectual energy. The vast majority of scientists… are professionally focused; their education does not orient them to the wide contours of the world. They acquire the training they need… to make discoveries of their own, and as fast as possible, because life at the growing edge is expensive and chancy. The most productive scientists, installed in million-dollar laboratories, have no time to think about the big picture and see little profit in it.⁴

The key to Consilience is the big picture. Your curiosity drives you to up your lens’ pixel count to attain knowledge. This, in turn, drives sub-specialisation and deeper research. Finer lenses convey finer concepts. But microlensing reduces peripheral vision, spurs scientific speciation, and hinders cross-boundary communication and knowledge transfer.

Just as how the great vistas of Earth become utterly insignificant when zooming out to the scales of interplanetary, interstellar, intergalactic and inter-universal space, a doctoral candidate’s life’s work in that one tiny sub-sub-sub-disciplinary pixel is liable to be utterly lost within an ontological sea within a great scientific ocean within the fog of the unbounded unknown.

How insignificant we are, with our pygmy little world!- An atom glinting with uncounted myriads of other atom worlds… — Mark Twain
“How insignificant we are, with our pygmy little world!”, Mark Twain — Photo by NASA

This is the plight of the specialist: On the one hand, her knowledge within her field is deep, her mastery unsurpassed. On the other hand, she is consigned to a small subset of all possible realities, and her vision has necessarily narrowed — whole worlds may pass by just outside her field of view.

What scientific miracles could be accomplished with the big picture?

Give me the life orchestral, with all the instruments taking their part, with all the talents in action, with no gift wasted! Some day it will be so. At present we waste, in an entirely tragic manner, the skills, the aptitudes, the abilities of innumerable men and women; we use as beasts of burden spirits capable of driving the chariot of the Sun. — Walter Murdoch

Incremental innovation or Normal science aims inward into one’s field, while creative innovation or Extraordinary science, aims outward. It is the latter that enables paradigm shifts, rifts in the ontological lens admitting a wider Universe.

A broader view of the lay of the scientific land would spur the building of conceptual bridges across the two-cultures divide, spark shifts in perspective, accelerate civilisation-disrupting technological progress and amplify humanity’s collective intelligence. For this kind of precise bridge-building, we need a common map.

A broader view of the lay of the scientific land would spur the building of conceptual bridges across the two-cultures divide — Photo by Delano Balten on Unsplash

Revisiting the Aleph of Ideas

Achieving Consilience requires some kind of interoperability between scientific languages: a “harmonization of the standards jungle”⁵ growing beyond the guarded perimeters of knowledge silos. As we have seen in The Space of All Possibilities, a higher pixel resolution may hinder interoperability between lenses.

Dialling down the resolution of our pixel lenses and crafting a simpler, more foundational ontology to which all other constellations of pixels could refer, would act as a universal bridge to all sciences. This exchange layer of information would facilitate the frictionless dissemination of knowledge, precipitate the dismantling of all knowledge silos, de-risk cross-disciplinary research, and redeem the path of the generalist in the public sphere.

Panoptic prospects of a scientific public sphere

An ontological bridge would reveal to scientists the primeval forest of knowledge where they once saw only the trees. With the outline of the forest resolved, a pan-scientific thrust could conceivably build the dynamic map of all branches of science, what I termed the Aleph of Ideas, i.e., the Concept Layer.

This map would be a massive, global, open access, scientific information commons centralising all research databases, acting as a scientific public sphere where structured discussion and debate expand the reach of science communication, and greatly strengthen science-based policy-making.

Imagine a connected online web of scientific knowledge… tightly integrated with a scientific social web that directs scientists’ attention where it is most valuable, releasing enormous collaborative potential. — Michael Nielsen
“Imagine a connected online web of scientific knowledge”, Michael Nielsen — The hierarchical structure of the Internet, image by MIT Technology Review

To Break the Horizon

With such a powerful omni-tool in their research arsenal, scientists could “maximise the rate of exploration of the adjacent possible” — the in-between oceans of all shadowy futures where genius has long plunged in blind, intuitive leaps for the priceless pixels of the unknown unknowns. Extraordinary research would effectively become an everyday occurrence.

“The notion that innovation arises from the interplay between the actual and the possible was first formalized by the complexity theorist Stuart Kauffmann.”, Emerging Technology from the arXiv— Image by MIT Technology Review

A Second Enlightenment

By means of exposure to modes of thought in other sciences, the new enlightenment dreamers may connect the dots between apposite concepts, push deep into the unknown of the Adjacent Possible, and bring innovative ideas home. Visionary explorers venturing into the uncharted landscape of latent innovation, these pioneers equally adept both in science and the humanities would dissolve all knowledge silos, put interdisciplinary collaboration and innovation into hyperdrive, and break the Horizon.

Could such a blueprint serve as an actionable basis for Consilience of the two cultures, which have until now suffered a centuries-long enforced separation? Could this master key bring about the unification of all knowledge? Or do we, as the Enlightenment thinkers before us, risk flying too close to the sun?

S C I E N C E, its imperfections notwithstanding, is the sword in the stone that humanity finally pulled. — E. O. Wilson
Will we break the horizon, or do we risk flying too close to the sun? — Photo by Isaac Huang on Unsplash

Next week, we’ll take a trip into primeval forests of knowledge, wherein the woodland creatures have split into two ideologically opposed camps. In which do you belong?

Part VIII. An Interlude with Foxes and Hedgehogs — The One, The Many, and Who Are You?


Glossary of terms:

  • Microlensing: creating sub-disciplines within a discipline through Normal science
  • Ontology: formal categorisation system for the types and properties of entities, and their interrelations; used interchangeably with scientific pixel lens
  • Pixel: rather loose conceptual metaphor for the building block of all knowledge
  • Pixel lens: the conceptual model through which you experience reality, comprised of a multiplicity of pixels.

References:

  1. Hofstadter, Douglas. Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. 1979. Basic Books, 1999. Print
  2. Bacon, Francis. The Instauratio Magna. 1620. Oxford University Press, 2000. Print
  3. Habermas, Jürgen. Structural Transformations of The Public Sphere. Penguin books, 1989. Print
  4. Wilson, Edward O. Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Vintage Books, 1998. Print
  5. Ayris, Paul et al., Realising the European Open Science Cloud. European Commission. 2016. Print


About the author:

The Greek warrior-poet Archilochus calls us hedgehogs or foxes, specialists or generalists. An unapologetic fox, I seek deep structure in everything from the vantage points that science, philosophy and poetry provide me. #standtaller #seefurther


Like what you read? Give Nicolas Benjamin a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.