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Polymathics #1

I see polymathics as a re-orientation of the way we think about knowledge. Polymathics is a way of studying something from multiple angles, using knowledge and insights from many subject areas- from art, science, craft and personal experience. A polymathic study of violence would include reading about it, studying the psychology of it, observing it, learning martial arts, looking at violence in cinema and art, meeting the victims of violence and its perpetrators. Polymathics is not mere generalism, a fuzzy image. It is like taking shots of a subject from multiple angles, creating a complete view.

We need to re-orient towards this.

Definitions of Orient:

(i) via Latin oriri, ‘to rise’, from the Greek words ornynai ‘to rouse’ and oros ‘mountain’- implying both the sunrise and the sense of rising up, improving. The feeling of climbing a mountain to its summit where the sunrise will be seen.

(ii) A pearl of great lustre

(iii) To turn towards the significant

(iv) The East

Therefore, to Re-orient is to re-establish the above- which might also mean: look again at the pearl in the oyster- a piece of grit which over time evolves in the right environment into a great jewel. Reconsider the East where a different less materialistic approach to knowledge flourishes even today. Return to climbing that mountain. Rejoice in the sunrise- where the source of all energy resides. Return to the significant in life and eschew the trivial. Reflect on self-improvement, personal evolution.

Polymathics could be the most dramatic change in the way we view knowledge since Descartes set us on the wrong path in the early 17th century. 

Descartes was understandably fed up with the theoretical speculation of the schoolmen- medieval philosophers who theorised about theological ideas. Instead he longed for a method of getting at the truth of anything. One of his earliest works- unpublished in his lifetime- was a list of rules for 'the direction of the mind'.

He was not a monk- unlike all the earlier medieval philosophers. He could earn his living as a tutor to others. This gave him great freedom. He also lived for twenty years in the Netherlands which was a very liberal society at the time.

Despite being a maths genius, Descartes was an arrogant type, he decided to ignore all knowledge that had come before him. But what about language- why not ignore that too? Or the language of maths? He’s actually quite inflexible- in one sense a typical product of the medieval education he reacted against. There’s a reason why Pascal and Dr Johnson dismiss sceptics like Descartes and Bishop Berkeley- their childish insistence on doubting everything leads us astray- it looks like a promising method but it’s really a reaction to the sudden increase in book knowledge in the 16th/17th/18th century. It was no long possible to know everything- which was equated with having read everything- so the arrogant move was to dismiss everything as nonsense and start again. And this does generate new material but it isn’t really useful to us right now.

Descartes, despite his scepticism, was still dependent on the concept of certainty. He shows all the hallmarks of someone who had invested a lot in concepts of theological certainty used to indoctrinate children in Europe (as opposed to intuited certainties of the divine). He then ‘woke up’ and over-reacted but because he was conditioned to having certainty he looked for it elsewhere. He found it in logic, maths and his sceptical method. Instead of being a grown up and realising certainty only makes sense as an intuition, a passing intuition in a moving world, he produced a whole ‘philosophy’ rooted in this weird thought experiment of doubting everything. As a byproduct (think Kepler and Newton who produced scientific breakthroughs on the back of crazy ideas) Descartes discovered a lot of things. His status therefore remains high- but this doesn’t alter the fact that the quest for certainty is flawed.

Certainty appeals to children, those who live in troubled times, and those who have mental problems. I define a mental problem in this context as mental inflexibility as a default safeguard to preserving identity. Everyone knows people who seem very smart but through mental inflexibility are unable to learn anything new because it ‘threatens’ them in some way. You have to be comfortable with a grey zone, not really knowing ‘for sure’ when you start learning something new. Linguists are usually comfortable with this lack of certainty, that’s why they make good travellers- they are comfortable with a shifting state of affairs. Young people usually learn better than old because the grey zone is normal to them. Scientists, engineers and mathematicians are usually averse to learning new languages. Richard Feynman famously mocked knowing the name of a bird in four languages as opposed to knowing ‘the reality’ of a bird- presumably though observing its life or even dissecting it. Note the odd need to oppose these forms of knowledge- a form of inflexibility in itself. But Feynman later reversed this- he learnt Portugese and lived in Brazil- a sense of curiosity overcoming the natural rigidity of thought associated with scientists and others who work in tightly policed thought zones.

The idea that knowledge is rooted in certainty seems ‘obvious’- but isn’t it just a weird reversal of seeking certainty in knowledge- in that which is written down? In illiterate societies there can be no such demand. There is no set text- only stories and proverbs. A story is remembered because it doesn’t work if it isn’t- legalistic minutiae doesn’t feature at all. Proverbs work because again our minds seem fitted to recalling them, though, like quotations they can lose their edge. Stories, too, can lose sophistication and become mere genre examples- a tale of complex multiple meanings reduced to a horror tale. I’ve seen people round a campfire reduce their own interesting experience to just a funny tale with a punch line, in more congenial and relaxed company many more dimensions of their experience would have emerged. But, in general, stories and proverbs are among the most durable storage containers we have for human knowledge.

The quest for certainty is not the quest for knowledge. Descartes asks a naive question- how can I be certain of anything? He is looking for something to stand against the assumed certainty of the Bible. Descartes is using the equipment of knowledge seeking –asking questions, testing the answers against experience- to undermine the reality of all knowledge. There is something decidedly screwy about this- but it is legitimised by the assumption that the quest for certainty is a legitimate goal.

What if certainty is a transcendent goal? By this I mean, the more you aim at it the further you get from it. Relaxation is like this- the harder you ‘try’ to relax the tenser you get. Some things you have to kind of sidle up to like a crab. You have to ‘aim off’ a bit. The front gate may be locked but there’s a way in at the back. Some things aren’t obvious. Non-scientists often don’t realise how much palpating and massaging goes on before data is extracted from ‘real life’. I liken it to rock climbing- the famous faces are scrubbed clean. But come across a rock face in real wilderness and it will usually be messy, may have trees growing out of it, grass on ledges, loose rock- it will need to be gardened before any real climbing takes place.

But gardening changes the ‘reality’ of the face. And some things are so fragile and subtle- are not, in fact, tough like rock, and the process of ‘gardening’ destroys their essence. You want to photograph snow leopards- you don’t go stamping around shouting about it – you have to get a bit sneaky and lateral minded.

But most of all you have to accept the possibility that knowledge has many different textures. Some things – just as ‘real’ as the science of optics or genetics- may only be intuited. People who have ‘the eye’ – and make a good living out of it as art dealers- know that science is a baby in such areas, useless in its fumble fingered requirement for ‘holds’ that just aren’t there.

The texture of some knowledge might include the fact that it is surrounded by things that falsify our direct perception of it.

Take that away- that certainty should be an important focus, and replace it with something that is less culture bound- something that can be seen as truly human, encompassing as many different cultures as possible.

Maybe 'the ability to learn new things' is a much better focus. It is a dynamic concept. It can also be measured to some extent- people can either walk a high wire or they can’t, they can either speak Japanese or not.

The more areas, the greater the breadth of someone’s learning the more ‘open’ we can say they are. We can also say they have good learning abilities.

If someone only knows maths they only know maths. If they then try to ‘describe the world’ in maths terms then they will have to do a lot of ‘gardening’. Physics is hard like granite- only a few loose rocks there to clear away, but most of what is important to us gets swept away before maths can find a hold. Hence mathematical geography and biology seem less useful and real then plain accurate observation in the field linked to comparative knowledge from elsewhere.

Justin Majzoub is an entrepreneur with a wide base of learning- he studied maths at school but Arabic and Persian at university. He has devised several revolutionary ways to help beginners learn ‘difficult’ languages like Arabic. I travelled with him in the Egyptian desert to the ruins of Qsar El Sagha- described by several archeologists simply as a temple. Majzoub observed it has several features in common with the oracle temple at Siwa- namely odd intentional holes in walls that would enable priests to listen and speak without being seen. He was also aware of the mixture of real insight and sleight of hand that goes on in modern oracles and fortune telling. All this knowledge from a width of experience and learning informed his discovery- that El Sagha is an oracle temple. When I told an officially qualified archeologist this excited considerable interest.

If you are looking at birds in Alaska and notice something that reminds you of ants in Bulgaria you may make a new discovery. But the whole effort of modern science lies in specialisation. To get your Phd in Alaskan birds you’d need to spend three years in a frozen hide just staring at them. Only by chance would you know anything else.

Science loves randomness. Its also the way science advances. Only because of some random experience OUTSIDE the field under study does a new insight occur.

Except it isn’t really ‘random’. You can choose to study a wide variety of subjects. You can look for likely useful links before you even start. You can devise a large knowledge map and deliberately look for links between widely separate areas.

And an essential element has to include practise. Real world physical interaction not just reading and thinking. This real world practise provides perspective- which is absolutely essential.

Polymathics aims to enlarge and in some cases radically alter much of conventional knowledge. A polymathic study of French would range from the way the muscles move in a French native speakers mouth, to studying people who rapidly acquire French, to learning to speak it, to reading French History to travelling and living in France.

Polymathics replaces science as the cornerstone of knowledge acquisition. Science is downgraded to being just one tool in the box (by analogy think of the way science is only one factor in technological innovation, another might be business application). Science is downgraded because science as a research program is flawed and dangerous. It has lead us to great material wealth but to experience poverty, narrowness, arrogance and mental inflexibility. Science ‘gardens’ reality and distorts it, this is then fed back to us via social experimentation that is useless and even dangerous. We need less theory and more experience. We don’t need depth we need greater breadth of study.

Be honest- the only students who really like undergraduate study are the dorks and nerds- university is an education in becoming a dork! I exaggerate but young people intuit the grave unnaturalness of many university courses where theory and over indulgence in mathematical reductionism have made things boring.

Boring. But polymathic study is the opposite. It is naturally interesting. It has to be interesting because then you are ‘open’. Research shows that being open and ‘into’ a subject is vastly important in speeding up learning.

Theoretical knowledge becomes counterproductive and useless without a parallel increase in practise and experience. You end up like the schoolmen debating angels on pinheads. Which is current string theory.

This is radical stuff. All school curricula would change- language study would involve biology and drama. Physics would involve art and music! There would be no subject areas as defined by medieval schoolmen (which is where the categories we now use ultimately derive from (and before that, from Aristotle). 

Universities would cease in their present form. Product design courses which admit people with a bit of engineering and some art and tech drawing could be replaced by creative products courses that would include sociological, anthropological and technical study balanced with time spent in third world workshops where traditional technology, bodging and necessity allow a hi-tech product to be fixed in what looks like an allotment hut. Studying French would involve biology, much travel and drama studies. History woud include re-enactment. Archeology would include war studies and time in a monastic environment. I polemecise but the gist is: breadth but not breadth without practice/travel/experience.

Descartes downgraded experience. He rooted knowledge in that which could not be doubted, rather than in that which is useful, valuable, important and significant.

Even his celebrated bedrock statement: I think therefore I am means little more than ‘a thought exists’. 

Obsessed by maths and the way it builds from very few propositions all that logically interlink, Descartes thought all knowledge proceeded this way.

Of course it doesn’t. More important is the fact that Descartes cuts us off from experience.

I don’t just mean experiment- which is a part of experience- I mean experience itself.

Experience- always overlooked- from childhood through to death- is what informs our hierarchy of values. What we hold to be worth spending time on, and what we think is a waste of time.

The ‘experiential net’ is the web of experiences we have which assigns importance to things we perceive or simply live with, come across.

You can get some idea now that pure book learning- by which I mean information encoded in language and written down is greatly lacking in one dimension- experience. Though the author can convey something of his own experience, and convey his own experience inspired hierarchy of values- unless the reader has some shared experiences he won’t really make sense of what he is reading.

Roger Bacon says that unless you perform the proof in Euclid book one, proposition one you will not be certain- you won’t KNOW. Mathematicians are fond of saying this- unless you’ve proved it yourself you don’t really know it. And it doesn’t mean inventing your own proof, it just means experiencing the process of doing the proof.

Even the ultimate ‘head’ subject, maths, needs experience.

But what about the acres an acres written about economics, farming, psychology, finance, gambling, martial arts and religion? How many economists have actually tried to make money or run a firm? Experiential nets are needed to learn anything – to KNOW anything.

Polymathics posits the science of experiential nets, how much we need to get a value hierarchy for a subject, how to fine tune the experience you have and how to use the experience of others- by connecting to the ‘mastery code’.

Why now? Because the world is experience poor.

Drugs are seen as a form of experience, a version of Bacon’s ‘divine inspiration’, a way to rank in importance what you have already experienced. When you are young you don’t know if earning money is more ‘important’ than doing what you think is significant. How do you rank them? You look for insights, a sense of certainty- what we call ‘knowing what to do’.

Experiential nets versus pattern thinking. When people lack experience the current culture cons them into accepting pattern thinking as a substitute. Ever wondered why most liberals, conservatives, engineer types, hippies all share group beliefs? They don’t all start out the same. But once you subscribe to one corner of the pattern the rest makes ‘perfect sense’- it absolves you from having to actually experience anything. Pattern thinking allows you to ‘know’ what is important because it is part of the pattern. If you subscribe to a conservative pattern you may ask yourself are state schools any good? The answer will be no- you’ll ‘just know’ this is true. But actually when sceptics take time to visit a variety of state schools they find they are often very good and teachers can be found everywhere who are excellent. If you are liberal you will ‘automatically know’ that someone who bad mouths immigrants is a ‘bad person’. But why? They may even be joking at your expense and may even be working with immigrants in their job and trying to help some actual immigrants in the flesh instead of just talking about them in general. Which is how you know you are in a form of pattern thinking- you ‘know’ something without any experience and you react to its generalised form rather than anything real and specific.

An 'experiential net' is different from pattern thinking. Definite experiences- and most importantly, the experiences of others- together with factual information (which is only given a value through experience) combine to form a sort of net that can be thrown over something newly encountered. It includes the need for noting ones intuitive responses. It includes learning strategies such as 'submit to the discipline, then master it'. The net is a learning approach not a way of turning 'other' into 'same'- which is all that academia does.

The object of a polymathic method is to get at the truth. By using multiple approachs it aims to avoid the pitfalls of a single viewpoint. If it can lift 'knowing' from meaning 'book based academic knowledge only' then a real step has been taken.



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