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The only thing that makes life possible is permanent, intolerable uncertainty: not knowing what comes next.
— Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
I agree with our friend Socrates that the unexamined life is not worth living, but I’ll take it one step further by adding that it is how we examine life that determines its worth. This is no small matter. Until very recently, humans spent their whole lives within one culture, never having to confront the belief systems and meaning-making of other cultures. Today, that is no longer true and depending on the culture we were born into is not an effective way to navigate the world.
I believe this is a good thing.
One of the first beliefs that has been shattered (but that people still cling to nonetheless), is the myth of the individual standing outside of cultural context as an objective observer. This notion has been shattered in almost all areas of knowledge. In the hardest of sciences, physics, The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (measurement), and the observer effect demonstrated that the tools we use effect what we measure and observe. In that way a quanta, the most essential building block of matter can be seen as both a wave and a particle, according to which instruments are used to measure it. Additionally, the observer effect impacts all other sciences from psychology to information systems.
Cognitive neuroscientists have shown that we do not much as observe reality, but create it. I’ll give you a good example. Right now, you’re reading the pixels on the screen that turn out to be letters (in actuality they are codes). Are you aware of other objects within your awareness? The area beyond your screen, for example? The wall behind you? Even now, you’re “deciding” which data to observe and which data to omit.
Much of what we pay attention is decided by our cultural views. Culture is a very human concept — it’s a major way we create meaning. Your language, for example, is a product of your culture and every language omits and includes certain data. There are concepts for example, in Sanskrit, that are almost impossible to translate into English. A reason for that is that English tends toward categorizing things while Sanskrit was better suited to describe pre-verbal, spiritual concepts.
Even better, let’s take Spanish and English. I remember a particularly interesting study whose aim was to study language and childhood development. Specifically, the researcher wanted to study the impact of Spanish-speaking parents on children in Boston. What she discovered was extremely interesting to me, as I am bilingual.
The study showed that when Spanish-speaking parents spoke to their children, they often used open-ended questions. English-dominant parents used closed questions. For example, a Spanish dominant parent would ask her child questions about a trip that led to qualitative thinking/ responses. They would ask, for example, “So you went to the zoo? How did you like it?” Open-ended questions are question that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no, and Spanish-dominant parents relied more heavily on getting the child to describe the quality of their experience. English-dominant parents relied more heavily on close-ended questions, such as, “So, you went to the zoo. Did you enjoy it?” They would go on to ask questions that helped their children to quantify — or categorize — their experience.
Note that I’m not saying one is better than the other, just pointing out the difference. Moreover, as a bilingual individual, I can understand the difference because the two languages emphasize different aspects of reality.
Scientists are no different, though they do try to control for these effects. Still, it’s only recently that the western medical community is beginning to understand traditional Chinese medicine. Modern medical practitioners scoffed at acupuncture until research began to show that there was something to the practice.
Even today, with more and more western practitioners accepting eastern medicine, they still do not completely understand why acupuncture works. As one basic scientist Candace Pert, put it, “We just don’t have the geography to understand why it works.” That’s just another way of saying that we don’t have the language. We still do not understand the meridian system and today, westerners are taught acupuncture in a way I find unethical. In the East, you have to study for at least 10-15 years before you’re even allowed to pick up a needle and much of the training (calligraphy, qi-gong practice, etc.) is considered extraneous to acupuncture by Western practitioners.
Another example is the now more commonplace practice of attending the mind as well as the body. Medical doctors are trained to view the body as a mechanism, divorced from its mental state. They are trained to treat the “symptom” or the “disease.” In this way, people were reduced to symptoms and diseases, their humanity sacrificed on the altar of scientism. What modern western medical science never acknowledged or fully appreciated was that the mind — the mental state — of the patient was attached to the body.
Today, there is strong evidence that one’s mental state holds an enormous influence on the outcomes of any treatment, so western medicine has taken a turn toward a more holistic approach, though my experience tells me there is more lip service than actual practice.
I say all this to show that we are not simply individuals living outside of the culture in which we are embedded. If you were to attempt to change the meaning of one word, for example, it would be succeed until a significant portion of the population began accepting that meaning. The meaning may change for you (to a small extent), but it has not really changed. It still has a larger cultural meaning and that meaning still has an influence on you.
That you don’t notice this influence doesn’t mean it does not exist. Rather, it means that you are not aware of it. The purpose of life, as Socrates would have it, is to make the unconscious conscious.
My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…