I want to share what I’ve come to believe the most beneficial concept I’ve applied to my studies. I wish someone had taught me this earlier, say in the undergraduate portion of my academic career. It may be the sort of insight that one must experience, open mindedly, in their own time.
Avoid dichotomous thinking. The academic world, higher thinking, has a long standing history of separating into opposing camps that become their ‘religion’ or ‘political party’. Nature V Nurture for example, from developmental psychology. Scholars lose sight of their purpose, to seek truth and understanding, and become more interested in defending their petty intellectual pride by holding to their chosen theory like a life raft while attacking the threatening alternative. But time and time again, almost every time, someone comes along and says both ideas are true to a degree and the most correct understanding incorporates a blend of both. They are both right in what they say and both wrong in what they don’t say. The truth lies within the shades of gray. Bipolar thinking is the hobgoblin of small minds, to paraphrase.
Let’s apply this to a couple currently popular dichotomies under different schools, science and philosophy.
1) Determinism V Free Will.
Sometimes referred to as “The great debate”, it's similar to nature vs nurture and will to come to the same conclusion, that what happens is the result of the interplay between these two forces. One would have you believe all of reality is already pre-determined/ pre-existent and so nothing new can come into existence, that all events in the future are unalterable, as were all events in the past. The other that humans have autonomy and freedom to act based on their choices.
There is a general scientific picture of the world that lends itself to predictability and certainty of outcomes and hence more to determinism than any notions of freedom or free will. Indeed in many minds, science is still associated with the deterministic picture of the world, as it was in the nineteenth century. Modern science, however, draws a picture that is quite different.
The world according to nineteenth century science was, broadly, as follows. Very small particles of matter move about in virtually empty three-dimensional space. These particles act on one another with forces that are uniquely determined by their positioning and velocities. The forces of interaction, in their turn, uniquely determine, in accordance with Newton's laws, the subsequent movement of particles. Thus each subsequent state of the world is determined, in a unique way, by its preceding state. Determinism was an intrinsic feature of the scientific WORLDVIEW of that time. In such a world there was no room for freedom: it was illusory. Human beings, themselves merely aggregates of particles, had as much freedom as wound-up watch mechanisms.
In the twentieth century the scientific worldview underwent a radical change. It has turned out that subatomic physics cannot be understood within the framework of the Naive Realism of the preceding scientists. The Theory of Relativity and, especially, Quantum Mechanics require that our worldview be based on a critical (scientific) philosophy, according to which all our theories and mental pictures of the world are only devices to organize and foresee our experience, and not the images of the world as it "really" is. Thus along with the twentieth-century's specific discoveries in the physics of the micro-world, we should consider the emergence of a properly critical philosophy as a scientific discovery, and as one of the greatest scientific discoveries of the twentieth century.
We now know the notion that ‘the world is "really" space in which small particles move along definite trajectories’, is illusory: it is contradicted by experimental facts. We also know that determinism, i.e. the notion that in the last analysis all the events in the world must have specific causes, is illusory too. On the contrary, freedom, which was banned from the science of the nineteenth century as an illusion, became a part, if not the essence, of reality. The mechanistic worldview saw the laws of nature as something that uniquely prescribes how events should develop, with indeterminacy resulting only from our lack of knowledge; contemporary science regards the laws of nature as only restrictions imposed on a basically non-deterministic world. It is not an accident that the most general laws of nature are conservation laws, which do not prescribe how things must be, but only put certain restrictions or constraints upon them.
There is genuine freedom in the world. When we observe it from the outside, it takes the form of quantum-mechanical unpredictability; when we observe it from within, we call it our free will. We know that the reason why our behavior is unpredictable from the outside is that we have ultimate freedom of choice. This freedom is the very essence of our personalities, the treasure of our lives. It is given us as the first element of the world we come into.
Logically, the concept of free will is primary, impossible to derive or to explain from anything else. The concept of necessity, including the concept of a natural law, is a derivative: we call necessary, or predetermined, those things which cannot be changed at will, or by will. Meaning that scientifically speaking, free will must exist, but so do events beyond the will’s influence.
2) Reality: real V illusion.
This one lends its self to philosophical analysis as the question transcends scientific method. The evidence of reality is self-apparent, presumed and obvious, as it’s all we know. Thus the burden of proof lies on those who claim that everything we experience isn't real, so that is where I will start.
An illusionist might assert: 1. One’s experience is theirs alone and none can live in another’s mind. 2. All one can truly and fully be certain of is that their own consciousness exists. 3. So external entities are perceived, not proven to exist. 4. If one only accepts what is certainly known, then it is more logical to think everything only exists in one’s mind. Conclusion: Thus the mind we know exists is the only possible source for these perceived external entities. (Solipsism) An example: Schrödinger put his cat in a box with a vial of acid, and broke the vial from the outside. He theorized that the cat is both dead and alive. Because we cannot be sure if the cat is either until we open the box, we must assume both. Many quantum physicist believe that the only reason matter exists is because we focus on it. If I place a cup on a table and look away from it, it begins to dissipate into the cosmos, and only fully exists when I look at it. This is true on paper, because if nobody is looking at the cup, then the only way we know it is still on the table for 100% is if we look back at the cup.
A Realist’s response may go something like: 1. We perceive things. 2. If we perceive things, those perceptions are due to either external entities or an illusion. 3. Neither can be proven. The inability to prove an entity does not disprove it. 4. If entities exist then truth exists, as the fact of their existence is true. If truth exists, reality exists as truth requires a reality to be true about. 5. If illusions exist then falsehood exists, as illusions are false by definition. If falsehood exists, reality exists as falsehood requires a reality to be false about. Conclusion: Illusions existence is dependent upon a reality, similar to light and dark. If light did not exist, neither would dark. If our lives are illusions then there must be a reality underneath that illusion. Example: If reality is an illusion of the mind, all that exists would come from that mind. It then follows that the mind is omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Yet the one is still subject to others (cannot control them) and learns things previously unknown from interaction with others. These limitations of the mind over its own creation is evidence for the ‘realness’ of others consciousness as well as one’s own. Moreover, the fact that we successfully interact with others, communicating with words representing ideas or things understood by both to be the same entities is evidence that there is something external and it must be real.
Both make strong, yet inconclusive cases. Let’s apply this essay’s theory to an analogous query that is easy to understand. How do we know that we all see color the same? We don’t. It could be that red is red is red and is seen the same by all (barring colorblindness). It could be that what one sees as red, another sees as blue, but they both refer to the perceived color with the same word, proven by the functionality of traffic lights. Our successful interaction with, dependence on and learning from others all indicate that there is something real beyond our limited perceptions. But it is also known that each individual’s interpretation of the same events are often different (witness testimonies).
An unbiased, open minded analysis of the evidence leads to concluding that the most logical answer to the reality/ illusion discussion is that there are elements of both at play. There is the color (reality), proven to exist by agreement (shared experience) between separate individuals. But neither sees exactly the same thing (witness testimonies), meaning both also experience illusion, as two differing answers to a math problem can’t both be right. So, reality exists but everyone operates under illusion via their individual perceptions. There is a reality that is of our minds own creation due to illusion, but there is also the ‘true’ reality that is the absolute reference point we diversely perceive. Like investigators sorting through differing accounts of a bank robbery, when we take into account the full picture given we can eliminate anomalies, identify accuracies and deduce what happened.
I believe the two examples above lend strong support to the idea that the right answer usually lies in the shades of gray. And that the division into dichotomy is the product of different, incomplete perceptions that need one another to expose each other’s falsehoods and lead us to the most complete conclusion. This makes things much messier, more complicated and more interesting. But once we accept it, we are in a better position to learn and evolve.
Who is the strongest and who is in the best position to understand the following situation accurately? There are three men who decide to join the battle between the red army and the blue. Man one chooses blue because he comes from a long line of blues; two chooses red because they are the larger army and seem poised to win. Three needs to understand who is in the right in order to support either. So mister three spends time in each side’s trenches, gives both equal chance and then stands in no man’s land, between the two groups that now see him simultaneously as friend and foe. From there he can observe both at the same time. As with most battles, both sides have justifiable reasons to fight. Or they wouldn't. And both focus on the others wrong and their own right. Or they wouldn't fight. So who, of the three men is what an academic ought to be?
In closing, I implore you to be the third. Argue, don’t fight. Debate, don’t try to be right. Seek understanding with an open mind, but also a useful, active one that will go where logic and evidence leads and productively contribute to the search for knowledge and thus truth (there is no knowledge without truth). This is how we sharpen one another and truly engage in education. This is how we progress and evolve.