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What is Epistemology?

The Cascadia Protocol

The Natural Philosopher project is fundamentally an exercise in the domain of philosophy known as epistemology.  Epistemology is often defined as “the theory of knowledge”.  It is knowledge about knowledge or ideas about ideas.  I would argue that epistemology is indeed the basis of a human operating system.  We talk a lot about operating systems for computers, but we don’t stop to notice that we have need of one, too.  With good epistemology we are able to build knowledge that is sound, systematic, useful and hopefully, wise.

The majority of people I meet are not familiar with this term and the fundamental place epistemology holds in all of our thinking.  Here’s a quote from the eco-philosopher, Gregory Bateson,
“...epistemology is the great bridge between all branches of the world experience - intellectual, emotional, observational, theoretical, verbal, and wordless. Knowledge, wisdom, art, religion, sport, and science are bridged from the stance of epistemology. We stand off from all these disciplines to study them and yet stand at the center of each.”  

So you see, it is subject with vast implications.  So where might we begin?  Again let’s look to Bateson whose lifelong intellectual quest was to answer the question “How does Nature think?” or “How does Nature process information?” - because Nature is working whereas human civilization is most certainly not working.  Thus Nature’s epistemology, Nature’s operating system seems to be a good model.  The Taoists and indigenous cultures throughout time would agree.

So let’s look at an example of how Nature thinks, how Nature gathers and processes information.  Yes, some natural epistemology in action.  We will look at information gathering and processing in our own nervous systems.
Bateson pointed out that, in Nature, when there is important information to be gathered, natural systems will often get double or multiple descriptions of the phenomenon under consideration.  

We have two eyes. Because we have two eyes we get two different descriptions of the visual field.  This is the double description part.

Then, our nervous system does something quite remarkable.  From this double visual description our system then creates depth perception.  Thus a new species of information is created.  You don’t get this with just one eye.  This building of a new layer of knowledge upon the basis of an act of comparison is the fundamental epistemological act…the fundamental knowledge building act.  It is common to refer to such an act as a process of abstraction.

Observe the icon for Double and Multiple Description that I’ve included.  It illustrates this creation of depth perception from the comparison of the pictures created by our two eyes.

We have two ears that similarly give us two different descriptions of the sound environment around us.  When a sound is created both ears pick it up.  There’s the double description part.  That sound will most often strike one ear a fraction of a second before the other ear and with more sound pressure.  This difference, the nervous system then uses, to establish the direction from which the sound emanated.  Again, through an act of comparison a new species of knowledge (sound direction) is created.

Now, imagine you’re in the produce section of the grocery store and someone picks up a melon and thumps it.  By employing yet another double description (whereby you are using both your visual and auditory systems) you can ascertain whether or not that melon is ripe without having to contact it yourself. You see its color and you hear the sound…double description…Epistemology in action.

Bateson pointed at another double description process going on in the nervous system, the components of which I’ll discuss in more detail as we go along.  These processes are what we might refer to as logical thought which is usually associated with the left brain and relational thought which is usually associated with both the right brain and the gut.
Logical, or linear, thought we understand fairly well in this culture.  The data for this mode of processing is fundamentally chunks of language.  “This, therefore, this…”

The relational process we don’t understand that well and we refer to it with words like feeling, emotion, aesthetics and the like.  The fundamental data that this process is crunching is data having to do with relations.  Think about it…a painting can be beautiful regardless of its content.  The beauty is communicated through the relations of parts to parts and parts to the whole.  Think about it…when your feelings get hurt, it’s because you’ve discovered that your relation to another person is not what you thought or hoped it was.

Indeed, a deeper understanding and a more refined focus on this relational processing is the foundation of ecological intelligence.

Rod Smith, creator of The Natural Philosopher, may be reached at