Aim-oriented thinking for a wiser tomorrow

A celestial map from the 17th century, by the Dutch cartographer Frederik de Wit

In addressing threatening problems of climate change, population growth, nuclear warfare, and other issues of today’s era, we need a type of rationality that embraces ideas from both science and philosophy. Towards this goal, philosopher Nicholas Maxwell has argued for education to instill more wisdom in students rather than only knowledge. Through his work on the nature of physics and philosophy as they relate to one another, he has also put forward ideas about the inquiry and quest for wisdom both fields should embrace. Physical accounts of the mind present the problem of how to determine the mental act of thinking about things such as the greenness of a blade of grass. It’s up to debate how these mental actions follow from or relate to the physical property of greenness, a feature determined by the physical and molecular structure of grass itself. Both science and philosophy create wonder for one another as we determine the limits of the methods. The former empirical, hypothesis-driven, and subject to the constraints of the natural world and the latter speculative, argument-driven, and subject to the constraints of the mind come together in Maxwell’s aim-oriented empiricism. Maxwell has written on its value in education for the academic enterprise as a whole and, most important of all, for the capacity of humanity to learn how to solve the grave global problems that threaten our future. Aim-oriented empiricism represents the way we restrict how much we know about the universe through assumptions and, as we claim to know more and more about the universe, the less restrictive our assumptions become. For research in physics and other areas of science to recognize the metaphysical assumptions that their theories and knowledge make about the universe leads to this method of unifying both science and philosophy, and understanding this view would lead to wiser world, as Maxwell intends.

With aim-oriented empiricism, we view scientific research through a series of seven levels, each corresponding to how much we know about the world from empirical information. At the highest level, we assume the universe is partially knowable. We can understand what our theories tell us about the universe. One step down, we have the assumption our universe is meta-knowable, or that we have ways to improve our methods of understanding the universe. Another level down, we may assume the universe is comprehensible. Everything in the universe has something that causes things to happen the way they do. It could be God, a purpose, a fundamental law, or anything that lets us understand the universe in the best way to improve knowledge. The next level is physicalism, or the idea that we can physically comprehend the universe with physical phenomena such as gravity, electromagnetism, and relativity. Next down in the hierarchy are the assumptions which do best justice to theoretical knowledge in physics. String theory resides here as it explains the universe using quantum strings. Below this level are the best accepted fundamental theories, general relativity and the standard model. Finally, at the bottom are empirically-driven laws that experiments tell us. These levels describe the relationship between various aspects of scientific research and the metaphysical assumptions at each level in such a way that research can improve the nature of science itself.

As philosophers and scientists have described the mind-brain problem and the related issues in understanding consciousness and experience, we find our theories and arguments often at limits with what we try to describe. It’s important to understand the purpose and intention behind scientific explanations, such as the physics of neuroscientific phenomena or attempts to create neural correlates of experience, to determine what we can know about consciousness and experience. On a broader level, Maxwell attempts to describe a solution to the human-universe, how we understand physics and what it tells us about the world. First, physics only describes the universe in a very highly specialized sense. While it may be the most fundamental science and place great emphasis on the nature of matter and reality itself, it tells us nothing about many features of experience such as what things sound like, what things look like, or what mental experience it is to have a mental representation of something. If physics describes the causal influence of the universe as though we could create a true physical theory of everything, then we interpret its laws analytically yet factual, empirical, and testable. This means its physical entities exist with necessary properties. Physics doesn’t need our experiences nor the features we describe from it. Maxwell even goes as far as arguing that physics itself can’t predict experiential features such as greenness. Yet this limitation, Maxwell believes, is what gives physics its power to predict explanatory theories that describe the causal phenomena of the universe.

Though science tells us nothing about mental processes, philosophy research on the mind means mental processes aren’t mysterious or inexplicable. They simply reside outside of physics. Maxwell further describes two differences between the objective and subjective in describing these processes. The objective exists while the subjective appears to, but doesn’t. The objective has an independent character from people while the subjective relies on something about people. Then, we may describe the mind-body problem as similar to the physics-universe problem. As in, the way describe the relationship between mental experiences and brain processes parallel features that we observe in the universe and the physical processes underlying them (such as the greenness of grass separate from the physics behind the grass).

Maxwell continues to advocate for a wisdom-based education through schools and universities to implement a knowledge-inquiry of science and scientific reasoning to other ares of life. As Western civilization has embraced since the Enlightenment, we can learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress through methods such as aim-oriented rationality, a method of thinking about the world from aim-oriented empiricism. Aim-oriented rationality means constructing similar hierarchies of whatever problem we wish to solve. We continue to contemplate and reason about problems we want to solve in the world through an imaginative and critical manner, especially as we find our universities more and more emphasizing specialization and marketability-driven motives and purposes.

Though his goals may echo Enlightenment ideals, Maxwell clarifies three ideas the Enlightenment got wrong. Scholars need to identify the progress-achieving methods of science, they should generalize them correctly to apply them to any problem, and they should explore these generalized methods to make social progress for a wiser world. The natural philosophers like Voltaire and Diderot failed to apply these generalized scientific processes in ways to other areas of life. Had they addressed these issues, Maxwell argues, academia and universities would be much different than they are now. With a wisdom-driven education, we could resolve the conflict between Rationalism and Romanticism and what mindful hearts and heartfelt minds we could use to address the issues of tomorrow. Academia would have a more humanistic education to realize what we value in life through intellectual and technological methods. We’d have institutions of learning well-designed from the standpoint of helping us create a better, wiser world.

With these ambitious goals, Maxwell envisions five revolutions that need to happen in academia for these results to occur in his paper “Arguing for Wisdom in the University: An Intellectual Autobiography.” For the first two, the philosophy of science and science itself both need to heed to aim-oriented empiricism. The third is that the social sciences and humanities need to address the problems of living through aim-oriented rationality. Fourth, academia must help people understand what to value in life, and, finally, we should prioritize cooperative problem-solving rationality and aim-oriented rationality so that we realize what is of value as we live in so far as this is possible.

I find Maxwell’s ideas of wisdom and embracing a dual scientific-philosophical approach to solving problems of the world and universe alluring. His aim-oriented empiricism lays a foundation for putting scientific and philosophical theories into a context such that they may address the issues brought upon by metaphysics and epistemology. I caution myself in reading too much into aim-oriented rationality, though. I worry it may be scientistic to apply science or scientific reasoning to other areas in life where it might not be applicable or very limited.