A Theory of Everyone

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Issue 287
November/December 2014
The Future We Want and the One We Can't Afford

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A Theory of Everyone
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Cover: Illustration by Dennis Wunsch www.denniswunsch.com

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Nick Inman urges us to synthesise rationality with intuition, emotion and spiritual awareness.

Wisdom, in one sense, is knowing the difference between knowledge and belief. The distinction may seem obvious, but it isn’t as simple as it appears, and if we don’t take the trouble to understand it we are unable to act with full consciousness in the world.

This is particularly important in any discussion of rational empiricism, or science, which operates on a set of assumptions that are often presented as self-evident facts not open to question. For simplicity, we could call these assumptions the six scientific myths, or ‘6Ms’. They are:

1. Methodomania. As long as you have a sound method of investigation (science), you can be sure of your results. This method can be applied to anything and everything. It produces evidence that is infallible.

2. Mastery. Certain people – experts – know how to apply this method correctly and they therefore know more than the rest of us. In cases of doubt or argument, they have a more informed judgement.

3. Matter. By definition, only physical stuff can exist. Hence everything about the human being must be material. Our minds are not separate in any way from our brains.

4. Measurement. We can gain knowledge of matter by measuring it and analysing our measurements with mathematics. This enables us to say what state it is in and make predictions about it.

5. Mass observation. All things, including human beings, are best understood by grouping them together and talking about their common characteristics. Anything essential about you can be deduced from statistical data on human ‘populations’. Variations between individuals are of marginal or negligible significance.

6. Mind-reading. As people are all of the same species, we must therefore all work in the same way. A specialist in human mental behaviour (a psychiatrist) can describe and explain what goes on inside another person’s head by referring to the data and the prevailing hypotheses.

The 6Ms surely need to be questioned – not to invalidate them, but to remind us that, while they do indeed deliver some kinds of understanding, they have their limitations.

To prove that the 6Ms are assumptions, you need only look within yourself. You have an inner, private sensation of being you that is related to – but not attached to – your body. We use many vague words to describe how we experience this sensation – mind, soul, heart, feeling – but the essential quality of it is that it is immaterial: it has no form, dimension or location.

Only you know anything about your ‘you-ness’, and even then you might not be able to put it into words. Other people may tell you that you fit into certain categories (sex, nationality, job description, and so on) but the inner you is not fully defined by any of these categories – not even all of them together. You may have much in common with others, but you are, in your foundation, exceptional: truly a one-off.

You have no idea how comparable your way of knowing is to mine, or what goes on in my head. You can only guess. The implication of this is that we must be wary when we make claims to the truth. Any statement you make about reality might seem incontrovertibly true to you, but it might not seem true to me. Any attempt to arrive at objective knowledge is always based on subjective experience.

And as if interpreting the outer, ‘hard’ reality weren’t challenging enough, making sense of ourselves is even more difficult. When we make proclamations about ‘human nature’ or ‘consciousness’, we are faced with the paradox of trying to use a microscope to see itself.

Believers in science propose two main ways around this paradox. The first is to trust that neuroscience will find us in our brains. No one is looking for a precise ‘you-spot’ in the prefrontal cortex but the aim is to prove that ‘you’ are the result of a complex but mappable relationship between various brain regions. Individual identity, in other words, will be reduced to electro-chemical activity and you will be definable as merely a ‘brain-body’. The snag with this approach is that it will be very hard to explain the connection between physical evidence for the self and the intangible ‘you’ that you feel yourself to be.

The second way around the problem is for science to put off the question of human consciousness until it has unravelled all the other secrets of the universe, which amounts to calibrating an instrument after the experiment rather than before it.

It would be far wiser to admit that we are in a bind, however disconcerting, and to stop building towers of knowledge on questionable foundations. While we search for absolute truths, we risk missing out on other, possibly more illuminating, forms of knowledge.

The best example of this is medicine. If we see healing as a practice of precision and certainty based on statistical results, we are bound to be disappointed sooner or later. If, however, we see medicine as the delicate balancing of two complementary forms of information – ‘outside’ empirical evidence and ‘inside’ revelation – our comprehension will be vastly enhanced, and with it the range of possible treatments.

What we need now is to synthesise all that we know so as to bring about a paradigm shift whereby we keep the best of rationality and empiricism but incorporate into it all that we can discover through using intuition, the emotions and spiritual awareness.

We should be aspiring to devise not the Theory of Everything that science is currently searching for, but a Theory of Everything and Everyone, as a means to value and nurture the individual; to balance the needs of our intimate micro-worlds and those of the external macro-world we all share.

Nick Inman is the author of Who on Earth Are You? A Field Guide to Identifying and Knowing Yourself. www.nickinman.com

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