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Epistemological divide: How we live in two different worlds of understanding

Epistemological divide: How we live in two different worlds of understanding

Epistemology is the study of how we know things. All of us cycle between two main ways of knowing in our modern culture: 1) the rational, reductionist way and 2) the holistic, relational, intuitive way. By far the most dominant way is the rational, reductionist way and our institutions, scientific, economic, financial and organizational are governed by this way of thinking.

For the reductionist thinker, everything in the universe is made up of parts. If we can understand the parts, we can understand the whole. Depending on the field, the physical world is nothing but atoms and molecules and the social world is nothing but self-maximizing, rational actors. The reductionist view is very powerful and filled with “nothing but” statements. It never occurs to the thoroughgoing reductionist that the idea of “parts” is merely a mental construct.

In our everyday relationships with friends and family, in our nonrational pursuits in music and the arts, in our religious lives, we tend toward the second way of thinking, holistic, relational and intuitive.

We cycle back and forth between these ways of knowing almost effortlessly and for the most part unconsciously. That seems to work well for us as individuals—except when we miscalculate or misperceive a situation and bad consequences follow. Mostly, we regroup and recover and go on, adjusting for what we have learned.

Can the same be said of society as a whole? Yes and no. Global human society can be likened to a superorganism that has its own logic and modes of action. Each of us is strongly influenced by its trajectory and constrained in our actions.

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