Education and the Kinds of Wholeness

We have stated several times that we seek more educational holism in particular, the tentative kind made by students themselves after they study these “exercises in holism.” Let’s explore this.

There’s a short story by Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860 – 15 July 1904), a Russian playwright and short-story writer, who is considered to be among the greatest writers of short fiction in history. In his classic “A Boring Story,” he tells the reader about his inner yearning for some wholeness in his life:

“In my predilection for science, in my wish to live, in this siting on a strange bed and trying to know myself, in all the thoughts, feelings and conceptions I form about everything, something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole.

Each feeling and thought lives separately in me, and in all my opinions about science, the theater, literature, students, and in all the pictures drawn by my imagination, even the most skillful analyst would be unable to find what is known as a general idea or the god of the living man.

And if there isn’t that. there’s nothing.”

(Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov, Anton Chekhov, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (translators), Modern Library, 2000, page 104, “A Boring Story”)

The author wants to unite everything (i.e., “something general is lacking that would unite it all into a single whole,” as he puts it).

This is not what we have in mind because there is no “scheme of things” or “unified field theory” that we impart to students. That is for various kinds of “madrasas” (Arabic: مدرسة) including secular ones.

Rather, we encourage students to “walk around” topics, fields, educations, discussions, books, movies, quizzes and exams, lectures, assignments to develop a more “circum-spective” view of knowledge.

Remember “Husserl’s rhomboid.” Edmund Husserl (Heidegger’s teacher, died in 1938) would bring a matchbox to his classes in Germany and get students in his classroom to see that one cannot view the whole matchbox at once nor can rotating it capture all of it. Parts are visible, the whole matchbox is not.

We apply this principle to education and knowledge acquisition and offer the mental habit for students of “homemade” exercises in making more holistic views.

The narrator in Chekhov’s story, yearning to have a god-like view of reality and knowledge and experience (theatre, science, etc.) as a unified “thing” is not our interest since it too elusive.

William James (died in 1910) says several times in his writings that “one mind can’t swallow the whole of reality.” Therefore we avoid such “totalizing” visions in favor of much more modest attempts at connecting things better.

Education and the “Knowability” Problem

There was a wonderful PBS Nature episode in 2006 called “The Queen of Trees” [full video, YouTube] which went into details about the survival strategy and rhythms and interactions with the environment of one tree in Africa and all the complexities this involves:

This Nature episode explores the evolution of a fig tree in Africa and its only pollinator, the fig wasp. This film takes us through a journey of intertwining relationships. It shows how the fig (queen) tree is life sustaining for an entire range of species, from plants, to insects, to other animals and even mammals. These other species are in turn life-sustaining to the fig tree itself. It could not survive without the interaction of all these different creatures and the various functions they perform. This is one of the single greatest documented (on video) examples of the wonders of our natural world; the intricacies involved for survival and ensuring the perpetual existence of species.

It shows us how fragile the balance is between survival and extinction.

One can begin to see that the tree/animal/bacteria/season/roots/climate interaction is highly complex and not quite fully understood to this day.

The fact that one tree yields new information every time we probe into it gives you a “meta” (i.e., meta-intelligent) clue that final theories of the cosmos and fully unified theories of physics will be elusive at best and unreachable at worst. If one can hardly pin down the workings of a single tree, does it sound plausible that “everything that is” from the electron to galaxy clusters to multiverses will be captured by an equation? The objective answer has to be: not particularly.

Think of the quest of the great unifiers like the great philosopherphysicist Hermann Weyl (died in 1955, like Einstein):

Since the 19th century, some physicists, notably Albert Einstein, have attempted to develop a single theoretical framework that can account for all the fundamental forces of nature–a unified field theory. Classical unified field theories are attempts to create a unified field theory based on classical physics. In particular, unification of gravitation and electromagnetism was actively pursued by several physicists and mathematicians in the years between the two World Wars. This work spurred the purely mathematical development of differential geometry.

Hermann Klaus Hugo Weyl (9 November, 1885 – 8 December, 1955) was a German mathematician, theoretical physicist and philosopher. Although much of his working life was spent in Zürich, Switzerland and then Princeton, New Jersey, he is associated with the University of Göttingen tradition of mathematics, represented by David Hilbert and Hermann Minkowski.

His research has had major significance for theoretical physics as well as purely mathematical disciplines including number theory. He was one of the most influential mathematicians of the twentieth century, and an important member of the Institute for Advanced Study during its early years.

Weyl published technical and some general works on space, time, matter, philosophy, logic, symmetry and the history of mathematics. He was one of the first to conceive of combining general relativity with the laws of electromagnetism. While no mathematician of his generation aspired to the “universalism” of Henri Poincaré or Hilbert, Weyl came as close as anyone.

Weyl is quoted as saying:

“I am bold enough to believe that the whole of physical phenomena may be derived from one single universal world-law of the greatest mathematical simplicity.”

(The Trouble with Physics, Lee Smolin, Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006, page 46)

This reminds one of Stephen Hawking’s credo that he repeated often and without wavering, that the rational human mind would soon understand “the mind of God.”

This WeylHawkingEinstein program of “knowing the mind of God” via a world-equation seems both extremely charming and beautiful, as a human quest, but potentially mono-maniacal à la Captain Ahab in Moby-Dick. The reason that only Ishmael survives the sinking of the ship, the Pequod, is that he has become non-monomaniacal and accepts the variegatedness of the world and thus achieves a more moderate view of human existence and its limits. “The Whiteness of the Whale” chapter in the novel gives you Melville’s sense (from 1851) of the unknowability of some final world-reality or world-theory or world-equation.