How We Discover and Why It Matters

Our Searching Disposition

We are driven to explore. As individuals, and as a civilization, we possess an insatiable desire to search and discover.

We see it in Star Trek, which proclaims a mission “to explore… new worlds, to seek out new life… , to boldly go where no (one) has gone before.” In science, we see it in the quest for larger telescopes, more powerful particle accelerators, and more sophisticated satellites to observe planets. We see it in other fields. Philosophers want to answer unanswered questions; mathematicians want to prove unproven theorems; oceanographers want to observe unobserved depths.

And we see it in the more mundane. We see it in the curiosity of a young child watching a swarm of ants on the sidewalk. We see it our own attraction to a mystery novel or a television crime episode – we want to know who did it. We see it in the mountain climbers scaling new peaks, the chefs experimenting with new recipes, or just us, looking for a new place to visit, or new restaurant to try, or new book to read.

As individuals, and as a whole, we seek to know what is unknown, to comprehend what is not yet comprehended, to investigate that which remains a mystery, to understand the who, what, where, when and why of an event-very simply to grasp the here and the beyond here.

The Source of Our Curiosity

What drives this drive, what pushes humanity, you and I, individuals and groups, to strive for this comprehension?

Certainly the answer to that question forms a quest in itself, a question not completely answered. We can, however, conjecture that as humans evolved, a curiosity about the world endowed a competitive advantage. Those that explored, learned, and as they learned they invented, key inventions, like tools, and writing, and agriculture and on and on. Being curious meant being inventive, and being more inventive rendered those with curiosity more fit in the competition of evolution.

But even without the evolutionary advantages of curiosity, as humans developed larger brains, those larger brains and the correspondingly more complex intellect gave us for free, as a tag along, an inquisitiveness. Mankind with a larger brain could think more, and in more intricate and abstract ways. With this, and given the brains essentially unceasing activity, mankind naturally sought out things to think about.

Then humanity entered the modern age. Technological and cultural evolution augmented biological evolution, and our rate of progress increased. As progress propelled us, modern desires (and pressures) also grew, to increase efficiency, grow profits, gain promotions, win elections, earn raises, avoid being unemployed. These new, emerging drives and imperatives added to the prior curiosity born of biological evolution. While we still enjoyed that natural curiosity, we also became endowed, and burdened, by a social impetus to innovate, discover and improve. Sink or swim. No treading water.

The Reason to Study

Well enough then. The goal here centers only initially on a survey of why humanity explores. We have done that, partially, but enough to get the idea or at least stimulate ideas. Our main focus now turns to how we explore. What approaches do we use to seek out that which we don’t know, but need to know, or alternately, are innately driven to know?

Why take up this how question? Why be inquisitive about how we satisfy our inquisitiveness? Seems an esoteric question, right?

First and foremost, understanding how we discover can improve the effectiveness of our discovery and exploration. And, with a judgment here that the good of such discovery out weighs the bad, discovery and exploration improves and raises mankind, eases its burdens, assists in the attainment of good and promotes the creation of intrinsic value.

We speak here not just of economic or material gain, though that may come to mind first and is of course singularly important. Beyond that, though, discovery and exploration can and will improve the non-economic lot of individuals and humanity, by improving social cohesion, emotional well-being, intellectual satisfaction, and so on.

But a more subtle motivation exists. Practitioners and proponents of the different methods of discovery do not always see eye-to-eye. Practitioners of one or another method do not always value or even respect how other methods work or what they find. This does not always occur, but often enough.

That is regrettable. I would offer that the scope and span of knowledge and experience, the breadth of what can be discovered and explored, ranges so far and wide that mankind, we, collectively need more looking and rowing towards knowledge, and less looking sideways bemoaning (and at times castigating) fellow explorers. And when disagreements do arise, we need more reconciling and less arguing.

Four Methods of Discovery

What then constitute the methods of discovery? I will put them in four broad categories, as follows:

  • Science
  • Philosophy
  • Religion
  • Art

I will cover each in turn.

Science

Science has achieved spectacular success. In just the last few centuries, science has amassed orders of magnitude more knowledge than that collected in all the preceding millenniums of civilization, and expanded our understanding of our actuality from small to large, from sub-particles of sub-particles to universes of universes.

Consider some specifics. Science has sequenced the human genome, uncovered the esoteric nature of quantum mechanics, and mapped light from earliest eons of the universe. Science as realized through technology has landed rovers on planets and a satellite on a comet, has populated the world with electronics, and regrettably, enabled weapons of enormous destructive power.

Scientific understandings underpin our modern civilization. Engines and power generation rest on thermodynamics. Modern medicine rests on biochemistry. Electricity and electronics rest on electromagnetism and quantum mechanics. The corrections in the clocks for GPS satellites depend on understandings from General Relativity. Our skyscrapers and bridges emerge from the principles in mechanics, dynamics and strength of materials. Flight depends on aerodynamics. Plastics and synthetics fibers became possible due to organic chemistry. And on and on.

The success of science, and the corollary (reasonable) reliability of technology, rest on the process by which science discovers. Science rests on measurement. While the great theoretical equations stand out, for example Einstein’s theories of relativity, or importantly but less well know Maxwell’s theories of electromagnetism, these theories and corresponding equations have succeeded due to their ability to explain and predict measurements.

That focus on measurement, or observation, or empirical data, motivates science to built ever finer and more sophisticated (and maybe unfortunately more expensive) means of measurement. We mentioned before the push for larger telescopes, faster particle accelerators and more capable satellites. Add to faster means of gene splicing, finer probes of the human brain, and quicker tests for diagnostics. And so on. Building better instruments for measurements has underpinned the essentially exponential growth of scientific discovery and knowledge.

But with its focus on measurement, science progresses only incrementally. As fast as these increments have come, science by its inherent approach builds one step at a time, observation-by-observation. We may view science through its breakthrough theories, but the theories we don’t readily recall, like the efforts to show light traveled through a medium called the “ether,” fall by the wayside as measurements, one-by-one, show such theories in conflict with the way things are.

Similarly, science progresses only within its scope, the measurable world. Size, composition, configuration, behavior-these type items constitute the measurement focus of science. That scope and focus spans an enormous range, a range expanding as science plus technology develop new means of measurement, but a range currently with limits.

The core process of science, objective data collection to support generalized theories, builds piece-by-piece. Science does not soar like a bird, but rather stays grounded, always moving forward, but (thankfully) well-grounded.

Religion

While science focuses on what can be reasonably measured, religion boldly (recklessly?) focuses on what can not readily be so measured. Religion takes revelations, prophecies, divine manuscripts, acts and teachings of sacred individuals, inspired testimony, spiritual experiences, and the like, to conceive what lies beyond our lives and beyond the space and time in which we dwell. Religions temper and augment these convictions with theological study, with philosophical logic, and within the historic, scientific and social context in which revelations and prophecies occurred, but by and large religion at its foundation rests on that from the divine.

Religion then, goes decidedly beyond that which can be objectively verified. Certainly the sacred individuals, the prophets, teachers, saviors, scribes. exist and existed with reasonable assurance. But whether their sayings, writings, actions and instructions stem from divine guidance, and whether these individuals were divine themselves, can not be objectively verified.

We can not, for example, go back and record Christ’s ascension into heaven, nor measure any magnetic or gravitational anomalies that may have been associated with that ascension. Nor can we interview the originators of the gospel accounts to help separate actual accounts from observer error from allegorical literary devices.

This does not level a criticism, but rather contrasts religion with other avenues of discovery.

Does religion then constitute a valid pursuit? Given what some consider the rather ephemeral basis at the core of religious discovery, can we advocate it as a method of exploration?

If history provides a guide, that history would say yes. For millenniums, people, communities, entire cultures and complete empires have professed religious beliefs and observed religious rituals. Ancient history shows Egyptian gods and goddesses, Greek and Roman mythology, ancient Hebrew prophets, and Indian Vedic texts and traditions. Christ, Mohammed and Brahman stand as iconic sacred figures (though Brahman might be considered more philosophical than theological). Even today, in the midst of ubiquitous secular and scientific influences, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam and other religions remain far reaching.

But of course quantity does not prove quality. Thus, the number of adherents to, and historic prevalence of, religion does not demonstrate the validity of its tenets nor its legitimacy as its methods of discovery. So the question remains-does religion provide a valid approach to discovery?

We must distinguish here between the actions of the religious, or actions taken based on religious beliefs, from the approach to religious discovery. Throughout history, individuals, groups, countries and even organized religions themselves have undertake wars and executions, and perpetrated irrationalities and retributions, in the name of religion. The actions of the religious have descended at times to the level of despicable.

However, a method of discovery, in this case religion, does not lose validity due to the improper use of the tenets arising from the discovery. Scientific discoveries at times enabled the weapons of modern warfare. Modern production processes, based on scientific discoveries and principles, at times produced less than benevolent by-products, such as pollutants, occupational injuries, and worker exploitation. We do not stop science due to those effects.

But the question then still remains – can a religious approach stand as a valid mode of discovery?

I will answer an unequivocal yes. Certainly, no objection can be raised to a pondering of what lies beyond our corporeal world, or after our contingent lives. Even children ask questions about those topics. And as we mature, we, just about everyone wonders, at least once, if any world or existence lies beyond death or outside our universe. For many, the meaning of life, or in opposition, its futility, lies in the nature of the “out there” beyond our science and experience. Thus, to desire, or more strongly, to need to know and explore for the beyond stands as natural, reasonable, valid, dare say necessary.

And just as certainly, given current and near future technology, we can not measure or record much if anything about our continuation, or lack of, after death, nor can we measure much about the divine, or retched, realm beyond, for example below the Plank length, or in dimensions beyond our space-time, or in a spiritual-only sphere. Thus science, based as it is on measurement, can not currently or in the foreseeable future satisfy, certainly not comprehensively and likely not even partially, our naturally occurring wonderment about what lies beyond.

And finally, we do possess significant numbers of historic individuals who claim divine inspiration or nature, as well as large numbers of historic writings, texts, images and events connected with those individuals and/or dealing with the divine or god realm. And currently we do observe significant numbers of individuals who conscientiously indicate they experience, as subjective as such indications may be, the presence and existence of a God.

Thus we can 1) legitimately wonder and ponder about what exists beyond, 2) can not readily bring scientific measurement processes to bear (not yet), and 3) do have a rich body of attestations, subjective though they may be, about the divine.

What do we have then. We have a possible, and possibly important, realm out there beyond. Our “flashlight,” science can not see it. But we do have a large body of non-scientific indications. How can study and investigation of that large body of indications not be a reasonable effort?

The alternative means doing nothing. Some may argue that doing nothing represents the most logical approach, and saves us from useless speculation. I would respond that religion has endured with sufficient longevity, that the divine offers a realm of possibly great breath and scope, and that the question of what is beyond looms as too pressing, to do nothing. A given individual, or group, or organization, can legitimately conclude they should do nothing, but, on balance, they can not legitimately fault other individuals, or groups, or organizations, for pursuing religion, and a religious approach, to discovery of the beyond.

Some may further argue that at times, possibly frequently, religious discovery defies logic, spawns unchangeable dogma, and when touching upon the impact, past, present and future, of the divine realm on our actual realm, contradicts science.

I would offer this. Religious discovery, by its essence, does not possess a direct method of validating its tenets. We can not send a satellite to or run a chemical analysis of the divine. Other approaches, including theological study, interpretation of scriptures, historic analysis of religious events, and so on, must come into play. One of those other approaches rests on ritual and belief – in other words a leap of belief to accept (unproven) tenets and then ritual (ceremony, contemplation, song, prayer, abstinence) to seek revelations, divine, based to those beliefs.

Given that scientific and philosophical methods of validation do not readily apply to religious discovery, these other methods, I offer, must be declared reasonable. But validation by these other methods take time, a very long time. A detective makes a “leap of faith” or more precisely an intuitive hunch, about the perpetrator of a crime. This hunch proves true or not in a few weeks, months or maybe years. Scientists make a “leap of faith” or more precisely, a reasonable hypothesis, about new phenomena. This hypothesis proves true or not in a few years, or decades, or maybe centuries. Given the nature of the possible divine, and our limited human methods of validation of the divine, religious “leaps of faith” or more precisely beliefs, tenets and dogma, may require millenniums for confirmation. But faith does evolves, beliefs do advance, and, in the ultimate, religions that drift from alignment with ongoing contemplation and events, such religions fade away.

And where religion and the secular fall into disagreement, each side upon reflection should respect the other, and work together towards truth. And where concrete arguments arise (school science teaching, the definition of life) all should work conscientiously for resolution, and were evil invades (war, extremism) work to remove those elements. More light of reconciliation, less heat of disagreement.

Philosophy

Science has uncovered physical laws and enabled modern civilization. Religion, I have argued, provides a possible avenue to the above and beyond. Science thus receives acclaim due to its efficacy in explaining the direct world around us and in improving our living. Religion receives attention by addressing our natural and enduring questions about life after death, about the meaning or futility of our lives, and about the nature and role of the divine.

In contrast, philosophy might bring us to a yawn. Almost no one (well maybe a few) would spend a Sunday afternoon or Friday night reading Kant or Plato, or contemplating Gödel’s incompleteness theorem. And even when no sports or night life is available, many more people participate in religious ceremonies than partake of Kant, or Plato, or Gödel.

But consider justice. No doubt we agree justice matters. Almost without doubt we agree that determining what is just requires deep thought and serious deliberation. And most all would agree that justice, while possibly definable by science in terms of evolutionary pressures, presses upon us much too solemnly to leave its definition to the neurobiologists and evolutionary anthropologists, though they certainly can help.

And while religion and theology aid in defining justice, mankind possesses much too strong and active an intellect to not test the commands of religion against the reckonings of its own intelligence. And even with an acceptance of divine commands without question, such commands require interpretation, maybe extensive interpretation.

That then points to philosophy. Philosophy, in its possibly dreary and abstruse manner, focuses on questions such as justice and similar, questions in many cases at the foundation of our society and our lives. We just mentioned one such question – what is justice. Other questions include: What should we value? Do we have moral duties? What produces the good life? How do we reason properly? Can we have free will? What is existence? What is the role of government?

Reflex a moment. Almost everyone holds some core beliefs. For example, we likely judge that if we treat others fairly, they should treat us fairly, and similarly that if we receive fair treatment from a person, fair treatment is due to them.

But what is fairness? On the subway, who should offer their seat to whom? At work, what constitutes a fair wage? For taxes, what constitute a fair assessment? In education, what is a fair tuition for public college? When the charity solicitation comes in the mail or email, what is the fair step to take? Throw it out/delete it? Or give one’s entire savings to the concern? Probably neither, but what action then?

We face issues of fairness every day, and as we contemplate those issues, we engage in philosophy. As we evaluate candidates for office, we engage in philosophy (what comprises proper government?) As we reflect on the cost of medical insurance, we upon reflection think deeply and thus philosophically (what represents the best social arrangement for the good, in this case for good health?) As we bemoan the profits of big corporations, we engage in philosophy (what comprises an efficient and equitable market system?)

We might concede then that, at times, we face philosophical questions. But the average individual rarely runs off and pulls out the works of a philosopher to find answer. Has formal philosophy influenced actual events? Has this “method” of discovery impacted the world in a tangible way?

Yes.

Plato’s concept of universal forms influenced third century Augustine, who formalized many Christian doctrines, and those doctrines and Augustinian theology still underpin Christian thought. G.W.F. Hegel influenced Karl Marx, whose writings planted the seed of Communism, and Communism for good or bad rippled violently through the world.

Modern Science itself emerged from an intellectual cascade started, in part, by the philosophical writings of the Novatores in 16th century late Renaissance, writings which moved beyond an Aristotelian view of metaphysics. Writings of such as Bernardino Telesio, as obscure a name as that might be, fermented thought that lead Bacon, Descartes and Galileo to move science to an empirical, mathematical, observational basis.

The U.S. Constitution, of all things, provides an ultimate example of philosophy’s reach. We would agree, in terms of impact, that the document did not end up lost in the dark stacks of a dusty library, and that its content did not result from lofty, winsome discourse. No, the Constitution formed our government, installed the civic, legal and political processes at the foundation of our nation, and provided the framework for the freedom, democracy and growth that underpinned the success of the United States and the scope of its impact in the world. So no doubt the U.S. Constitution impacted our country, its people and the world.

But was it philosophy? Did and does the Constitution explore and stake out answers to philosophical questions? Absolutely. The Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the subsequent Amendments define the social contract between a people and its government; establish the distribution and limitations of government power; state the rights of individuals and groups; and delineate the nature of fair justice and judgment. In doing so, the documents apply, borrow and adapt the ideas of the philosophers John Locke, Thomas Hobbs, Charles de Montesquieu, Thomas Paine, John Stuart Mills and others.

The Supreme Court of the United States provides a corollary example of philosophy’s reach. Inevitably, questions of interpretation arise on the Constitution, its Amendments and the myriad of laws created through the government established by the Constitution. And while the Supreme Court certainly follows legal precedent and theory, and can turn to science for guidance, philosophy bears centrally on the questions before the Court. When does life begin? When and whether does a corporation possesses privileges as if it were an individual? What balance must be struck between the good of the whole (in terms of a compelling state interest) and the right of the individual?

The formal discipline of philosophy may be dry, and its formal writings inscrutable, but the importance of the questions philosophy addresses and the precision philosophy can force upon us as we explore answers, is undeniable.

Art

Is art really a method of discovery? Even when defined broadly across multiple mode of expression – music, dance, song, theatre, motion picture, photography, painting, sculpture, ballet, opera – does not art sit at or near the bottom of educational priorities, and near the top of the list for budget cuts? If education itself doesn’t see art as a main concern, how can we consider art a method of learning and discovery? Even literature has slide lower in priority as economic pressures and international competition push math, science, engineering and technology to the forefront.

But art does fit as a method of discovery. Art fits because in its essence art summons and invokes the totality of means by which human’s perceive. Art presents a holistic array of sensory, mental, and perceptual inputs. Art feeds us visual, aural, tactile, kinesthetic, symbolic and, if we include culinary arts, olfactory and taste sensations, in an integrated visceral, intellectual and emotional experience.

Take a live music act. The act envelopes us with rhythm, sound, harmony, lyrics, lighting, choreography and costume, driven by the enthusiasm and precision of the musicians, singers and dancers. Take a painting. The painting may startle us with a clashing collection of images, angles and colors; or evoke a calmness through a serene depiction of still life; or impress us with the grandeur of its size and the epic poses of its legendary historic heroes.

So in their essences, art mimics life and life mimics art.

Now certainly religion also touches our emotional side, and can heighten our awareness and heal our psyche. But religion, by and large, goes there by a certain path, a path of spirituality. This no way denigrates religion, but rather simply distinguishes what we generally mean by, and how we generally practice, religion.

Certainly also science can focus on human awareness. But to understand how the eye reacts to light, or how neurotransmitters flow under different emotional contexts, does not equal the experience of a golden sunset, or of the sight of a dear friend. And certainly scientific discovery often uncovers a deep symmetry and beauty in nature. But that beauty represents a corollary. Science aims to explain actuality, regardless of whether that explanation possesses beauty, or evokes reactions within us.

In contrast, art aims squarely to reflect the manner of human experience. As we experience, our minds integrate the profusion of incoming sensations into interwoven tapestries, and our memory stores those tapestries in interconnected webs. Art, by its design and essence, similarly presents us with a profusion of sensations, and our mind similarly weaves that profusion into a tapestry, then adds that tapestry to our memory and augments, rearranges, and adds connections to our existing mental web.

Now not all art reaches such noble heights to provide a gateway to new experience and appreciation. Some art simply provides entertainment; some serves just to soothe or enliven; some appears esoteric and beyond comprehension; some in cases rates no more than trash.

But a good TV documentary not only informs us of ancient cultures, but allows us to feel what daily living was like, bring us to awe at how far humanity has progressed but at the same time make us wonder what prevents our self-destruction. A good photograph enraptures us with the bond of an infant and mother, or pains us with the cringe of a wounded soldier. A good painting taunts us to see the familiar in a new interpretation, or draws out for us the essence of a scene. And so on.

Some may claim art only invokes experiences we have already had. That might be. But humans empathize instinctively, and our minds integrate new experiences without effort. Art, done well, taps into those innate facilities, and thus stimulates new experiences and augments existing ones. A poignant picture of a flood ravaged village can bring us sorrow, and instill a passion to act, just as if we were actually there.

Loose Ends

Those then, as I view it, comprise the four methods of discovery. But the four categories, some might say, omit some critical and important methods. Let’s then take that up – items that might be missing – and see if we can fit them into the four categories, reasonably. Here listed as bullets point are some critical modes of exploration, and under which of the four categories they could fit.

  • Mathematics: under Philosophy
  • Law and Economics: Also under Philosophy
  • Sociology/Psychology: Under Science
  • Perfumery/Horticulture: Under Art
  • Engineering/Technology: As implied above, under Science
  • Architecture/Product Design: At the border of Art and Science

Why these categorizations? Here is the reasoning:

  • While math does enable science, math’s essence is logic, a branch of philosophy
  • Law and economics do measure and record, but they aim at justice and equity
  • Consciousness and free will, metaphysical and even religious in part, are only a subset of sociology/psychology. Overall, the two disciplines follow scientific methods.
  • Perfumes and landscapes aim to evoke emotions, excite senses, and recall memories
  • Function is paramount for engineering/technology
  • In contrast, for architecture and design, form weighs more equally with function.

Keep in mind that the four categories of learning here do not represent discrete buckets, but rather divisions along a continuum. Just like colors of a rainbow blend, or a valley turns into a slope then a mountain, modes of exploration merge into a united tableau. Theology overlaps and uses philosophy, and scientific theorizing reaches into metaphysics, and the boundary between engineering and design blurs as innovators explore and integrate new technology into new forms.

Wrapping Up

How do we summarize then? What have we learned about learning?

We have learned that human learning, that our methods of exploration and discovery, encompass and involve a rich, multifaceted and deep set of activities. Human exploration and discovery evokes and engages all the aspects of our being – intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical.

How could we expect otherwise? Existence itself comprises a rich, multifaceted, deep, essentially infinite expanse. Would we think that one approach, or one avenue of discovery, would allow coverage and investigation of the enormous expanse of existence, and beyond?

Picture a group of individuals separated on a large deserted island, one in the jungle, one by the sea, one on a mountain top, one in a sandy expanse, seeking to regroup. Would they not use every means and mode available to tract their travel and to attempt communication with the others. Picture when engineers and astronomers send rovers to our neighboring planets. Would we not expect that rover to include the widest and most sophisticated array of measurement devices possible?

Similarly, for all mankind, as we picture humanity seeking to know and understand not just the terrain of a deserted island, or the characteristics of a neighboring planet, but the whole of existence, would we not expect mankind to bring to bear every means possible as it explores and discovers? We would.

And if we would, would we not also expect that in the plethora of explorations, along a plethora of paths, utilizing the differing methods of discovery here presented, that those explorations might, and would, discover different, at times apparently contradictory, things. We would similarly expect our separated individuals to find different, even contradictory, things, given the differing terrains of the island.

On the island, the imperative for survival demands resolution of the contradictions, not criticizing. Similarly, in our more complex real world, moderation, respect and appreciation should govern between explorers of knowledge as each pursues the differing means.

Just as each of the individuals on our deserted islands encounters and experiences different terrains and conditions, and just as those individuals may veer, at times even aimlessly, from a proper course, explorers for knowledge will encounter different realities, and even veer, at times aimlessly, in unproductive directions. Thus, all the more reason for moderation, respect and appreciation. Certainly, we can mutually correct, but in co-operation not confrontation.

Existence looms large. To explore and understand, we should seek to walk outward, into the unknown, helping each other along their path, even occasionally correcting, but not blocking or denigrating any path.