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April 26, 2009

Epistemology, Irony, and a Paradox

Epistemology is a technical term for the study of knowledge; the basic questions dealt with are, “what do we know and how do we know it?” Thus, although it’s a term few use comfortably, many of us devote considerable time and energy to its basics, a fact underscored by the frequency of certain constructions: “to tell the truth,” “in truth,” In point of fact,” as a matter of fact,” etc..

Nevertheless, most of what we humans now know reliably about our home planet and its universe has only been learned over the last five centuries. Among the more salient epistemic facts is that although we know we’re not the only cognitive species, we’re the only one capable of accumulating and retrieving today’s vast array of useful knowledge. Less well appreciated is that profligate exploitation of that knowledge has trapped us in a series of problems requiring urgent resolution, but sadly, our chronic inability to reach agreement casts doubt on whether we can even define them in time to solve them .

To use an overworked medical metaphor: without an accurate diagnosis, effective treatment is unlikely. An equally critical corollary is that it’s better to begin definitive therapy short of cardiac arrest. Several of the most pressing problems we now face as a species, climate change and the global economy, to name but two, have progressed to points that demand action, yet a host of unsettled problems preclude constructive international discourse, even as disruptive unconventional warfare is being waged on a global scale by non-national actors .

At this point, one might reasonably ask what gives a lone, obscure physician the chutzpah to discuss such issues? My answer is one Darwin could have offered: after starting from a series of chance observations in 1831, he’d followed an obsessive train of thought that led him to several novel conclusions he felt impelled to share with the the world in 1859.

150 years after publication of The Origin of Species, Darwin’s basic insights are still probably unknown to a majority of living humans and would likely be rejected by most who know something of them; yet they have been essential guides for the generations of scientists who have reduced biological inheritance into ever smaller, yet exquisitely related, components retaining an innate coherence at the molecular level.

Thus does Darwin’s life work also resemble that of another great scientist who preceded him by less than two centuries and famously noted that he'd stood “on the shoulders of giants” in ways that are (ironically) still disputed.

To return to my chutzpah, it comes from seven years of doing something that’s been actively discouraged for almost forty: discussing drugs with scorned drug users in an effort to understand their behavior. To my great surprise, that activity and the conclusions it leads to have elicited little overt interest from the very people one would expect to be curious, a circumstance that itself demands an explanation.

In essence, those same histories, and the lack of response they have provoked, add up to a refutation of America’s “war” on drugs that will be outlined in the next issue of O’Shaughnessy’s, a journal chronically on life support, but with an '09 issue almost ready for the printer.

An ironic, even paradoxical, item suitable for interim consideration appeared in today's column by a local pundit, one I’ve praised for her support of medical marijuana and criticized for her (doctrinaire) scorn of “tree huggers.”

Doctor Tom

Posted by tjeffo at April 26, 2009 09:20 PM