Understanding is an Interaction

Whenever we are trying to understand the world, we are, by extension, trying to understand ourselves. Whether we are aware of it or not. Indeed – whether we want it or not. We bring ourselves along to every encounter with the world, and we experience each such encounter through ourselves. We don’t really have any other option. This is most obvious in our relationships with others, but it is not limited to that. 

Being embedded in the world, having evolved in it and as part of its own evolution, we inevitably influence it, and it – us. So, our wish to be objective in our observations and conclusions is just that – a wish. Of course, I don’t suggest that it’s all black and white. We can have some level of objectivity, depending in part on the level of our self-knowledge and in part on the degree of interconnectedness. Being objective is in this sense trying to put some distance between me and the other. The more I am aware of (and willing to suspend) my personal biases and the smaller is the degree of connection between me and the other, the easier it is for me to put a certain distance between us and try to be objective. If I want to understand the behaviour of a fly, it is easier for me to introduce some level of objectivity into my interaction with that fly than, for example, if I try to understand my own behaviour (therefore, this type of understanding is, I believe, most difficult, yet also extremely valuable to attain).

However, we can never be absolutely objective (even with flies), simply because we are never observing something that is absolutely disconnected from us on all possible levels. Arguably, we wouldn’t even be able to observe it (whatever that might be), if it were so entirely disconnected from us. After all, observation is a form of interaction, and there can be no interaction without at least some ‘common ground’, at least some connection. The fact that this commonality, this link is not readily apparent to us on some levels does not entail that there is no such connection. For example, you might ask – what do I have in common with a fly? Well, for one, you both are life forms that evolved here on Earth. And if you would want to argue with me, I would say (among other things) that this too is evidence of a connection. Even a conflict is a form of interaction. If we are able to have a conflict, there is bound to be some connection, some commonality between us.  

So, what do this interconnection and the related inability to be absolutely objective, absolutely ‘separate/outside’ of the world mean? The first thing that comes to mind is how ironic and somewhat rediculous the concept of ‘being impartial’ now sounds. As I mentioned, it isn’t all black and white, we can strive for some degree of impartiality. But that state would be something in between subjectivity and objectivity. Do we even have a word for that? Be that as it may, the word ‘impartial’ literally stands for im-partial, not being a part of (something). Yet, we all are part of the world. 

The second thing I want to highlight is the implication of this interconnectedness for exploring our own nature. On the one hand, it contains many contradictions, on the other – we tend to long and strive for coherence. Examples of this are all around us (and inside us). I can be selfish and altruistic, yet I feel like a whole individual being – myself – meaning that, despite inner oppositions, I have a coherent ‘narrative’ or ‘picture’ of ‘me’.

This realization alone is mind-boggling. How can I even begin to understand it? Especially with ‘it’ being me. Observer = observed. Logically, it seems impossible. Objectively, too. How am I supposed to put a distance from myself while trying to understand myself, all of that being me all along? It’s crazy! Yet, we all do it, and it’s called introspection. 

How it works, I don’t know. That it works, I believe is astonishing. Mostly we take it for granted though. Until we start to think about it more deeply. Especially if we add to this picture the effect of interconnectedness, of being not just part of the observed but being the observed. If I influence that which I am a part of simply by being its part, then introspection should entail continual circle of self-influence. At least – of that ‘narrative’ and ‘picture’ of my ‘self’.

If this is true, then we cannot know or understand ourselves by dissecting our ‘narrative’ of ‘self’ and focusing only on some parts of it, as if we were disassembling a machine to see which part is defective. Are we fooling ourselves when we try to separate our worldviews from our attitudes towards the world and our methods of approaching the world? I think we are. The attitude I develop towards the world will influence my view of what the world is like, which will inform the methods I choose to approach the world, to act and be in it, which will have an impact on how the world responds to me by most likely reinforcing my perception of my attitude as the ‘right one’, and so the cycle goes on. 

Even if this cycle gets modified in the process (for example, when our views or values change), each step flows into the other creating a whole, which cannot be understood by reducing it to its ‘parts’. The very fact of our analysing those ‘parts’ will influence them, and that, in turn, will influence the entire ‘self’. It seems to be a moving target. Or, in other words, our ‘selves’ are dynamic and holistic ‘narratives’ that are influenced by a variety of interconnected factors, including our introspection. An isolated ‘component’ analysis does not provide us with better insight. What it does provide is a sense of conviction, which is closely linked to the feeling of being in control. That, I believe, is an illusion, and a dangerous one.    

I feel I have painted a complex picture, and I don’t think I can simplify it and still keep it meaningful since it is, indeed, complicated (while we prefer clarity and simplicity). However, what becomes clearer in this context is, I think, that we should be extremely careful with explanations that involve reducing complex wholes to their perceived simple components. That may be our preference because it’s easier and it can be useful on some levels, but we should keep our eyes open and take note of our own biases. In the process, we are reshaping our ‘selves’ and engaging in a mutually influencing dance with the world. Even with the flies. And here’s a cute dog picture to influence your mood.

Photo by Ana Frantz on Unsplash

keep exploring!  

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