Scientific Consensus and Anthropological Complexity

by Hugh M. Lewis


Common sense seeks the sense of conformity, science seeks the conformity of the senses.


Science has been and always will be a human "sense-making" practice--it's aim has always been to make sense of the world in terms which reflect the world's own intrinsic ordering of phenomena, and not our own ideas about it. Part of the sense-making process of science has therefore always been to penetrate the veil of our own illusory beliefs in order to experience reality in and of itself. Our theories are the interpretations that we then bring to this experience in order to make sense of our senses.

Science has always been susceptible to the risk of lapsing back into the same fold of our preconceptions from which it strives to break free. Science must struggle with the received view of things to liberate the vision of the world from the common sense chains of human illusion that bound our world in ignorance.

Science is the inevitable consequence of the acculturative and enculturative exploration of the world, and can be found to flourish wherever such exploration is not overly constrained by the ideological force of tradition.




Science depends upon achieving a consensus of views among its community of practitioners--this consensus follows the form similar to an open trial in which the facts of a case are presented in a public forum for critical review and evaluation. It is rooted in a naive yet profound faith that seeing is believing and that "actions speak louder than words." From this standpoint, the criteria of science are always by definition public and open for review. A case, for example, in which several contradictory views seem equally plausible, is one in need of further empirical evidence or witness testimony and cannot be unequivocally decided until more evidence is obtained.

It is because of this need for consensus that Science may often be unwitting victim to the received wisdom of culturally embedded common sense. The appeal to the common sense value of a particular point of view is often heard, especially when a theory might otherwise lack firm empirical ground upon which to stand, or whose architecture appears loose or overworked.

Common sense makes sense of the world, but not quite in the same manner that good science demands, because its appeal is primarily to the preconceived frameworks of our beliefs, values and viewpoints, rather than to experience which may be at odds with such framework or lie outside our normal horizon of understanding. Common sense is not necessarily any less logical or more logically fallacious than science, its theories may be just as elaborate or as rigorous as those of science. The point of departure between common sense and science seems to be that while the former never gets beyond the bounds of its own facticity--the situation of its knowledge in a cultural and historical context, that the facts must fit the framework. The latter must bring in the facts and fit the frame to the facts. Science must often fly in the face of the received wisdom of our common sense. It is a feat that may sometimes seem to contradict our sense-making inclinations.

The point of departure between science and common sense is that science must accord with the natural order of the world, as this is attested to by the phenomena of nature unconstrained by human involvement or interference. Common sense remains rooted to the human order of the world, and depends upon the constraints of its human involvement.




We are left to reconsider in the light of the sense-making differences between science and common sense, the place and role of science and common sense in anthropological knowledge of the world.

Anthropological knowledge must deal with the stochastic complexity of human reality. This complexity is both natural and cultural, and in its anti-chaotic patterning resists facile reductionist explanation.

The value of common sense has always been its vast compression of the complexity of reality into a convenient, conceptually manageable scale. It makes sense of the world by simplifying its complexities by several orders. Furthermore, common sense apparatus frequently relies upon a kind of sleight of hand, tricking the senses into seeing what it believes. In this regard common sense is not so much sense-making but becomes actually anti-scientific in demanding a temporary suspension of the credulity of our senses in exactly the opposite way that science sometimes demands our temporary disbelief.

Common sense depends upon non-contradiction of our senses--information must be coordinate with our received frameworks of experience. Contradiction is antithetical to common sense, and common sense becomes our basic apparatus for dealing with and resolving contradiction in our world. This also means that our common sense is highly susceptible to the kinds of internal contradictions that our science must expose. Science seeks such contradiction as the means to its resolution, while common sense must deny it. Common sense remains fixed, while science moves on.

We depend upon our common sense to successfully function in our everyday world. But the success of our science depends upon how much we are able to overcome the seductive power of our common sense, in learning how to see the world the way it really is. The appropriate attitude of sense-making science is that of critical doubt and skepticism--which seems quite contrary to the usual attitude of common sense which is one of naive faith and unquestioning acceptance.

Anthropological knowledge will stand upon is own as a genuine science in exact proportion to the extent that it will be able to divest itself of its own common sense pre-understandings and seek means of stepping beyond the horizon of it is own facticity in the world, to deal with the human order of the world upon its own terms. This is easier said than done, because human beings are not atoms or genes or molecules, and human symbols have this curious, unnatural arbitrariness about them. The Human order of the world is one that has long been contaminated by the antiscientific history of human involvement and interference.

Part of the problem to the development of anthropological knowledge as authentic science is that we yet lack a properly scientific theory of the kind of complexity that the human world presents to our senses. Human beings simply do not follow perfectly predictable orbits like planetary bodies, nor are our wills or imagination necessarily subject to genetic predetermination in any direct, causal way. We are left in our pursuit of an authentic science of anthropology with a hodge-podge of many science-like pieces of an enormous jigsaw puzzle, but with only a fragmentary sense of its edges or corners or the patterning its center might present to the senses. In this regard the only map to guide us becomes the patterning of our common sense that has been tempered by our scientific skepticism.




Of what might an anthropological science of human complexity consist? In the first place, we must consider the possibility that our anthropological jigsaw puzzle is not a static, set-piece problem promising one finite, correct solution. Rather it is a dynamic game we play, with the many jagged edges and borders becoming altered as we try to fit them together. As we add more pieces to our picture, its patterning changes in ways we can hardly predict. The pieces that seemed to fit together a century or even a decade ago no longer seem to cohere in exactly the same way.

We must see the anthropological field of view as an evolving, epigenetic landscape. The surface patterning that has been apparent to our senses are epiphenomenal forms of underlying currents and processes of which we are scarcely made aware. If it is evolving, we must see that it must be an infinite state machine that is non-deterministic--yet it remains stochastically ordered because it is a self-perpetuating patterning--one that is anti-chaotic. It's structure may not be so much some underlying static law-like order, but rather the dynamic relational structuration of the many parts in relation to the whole and to one another. In other words, the changes in any part of the entire pattern are critically constrained by the nexus of relations with many other parts, and the random changes of these relations. Thus the total history of the whole puzzle plays an important role in the patterning and net value of any of its parts.

Because the total history is virtually unrecoverable, and because the net value of any of its parts approach virtual infinity, we must seek in our science a statistically systematic means of eliminating the impossible from the possible, and then of deriving from the statistically possible the plausible, and then the most probable. In such way we may come to gain a sense of the overall scale and dimensionality of our puzzle, and determine the proximity of its outermost boundaries. We will never have much more than a global weather-map of the human world, from which we can read the general trends and make short-range forecasts, but of which we will never be able to predict or control the complete concatenation of factors which go into its creation.

If general laws can be found to underlie this patterning, we must seek them as basic relational principles that govern the order and possibilities for change between elements in the system. We might also speculate that certain transformational rules apply with some regularity in the derivation and expression of the possible patterning Whether these basic principles and derivational rules apply in a completely deterministic manner is open to serious doubt. They may apply or not in any given instance in a Boolean manner. Furthermore, in regard to human reality, many of these determining principles may be more or less arbitrary--subject to volitional human agency--therefore lacking the imperative force of natural law.

This picture of an authentic anthropological science that does not depend upon the reductionism inherent in common sense, speak for a deeper and widened role for cross-cultural research and comparative studies in providing a systematic methodology for approaching the complexity of human reality in this manner. But we must construe such research in a revised way, one that is assisted by computer processing. But when we consider the problem of the integration of over a trillion neurons of several billion people in a multi-trillion dollar world economy--we must see the fruits of such an anthropological science as a remote objective.

How to revise cross-cultural research to better fit this expanded role of anthropological science. One suggestion is to frame its database into an historical time-line--to use a temporal framework to fit and frame the facts of our cross-cultural comparisons. Another suggestion is to deliberately cultivate a trans-disciplinary perspective that is able to coordinate and integrate knowledge of various fields into some kind of meta-synthesis. Finally, this suggests the value and necessity of adopting, at least for heuristic purposes, the so-called pan-optic point of view which seeks to comprehend in the patterning of human reality in its entirety, with the paradoxical understanding that such a perspective must necessarily always be conditional and incomplete. An authentic anthropological science must remain as holistic as it is relativistic and comparative and empirical in orientation.

There is another principle involved in the patterning of the whole of human reality. The consideration of its many possible parts cannot be had in isolation from the history and patterning of the whole--we must somehow take the whole into account in our anthropological science. We must deal with a dilemma in this way. The whole may exhibit a robust sense of stability which belies the actual dynamic action of its many parts, and the transitional dynamics of the whole may proceed in spite of or only indirectly dependent of the actions of its many pieces. If we look at any local situation, we may come away with a sense of stability and dynamic that may not directly accord with the long-term patterning of the whole.

In the anthropological science of our human complexity, there is a place and an important role for our common sense when it is unfettered by the conditional cultural logic of our own context in reality. It will be our common sense, liberated from its boundaries, which will serve to simplify our complexity and serve as the basis for achieving a scientific consensus. Our reformed common sense, reminded of its own inherent limitations and contradictions, can be put to the service of our anthropological science in helping to prune the complexity of human reality to a manageable scale.




Science is an attempt to explicate the natural logos of the universe. Science is essentially natural systems theory concerned with creating valid and realistic information about natural processes of change and stasis, structure, order, pattern, and development. As natural systems theory, science operates upon different informational levels. The relations and factors which function at one level of integration are different from those functioning at other, higher levels. Three such informational levels have been recognized--the physical, the biological and the human. Events and processes occurring at one level cannot be reduced to or explained in terms of processes and events at the other level, and the kind and structure of theory and conceptioning predominant on one level is different than on another level. The physics and chemistry at the physical level does not completely explain the evolutionary processes of the biological level or the socio-cultural or linguistic phenomena of the human level. The kind and quality of science practiced upon each level is different from the others, and the criteria used for validation vary substantially between the levels.

On the other hand, laws which apply at a more fundamental level, apply as well on the super-ordinate levels, though the laws and principles obtaining upon a super-ordinate level do not obtain on more fundamental levels.

We can speak of a covering law model, or rather of general information theory that applies upon all levels. The laws of thermodynamics, which guarantee the entropy of the universe, apply upon all levels. Similarly, principles of chaotic systems also apply equally upon all levels, as do relational principles and the general relativity of information.

The sense of time and scale of patterning are different upon each of the three levels--geophysical history, evolutionary history and human history each involves different levels of predictability and ability to be governed. We must see that the factors and forces that go into the making of a tornado upon the mid-western plains are fundamentally different in their sense and quality of time and order than those factors and forces governing the occurrence of a riot in Los Angeles, or of a devastating plant virus in the southeast. But in all three sets of circumstances the random role of chaotic patterning must be acknowledged. Upon a human level we speak of volitional systems of interaction, while upon a biological level we can refer to organic or animated systems. Upon the physical level we can speak of mechanical or automatic systems of action and reaction

Similarly, the quality and kind of information that is ordered, transmitted and modified is fundamentally different upon the three levels. The information contained upon the physical level has to do with the frequencies and relatively discrete values contained in subatomic particles, quanta, etc., as well as in larger units such as in chemical molecular compounds or solutions. Information upon the biological level is almost exclusively contained in the DNA structure of the genome. There must be forms of transmission upon a higher social or behavioral level among different species of animal--by and large these forms consist of chemical or mechanical signals. Information contained upon the human level is uniquely linguistic and paralinguistic in structure and function--one which combines emblematic, symbolic, syntactic, semantic, pragmatic and behavioral dimensions.

It is interesting to speculate whether the ordering and patterning of basic information upon each of the three different orders may share in some basic, universal structure. It is something that Gregory Bateson refers to as stochastic systems and the unity of mind and body. In this we might speculate on the role and functioning of dual parallel processing systems, upon a kind of bilateral symmetry between two complementarily arranged sets of signals. A cybernetic dialectic, one that is order-maintaining and meaning creating, becomes established between two sets of signal arrays to produce a complex moire patterning of information.

Such a system is most readily apparent in the genetic structure of DNA. Similar systems may be found in the bilateral functioning of the brain, in the two-tiered structure of the Mind, as well as in the split-level structure of psychosocial process. We might further speculate about the hypothetical possibility of finding a similar kind of informational structure upon the subatomic level of the quantum. We have long sought to understand the causes and principles of gravity, and its relationship to the electro-magnetic spectrum.

This line of reasoning forces a reconsideration of the role and importance of information in the universe. Information is created by redundancy. Such bilaterality of dual-processing systems effectively draw a slash mark across a field such that information upon one side of the mark enables a measure of prediction about information upon the other side.

We must ask if and what broader significance Information may have for the universe. Is it a force that accomplishes something? Buckminster Fuller talks about anti-entropy as a kind of "more for less" creativity which comes about when we successfully combine knowledge with energy. Information can be seen to order and constrain, or to modulate, the flow and directionality of energy in ways which lead to the maintenance of higher orders of complexity--or what effectively amounts to more efficient systems of energy transmission and/or conservation.

We must also ask what the relationship may be between energy, information and change in the natural order. Energy can be defined as the potential for change, and the cause of change. Change can be seen as the expression of energy. In this regard, Information can be construed as the process of the mediation of energy to effect or control change. Information predicts"change because it predicates the patterning which energy shall take in its expression. It is information which pushes the release of energy away from the totally random, toward systems which tend toward greater determination and productivity.

Information is contained within and involves the interference of the transmission of energy in nonrandom, anti-chaotic patterns. Information, upon whichever level of its expression, is constrained by certain, universal features of design--bilateral or split fields, parallel-processing, dialectical and cybernetic in functioning, relative structural symmetry.

Is this all there is to be said about natural informational theory? Information occurs upon many different levels in reality. On whichever level on which it occurs, it is constrained by certain basic features of structural, or informational design. Informational systems are self-organizing, and as such they have a natural life-cycle of sub-critical, critical and super-critical development, in each stage of which certain structural patterns and principles predominate and are predictable. The scale of history in each system, upon each level of information, is different, as is its inherent complexity. Time and space, which may be thought of as a universal standard by which all change is measured, may have different qualitative and quantitative values upon different levels of information.


Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.

Last Updated: 03/07/05