[#28] What Would It Be Like?
By Piet Hut
What would it be like, if all forms of human knowledge would be given a chance to be heard, in a respectful and serious way? What would it take, to allow the full diversity of ways of knowing to come to the fore, letting a thousand flowers bloom, across all the cultural barriers that are currently impeding exposure and appreciation?
Imagine an oasis in the desert of tribalism, a watering hole where there is freedom of expression, together with a willingness to listen, and an openness to new ideas. Add to this friendly but firm gatekeepers who earn their merit based on reputation among their peers, much as is the case in the open source communities in the world of software writers.
Take the idea of a more universal form of university, a place where the study of matter and the study of mind each can be conducted by their own lights, without a priori assumptions of what contains what. A place where non-Western ways of knowing, such as Buddhism, will not be shoehorned into Western compartments and departments like religion, or psychology, or area studies associated with particular countries, but instead will be treated on a par with the great accomplishments of European culture.
Now broaden this picture to include fields like science, philosophy, art, design, and technology -- in the very way they are all practiced, not just as an analysis of, or history of, a particular field. And imagine such a place to be open every day, a place you can just walk into, like a cafe or a bar, to meet people with like-minded interests, without having to make a reservation, or to plan ahead. A "ways of knowing" bar, like the many sports bars that you encounter in many cities. Wouldn't that be an interesting concept?
We at YHouse have started to do the footwork to make that dream a concrete reality, in Manhattan, one of the most vibrant and diverse among urban environments. That is our mission, to build up a robust organization that can create and manage such a place, a "House" in the form of one or more specific buildings. And our vision is to cultivate the growth of a wider community, a "House" at large, with a recognizable culture of curiosity, wonder, and awe, as well as respect, and support.
Curiosity is what is driving any advance toward knowing more about ourselves and our world. It drives us to explore new directions, where each turn of the road can lead to a new sense of wonder in the face of the unexpected. This wonder can turn into awe, when the unexpected is seen to be unfathomable, at least by the approaches one has been familiar with so far, adding to a burning desire to find new approaches, going beyond anything one is familiar with.
This going beyond can be confrontational, aggressive, or to use a term that is becoming increasingly popular, disruptive. But it is not necessary to break open new doors one stumbles upon. We can also start by knocking, respectfully, to see what kind of response we get. It is here where respect and support come in, as trademark characteristics of YHouse.
Respect for diversity in ways of knowing goes beyond tolerance, which can be cold and distant, and in that way can actually be quite disrespectful. Respect means listening first, and asking questions, in order to clarify what the other is trying to convey. When baffled by a completely different approach to knowing, it is unhelpful to just say "I disagree", as happens so often. Yes, that can prod a more critical attitude, and a push toward more honest investigation. But there rarely is the need to jump the gun, and to start out that way.
I have always found it more helpful to ask "can you say more?" which gives a chance to suspend premature attempts at judgement. More often than not, in the beginning of a dialogue, when someone disagrees with something, that person disagrees with what he or she would have meant, when using the words that the other just said, which may well be quite different than the other intended.
Our common language already provides expressions pointing in the direction of listening, when encountering new ideas. We talk about "hearing someone out" in order to "understand where he or she is coming from". Once they do that, two people may be able to trace back why they find themselves having rather different views. Discovering the fork in the road that led them onto different paths is far more helpful than shouting across the distance created by advancing furiously along divergent paths. The notion of "finding common ground" is essential, as a form of "grounding" for any dialogue, before exploring the richness of diversity.
Finally, the notion of support is perhaps the most important characteristic of YHouse. Curiosity, wonder, awe, and respect are all well and good, but they typically invite us to step outside our comfort zone, sometimes way, way beyond our comfort zone. And without support it is awfully hard to find the courage, or even the means, to do so.
The "House" in YHouse aims at providing the auxiliary comfort to step outside one's comfort zone, individually and collectively. And the "Y" reminds us of the need to investigate "why" we are so often stuck in the beliefs we have, that delimit our freedom of thoughts. Why stay stuck if there is a House with a community to support active exploration of the nature of reality, using the full diversity of ways of knowing, that is now globally available?
Piet Hut is President of YHouse (where this blog is hosted), Professor of Astrophysics and Head of the Program in Interdisciplinary Studies at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, and a Principal Investigator and Councilor of the Earth-Life Science Institute in the Tokyo Institute of Technology.