Throughout history, we have used many methods of understanding the universe. Religion, Philosophy and Science (I know that the lines between these three are blurred but are significant enough to categorise them separately). Is there room for another one or are these three the only fundamental approaches to understanding?

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    You forgot mythology and art. But is there a particular need for some new method? New methods emerge to answer existing needs, not just for the sake of novelty.
    – Conifold
    Commented Apr 29, 2021 at 5:14
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    "Science" is an umbrella term for many methods of understanding the universe. Some are new: for example, data science is a new way of investigating the behavior of large groups of people, made possible only by advances in computing. We can expect more such advances out of computing, such as machine learning, that have the potential to advance human knowledge in new ways. For example, nature.com/articles/d41586-020-03348-4 describes how machine learning is used to determine 3d shapes of proteins, which is a way of obtaining knowledge about proteins that we didn't have before.
    – causative
    Commented Apr 29, 2021 at 5:59
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    Religion is not a way to understand the universe. One can explain everything with supernatural fables, but once a prophet has made up an explanation like "this mystery happened because so was the will of the giant spaghetti Monster", we have understood nothing more about the world.
    – armand
    Commented Apr 29, 2021 at 7:56
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    Polytheism explains the world, monotheism consolidates power: if you call both 'religion' the distinction is lost. Narrativisation is a linear method for producing understanding, modelisation is not linear but works just as well. "Art" is term invented to make people believe that a sculpture and a book are somehow similar. Philosophy indeed scrutinizes the concepts before asking questions with them.
    – sand1
    Commented Apr 29, 2021 at 17:11
  • @armand Religion explains why that which you investigate is there in the first place.
    – Pathfinder
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 8:01

2 Answers 2


Long ago the idea of 'Arete' - excellence in activity - was a basic approach to life. Rather than speculating or examining, one should participate. The best path to realizing that is to study Non-dual awareness.

Stoicism is the closest form of Philosophy to that. It combines understanding and acceptance. But ultimately, understanding must be transcended, it is not enough.


What is understanding? What does it do?

Vervaeke has these terms 'salience landscape' for assembling a picture that foregrounds useful things as being true knowledge, and 'cognitive grip' for the way information can be compounded into units that help make our tasks tractable and efficient. We can think of this as a way to step back and look at what understanding does for us.

We were discussing how information & data, moves into knowledge, and the role of consciousness in that, here: Does knowledge require consciousness? I would look at Hofstadter's strange-loops to picture how agents start to model the world, and then themselves as variables in their model of the world, generating their intentions as variables, in imagining counterfactuals resulting from their different choices. Hofstadter also has this idea of 'tangled-hierarchies', different modes of knowing and investigating, that can be used to refine and interconnect with each other, forming a kind of 'coherentist' fabric, with nested layers. We might think say of quantum-mechanics as the finest threads (so far), and general-relativity as describing the cosmic web and large scale cosmological order, but black-hole collisions give us a place where the two modes overlap.

I would make the case that although strictly speaking there are multiple different sciences, that we actively work to get them to 'interface' with each other, at least in principle, and using each science to investigate others. Eg top-down psychology, aims to integrate with neurons-up neurobiology, & cognitive science. Discussed more generally here: Is the idea that "Everything is energy" even coherent? To be clear, unity of sciences is an aspiration, rather than something we can take for granted, but general ideas like energy & information should relate to any field that involves experiments & observations. A shared language.

David Deutsch gives a nice example case of trying to assemble a complete understanding of things, in his book The Fabric Of Reality. He settles on four different modes of knowing, which he calls 'strands':

  1. Hugh Everett's many-worlds interpretation of quantum physics, "The first and most important of the four strands".
  2. Karl Popper's epistemology, especially its anti-inductivism and its requiring a realist (non-instrumental) interpretation of scientific theories, and its emphasis on taking seriously those bold conjectures that resist being falsified.
  3. Alan Turing's theory of computation, especially as developed in Deutsch's "Turing principle", where Turing's Universal Turing machine is replaced by Deutsch's universal quantum computer. ("The theory of computation is now the quantum theory of computation.")
  4. Richard Dawkins's refinement of Darwinian evolutionary theory and the modern evolutionary synthesis, especially the ideas of replicator and meme as they integrate with Popperian problem-solving (the epistemological strand).

He doesn't claim this is a finished or complete account, but instead to illustrate the kind of thing he thinks is needed. We can relate it to agents understanding their choices, through assembling information, so as to situate themselves in a meaning-cosmology, like the strange-loop + tangled-hierarchy from the Hofstadter picture. But, Deutsch makes it clearer that we need radically different modes, epistemological philosophy to address foundational issues like the meanings of terms and definitions, physics, but also a bridge of information theory, to minds and organisms in biology.

It is worth saying that Deutsch has been working with Marletto on Universal Constructor Theory, based on an expansion of Turing Machines to include counterfactuals, and quantatively relate mathematical ideas to their computational intensity. This is proposed as a means to link the counterfactuals of Many Worlds, the way minds seem to assemble counterfactuals for decision making, and ideas about entropy and energy.

I don't agree with @armand's dismissive account of religion. I would look to Durkheim's picture of religion as primarily our methodology to support group cohesion, and capacities to work together. Durkheim provided really the first account of religion broad enough to account for the idea non-monotheustic religions aren't just primitive steps on the way to something like European religions. Buddhist monastic traditions are remarkably like Christian ones, and involve if anything more complex philosophy, and larger bodies of texts (the Tripitaka alone is much larger than the bible, and substantially older than the New Testament). So, Durkheim's picture is communities bind-together through enacting shared attitudes to sacred things, things put beyond question. We can picture social-contracts as a special case of this, there's a kind of 'buy in', where you agree to inconveniences like sometimes being ruled by people you don't like, to avoid tyranny from people you don't like and/or revolutions and socual disorder. Challenge the values of the social-contract, challenge the coherence of the community. In this picture, we can look at creating 'sacred' values like habeus corpus, independent judiciaries & separation of powers, free speech/free press, right to assembly/protest, as social technologies that enable forms of collective problem solving, and so of social complexity. These kinds of social technology started with religion - I think the idea everyone should be allowed a day a week not working, where they can develop their literacy to read the core community texts, is a good example of a powerful idea from religion, with long-lasting repercussions for everyone (it is argued Rome was incapable of an industrial revolution because of slavery, educating people to be able to work more efficiently challenged the primary holding of wealth, slaves). It's also critical to look at how religions were not static, but constantly being altered by a kind of 'religious entrepreneurship', what Alan Moore calls the role of 'psychic plumber for the energy of the community', as the archetypal religious job. This article gives some nice examples: Whence comes nihilism, the uncanniest of all guests?

So, in summary. I would say it's a mistake to think any one 'mode' or strand of knowing can be a totalising picture. What we do is build a meaning-cosmology, that situates us as agents, and as communities, relationally to the information we have, so as to make it useful in guiding us. We need good unbiased data, the domain science. We need social cohesion and cooperation (inc to do good science!) which is the realm of holding & enacting sacred values (eg around scientific ethics). We need philosophy to not get caught in language-traps, and to sharpen definitions, demarcations, and update our picture if what and why we do what we do. These interconnect, and interrelate, and help each other develop.

  • All personal fantasies. No more, no less. The strange loops of Hofstadter being the weirdest.
    – Pathfinder
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 11:38
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    No. The most weird is the MWI. No... selfish genes! Even weirder!
    – Pathfinder
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 11:40
  • @Felicia: "There are more things in heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy". Dismissing ideas without reason or argument doesn't make you a philosopher, it only suggests you are small minded. Give your own answer, critiquing these concepts coherently, with citations and reference to philosophical literature, if you are able.
    – CriglCragl
    Commented Apr 14, 2022 at 13:59

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