On Empiricism vs. Platonicity

On Empiricism vs. Platonicity
September 27, 2009

I spent several years in Asia, and one of my most striking observations about immersion in a foreign culture is the potential for such vast discrepancies in perceptions of the absurd. For example, in much of Asia it is untenable to question the chain of command, in any setting. In teaching at an Asian school, high level school administrators had great difficulty managing confrontation with Western teachers regarding, for example, teaching methods or curriculum. There was simply no indigenous cultural model for dealing with these types of encounters. Westerners visiting Asia for the first time will immediately be struck by the frequency with which they are greeted with deferential laughter in response to an assertive confrontation. Where Western cultures value accuracy and transactional integrity, Asian cultures value tolerance and civility. Asians will happily eat chicken fried rice despite having ordered pad thai noodles to avoid embarrassment or confrontation. Westerners find these values absurd.

This potential for misunderstanding between geographically derived cultures occurs in the context of professional cultures as well. The absurdities of law don’t translate easily into the language of medicine. The absurdities of physics don’t translate well into the language of musicians. Humor is often ‘lost in translation’. I often find it difficult to communicate absurdities occurring in the realm of finance to those who practice outside of it. Professionals of every stripe share a cultural humor that is rich and unique. However, the nature of absurdities in all professions often share characteristics so that, with creativity and a little knowledge of another’s profession, it is possible to make some connections.

The body of knowledge in contemporary medicine was derived empirically, by induction, over hundreds and thousands of years. That is to say, no person or group of persons in history created a grand theory of medicine upon which all modern practitioners of medicine rely for diagnosis or treatment of disease or injury. Instead, medical practitioners through the ages tried an endless variety of treatments for conditions and ailments, most of which were unsuccessful. Where treatments seemed to work, doctors then attempted to narrow down the nature of the ailments and conditions upon which the treatments were effective.

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