Evaluation and Science

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In Nostalghia, one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s most poetic and introspective films (1983, Mosfilm and Gaumont), the first of his works accomplished in emigration, the main character, Russian emigrant writer Andrei Gorchakov travels to the Tuscan countryside to study the works of an eighteenth century Russian painter. There he befriends Domenico, a local eccentric, who is persistently trying, but repeatedly failing to cross a mineral pool in his village with a lit candle in his efforts to save the world. One day Gorchakov visits Domenico at his home, where he notes the paradoxical equation ‘1+1=1’, inscribed on the wall of the kitchen. In the next sequence, Domenico takes a bottle of olive oil, pours two drops in his palm, and explains: one drop plus one drop makes a bigger drop, not two. He alleges that with Andrei they are essentially the same. Both are enlightened searchers for deeper truth. Both are excluded and ignored as irrational by a blinded majority of compatriots and only excluded searchers can really comprehend one another.

The paradoxical summation rule may be gratifying for Andrei, but is in fact devastatingly exclusive. Drops can merge into a single body, but only because they are identical parts of the same essence. Holistic reasoning about radical differences, which is characteristic for contemporary complex societies, is impossible with such an exclusive summation. People put things together in very different ways since they have different concepts of the connectedness in mind. We have different ideas about how things are connected in the real world, what is the most valuable and what must be consequently ignored as irrelevant or irrational. If something is complex, it can be adequately presented only from radically different viewpoints that do not share a common denominator. This raises genuine obstacles to our aspirations of comprehending complex matters in society in a holistic manner.

The search for truth from incommensurable standpoints leads to opposition and value-based conflicts or to vagueness that invites manipulation of truth. The scholars of Sufism in ancient Afghanistan dealt with these sorts of cognitive problems at approximately the same time that the Pythagoreans in ancient Greece discovered their triangular theorem.

The old parable of the blind men and an elephant tells about the quarrelsome subjects of a wise king who could not reach agreement about an important matter for their kingdom. Upset with the inability of his subjects, the king ordered six blind men who had never seen an elephant to approach the throne and describe the strange thing that he had placed before them, only by touching it. The first man investigated the trunk and described the elephant as a snake, the second touched the giant ears and ‘saw’ the strange thing as a fan, the third tapped a leg and told that it was a tree, another explained the tusk as a spear, the side of the elephant as a wall, and the tail as a rope. Each described animal in a way that could not be recognised by the others because each perceived a partial truth, even though objectively confirmed. The moral of the parable, recapitulated by the wise king was that people often portray their narrow views as a whole truth while ignoring the partiality of their insight. This invokes insurmountable contradictions, which, in matters of common concern, incapacitates people to think holistically about a kingdom’s matters. Consequently, subjects cannot govern collective affairs reasonably in a way that is fair to everybody and enhances best solution for the kingdom.

The wise king is of course a deceitful king, who always finds a solution that fits him most, by submerging subjects in false problems. He manipulated subjects by challenging cognitively constrained people with an assignment that could not be resolved. Their cognitive disability is not blindness since understanding of the complex world, which is essentially uncertain, is not possible without bias and ignorance. Nobody, not even his royal excellence can touch the truth and comprehend it in its totality from the throne. The king deludes his loyal subjects by forcing a commensurable solution to an incommensurable problem with a strategy that is coercing one concept of the whole against others, as if the kingdom’s problems were not complex, consisting of contradictory concepts of the whole.

It is not only that in complex conditions, one can perceive the world merely through exclusion of something important but also that the world itself, and society in particular, does not exist as a finished and uniformly discernible objective reality. This gives ground for supposing that one can build holistic understanding of complex social matters only in the shadow of moonlight, when these efforts are founded on ambiguity and the irrational. Reality is only accessible to us through void. We observe it blindly from the middle ground and from an evaluative perspective. This assures our comprehension is no more disabled by flashing the lights of truth, without threatening to throw us into relativism.

The evaluator comprehends the world through void by neutralising the blinding lights of everything dogmatic. The complex matter is discernible evaluatively, when darkness covers not everything visible to our eye but only the source(s) of blindingly flashing lights shining from scientific claims. Evaluative comprehension is the resolution of the same sort of conditions that take place when the Sun’s corona becomes directly observable to the naked human eye only in the moonlight shadow during total Solar eclipse. Social reality also becomes discernible evaluatively in a shadowed area between blinding light of rationalisation and void in biased comprehension. Our capacity to understand the complex world decisively depends on our ability to explain the world evaluatively, through what we cannot see clearly — the ultimate nature of things, primary relations between them and their final implications.

The evaluator, then, would be nobody else but the missing, seventh blind man. He received no invitation from the wise king, who accurately suspected him of the subversive intention to spoil the political theatre by putting forward the evaluative blindness, instead of scientific blindness, as a path to a more complete understanding of the unknowable, including elephants. Similarly, the present generation does not need to reveal the universal order of everything in general, as gods, kings, or natural scientists, but only for our concrete situation in moderation as humble learners, jointly with many other knowers in an increasingly mesoscopic manner.

Foreword to a book: »«, Bojan Radej, Mojca Golobič, Slovenian Evaluation Society.

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A methodologist in social research from Ljubljana; Evaluator. Slovenia. Author of "Social Complexity" Vernon Press, 2021.

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Bojan Radej

Bojan Radej

A methodologist in social research from Ljubljana; Evaluator. Slovenia. Author of "Social Complexity" Vernon Press, 2021.

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