Why It All Matters

Why I am embarking on a quest for a new "Big" Theory of Knowledge.

Posted Apr 14, 2018

I have recently launched a "Theory of Knowledge Society," and our first conference is coming up this weekend at James Madison University. As part of the lead up to the conference, I offered the society some reflections on issues associated with why we need a Big Theory of Knowledge. This previous blog reviews the general themes and issues. Here I share how I explained "why it all matters."  

Dear List Members, 

Last night I had a wonderful conversation with my daughter Sydney, who is in the process of finishing up her first year of college at the University of Virginia as a biomedical engineering major. She explained to me how she was thinking about herself and her life and how she came to be. Many things were dawning on her in a new way. For example, she was able to share that she had been reflecting on how the strengths and weaknesses of her parents (our personalities, our bond, and the conflicts in our marriage) had influenced her development and identity. And she was reflecting on her education. And on the relationship between philosophy and science and values and meaning making. And she was telling me about some of her friends at college, several of whom are struggling with depression and anxiety. One in particular was having a hard time, and Sydney was relaying how they were trying to get the young woman’s meds “just right” so she would not have so many mood problems. And how she thought it was important that her friend once blurted out that “we could all die and it would not matter,” but that what was focused on in her mental health treatment was not her beliefs but her brain chemistry.

During this conversation, Sydney made the following statements: “Obviously, our education system is completely screwed up”; “Our political system is broken”; “It seems they are not even addressing the real issues” (discussing her friend’s treatment with medication for her mood problems); and “When you think about it, almost everything seems broken. Our politics, our educational system, our mental health system.” These statements flowed from the conversation as naturally and clear in their truth value as a comment such as, “Please pass the salt.”

When she said the last comment, I asked her, “If you could solve these problems, do you think that would matter?” She looked at me first with a curious facial expression, and then, as the realization dawned on her, she proceeded to give me her classic eye-roll, which we both know means: “There is Dad being Dad again, asking stupid/obvious questions that will, as always, turn the conversation back to his damn theory.”

I did my fatherly best to keep the conversation on her and her life. But as I listened to her story I inevitably kept hearing the familiar themes that make me so passionate about this work. The political system is broken. The educational system is broken. The mental health system is broken.


For me, the answer is simple. There simply is no good system of knowledge that can hold our understanding of the world together. We are accelerating our technological development and our technological knowledge, but we are not bridging that with a wise understanding of our natures, our place in the cosmos, and our deepest values and meaning making systems. Instead, at a foundational level, our knowledge is fracturing. And it is making us sick and endangering the planet.

Consider the following statement from the World Health Organization: “Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide, and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease.” That is pretty good empirical evidence that bad stuff is going on mentally. But now ask yourself, “What is depression?” Those of you who follow my work know that the answer is, depression is a state of behavioral shutdown. Incredibly, this obvious and accurate answer is nowhere to be found in the World Health Organization’s or WebMD’s description of the concept.

Why not? Because “the experts” are deeply confused about mind and body, mental and physical health, about the nature of our natures, and the societies in which we live.

Turning to the US, the mental health situation is almost at crisis levels. Certainly, if you track the mental health of the American college student, we are seeing a crisis. And the data are even scarier if we look at adolescents who came of age after 2008. And, of course, much of the country is dealing with an opioid crisis.

At any one point I am generally treating, directly or via supervision, 20 or so individuals who are suffering mental health problems, many of whom are like my daughter’s friend. As such, I have much contact with folks who are miserable and confused and stressed. They don’t know how to make meaning out of their lives. They don’t know how to cope with life’s disappointments. They are lonely and alienated. They don’t know—or more accurately they are deeply conflicted and confused about—what they need to feel psychologically nourished. And they don’t know what their negative feelings mean or what do with them.

And so, they struggle and flail against either the world or themselves or both. An inner war often develops. The narrator portion of the self ends up attacking their emotional self; or, if you prefer, an internalized critical parent attempts to critically control the “weak” or “whiny” inner child, all while the individual attempts to maintain a public image of themselves that gets their needs for relational value met. It is no way to go through life. And yet it is happening at record numbers.     

In all my heart, I believe there is a better way. There is a better way to educate. There is a better way to govern. And, most clearly to me because it is my specialty, there is a better way to think about mental health. Depression and anxiety are, first and foremost, not diseases, but are moods that signal indicating things are not going well. We must be able to create systems, both intra-psychic and interpersonal, that allow us to relate to our feelings, to connect to our deepest needs, and to harmonize with others and with the ecology that nourishes us.

If we know how to do that, we can flourish. However, if we continue on the path we are on, it seems very possible that it will end with degradation, both of ourselves and of the planet.

Now what could matter more than that?