There was a real irritant in asking these questions, however; and it seemed to lie in how “understanding,” as we were trying to study it, serves to “inform us to make informed decisions” (allowing for a circular turn of phrase). Well, for a start, what is it that we need to understand? The answer to that seems to be that we need to understand the situation (i.e. state of affairs, where I am choosing that word “state” because this involves taking a flow of events and relationships in which we are embedded and rendering it as something static) in which one or more actions need to be taken; and those actions need to be selected on the basis of one or more decisions. In other words, as any number of philosophers probably discovered long before I did, any theory of decision making must rest on a foundation of understanding the situation.
At this point I have to share some frustration with a book I am trying to read: Narrative Policy Analysis by Emery Roe. At the very least this book should wean me away from too much indulgence in postmodern deconstructionism; but, putting aside his stylistic preferences (obsessions), Roe is reluctant to come right out and say that he is trying to explore how narrative can serve explanation. This is not an unreasonable point to make; but for anyone of a philosophical bent it opens a real can of worms (if not several).
The most important can of worms is the very nature of explanation itself. I had A9 do an exact phrase search on “nature of explanation;” and the Amazon.com frame came up with 1355 books. My guess is that most of them have their roots in analytic philosophy, all sharing a positivist streak that can be traced back to Hempel (or someone who inspired Hempel). In my own intellectual development this is basically the pile of manure in the barn that convinces me that there must be a pony somewhere in the vicinity (but not in the pile of manure)! All that means, though, is that I am still looking for the pony.
However, finding the pony is only part of the story. Once you home in on the nature of explanation, you still have to worry about communicating an explanation to others. In other words you have to account for an explanation, and usually we do this by articulating it through text. This is another can of worms, since we now encounter all the subtleties associated with different text types and how we arrive at communication and understanding through those text types.
On the other hand, if we go back to Ancient Greece (well, if we go back to either Plato or Socrates as Plato tried to represent him), we discover that the two cans merge into one. The label on that can is the Greek noun λόγος, which means all sorts of things that, taken together, seem to orbit around the concept of an explanatory account rendered as text. (This is why “ology” is such a great suffix. The validity of the explanatory account is not necessarily part of the story. So “scientology” involves λόγος as much as “neurology” does!)
The good news is that, with all my experience in writing, I am never afraid of text. Furthermore, as my own blog header tries to proclaim, I do not try to hide from uncertainty or complexity behind fear, superstition, and/or pettiness. However, this may be an occasion to reflect on some wisdom of Richard Feynman:
In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear, and that is certainly universally the case in human affairs. Hence, what is not surrounded by uncertainty cannot be the truth.
Thus, I am beginning to feel that just about any action we take (not to mention the decision-making preceding that action) cannot help but be “surrounded by uncertainty;” and all we can to do manage is to keep expressing ourselves through texts that we utter and/or write, knowing full well that they will never be clearer than our all-too-muddled thoughts! In other words the final say goes to one of Feynman's most honored predecessors, Niels Bohr:
Never express yourself more clearly than you think.