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16th August 1993

Human Values as Strange Attractors

Coevolution of classes of governance principles

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Paper prepared for the 13th World Conference (Finland, August 1993) of the World Futures Studies Federation (WFSF). Theme: Coherence and chaos in our uncommon futures -- visions, means, actions. Scheduled for presentation to the group 'Creativity and Actors in Chaos'. An abridged version entitled Values as Strange Human Attractors appeared in UNiS Journal (Dramatic University), 5, 1994, 3, pp. 12-30
Methodological preamble
Value confusion
Values as "attractors"
"Strangeness"; in value-governed behaviour
Comprehending the complexity of the value surface
Self-organization and its catalysts
Global structuring of value sets
Neglected values
Beyond 'equilibrium' values
Reconciling the established and the emergent
Demystification and self-mapping
Functional relations between classes
Phases, transitions and world views
Indications for understanding of value systems
Class discrimination and demonizing
Towards an enantiomorphic polity


Many have commented on the chaos of the times and the increasing impotence of institutions and disciplines in their response to it -- Bosnia is but the most blatant example. A major characteristic of the period is the role attributed to human values in guiding behaviour at all levels of society -- to the extent that even the most cynical commercial interests are obliged to recognize values held by the most 'other-oriented' market sectors. And yet despite the plethora of studies on values it would seem that we are no closer to understanding their nature or in agreeing on their variety.

The 1990s suggest a need to embrace chaos in some fashion, and chaos theory provides a fashionable set of insights that take us beyond those of past decades. This paper is concerned with exploring some ways of understanding human values in the light of such insights -- and what this could mean for both social innovation and social coherence in the immediate future.

There appears to have been little attention to human values in the study of complexity. Of the many eminent contributors to the United Nations University symposium on complexity, only two make significant mention of values. Peter Allen (1984) focuses on the ability to construct 'collective values' to take into account the different perceptions of policy makers of the possible future evolution of a system. Pentti Malaska (1984), in a concluding comment, raises the much more fundamental issue of the extent to which we can consider values as being rigid and unalterable:

'To what extent are they alterable and to what degree a matter of choice? Do we possess this type of value capacity?....If we accept that a capacity for changing values exists, we can more easily discuss moving over to a new society where things other than material values and the fulfilment of tangible needs are the major objectives.'


This paper builds on work undertaken since 1972 in connection with the Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential (1991), of which a fourth edition will be published in 1994. This long-term information programme of the Union of International Associations complements that of its Yearbook of International Organizations. Together these databases cover the networks of some 20,000 internationally active organizations and the networks of 13,000 problems they choose to recognize and with which their members choose to identify.

Of more relevance to this paper, is that most such nonprofit organizations explicitly acknowledge some values as the basis for their initiatives. Furthermore, social conditions can only be conceived as problematic in the light of some value, however implicit. Many aspects of human development, notably those inspired by different spiritual traditions, can be usefully understood both as achieving realization of new qualitative insights and as giving behavioural form to them. It is through the conflicting pursuit of such values, and in the interpretation of rival values as 'negative', that the majority of world problems are engendered.

It is for this reason that the Encyclopedia programme includes an extensive exploration of 'human values'. Currently this is based on some 1,500 'positive' or 'constructive' values, and some 1,900 'negative' or 'destructive' disvalues. The disvalue set has been developed in conjunction with the set of problems to ensure a reciprocal sharpening of focus. Positive and negative values are interrelated through some 250 value polarities. It is the set of these polarities which is the subject of experiments in classification to determine the nature of one (or more) coherent value sets. Hopefully the dimensions of such sets can be related to those on which so many initiatives towards value coherence have been based.

Methodological preamble

(a) The lesson of 'networking': The 1970s and 1980s may usefully be thought of as thenetworking decades. They saw the recognition of the limitations of hierarchy and a reinterpretation of many individual and collective behaviours in terms of networks. Networking became fashionable at all levels of society -- even amongst intergovernmental organizations. Given the mathematical tools available for the analysis of networks, and even the development of a discipline of social network analysis, it is surprising that few if any of those insights came to influence the operation of any social networks. Indeed it would be difficult to trace social or institutional networks that had been designed in the light of such insights.

Furthermore, despite the computer technology used to display networks of electrical grids, circuits, road networks, molecules, and the like, little (if any) of that has been used to visualize social or conceptual networks as a guide to improved psycho-social dynamics. Few people, social activists included, ever consider the advantages of visualizing their own network of colleagues and friends -- however neatly the addresses and phone numbers are held in each others' 'relational' databases. This may not be true within security and intelligence services.

It would be fair to conclude that in the social realm 'network' succeeded to a far greater degree as a metaphor rather than as a mathematical insight -- whatever the views of those with technical competence in network theory. This lesson should not be lost in considering the insights of relevance to social organization that are to be obtained from chaos theory and their probable impact on society.

(b) Role of metaphor: This view is reinforced by statements from key members of the Sante Fe Institute (USA), specifically established by the best and the brightest to explore with mathematical rigour the science of complexity in the light of chaos theory. For the director of their first economic initiative (1987-89), W Brian Arthur: 'Nonscientists tend to think that science works by deduction. But actually science works mainly by metaphor. And what's happening is that the kinds of metaphor people have in mind are changing....Instead of relying on the Newtonian metaphor of clockwork predictability, complexity seems to be based on metaphors more closely akin to the growth of a plant from a tiny seed, or the unfolding of a computer program from a few lines of code, or perhaps even the organic, self-organized flocking of simpleminded birds.' (Waldrop, pp. 327 and 329; see also p. 149)

Arthur indicates that the institute's role is to look at the ever-changing river of complexity and to understand what they are seeing. 'So we assign metaphors. It turns out that an awful lot of policy-making has to do with finding the appropriate metaphor. Conversely, bad policy-making almost always involves finding inappropriate metaphors. For example it may not be appropriate to think about a drug 'war', with guns and assaults. So, from this point of view, the purpose of having the Sante Fe Institute is that it, and places like it, are where the metaphors and vocabulary are being created in complex systems.' (Waldrop, p. 334)

Ironically, the process of articulating such understanding with mathematical 'rigour' necessarily has to be contrasted with the 'mere' metaphors from which such understanding derives. When articulated in a rigorous computer simulation, the simulation may be recognized of greatest value as a new metaphor (Waldrop, p. 334), precisely because it is an abstraction of limited relevance to understanding the real complexities of current social concerns.

(c) Sociology of chaos: On the occasion of a conference on the relevance of chaos theory to social coherence, there is some merit in being attentive to the social psychology of those advancing understanding in this arena. Thus Katherine Hayles notes: 'Although the history of chaos theory has scarcely begun to be written, it has already become problematic. It has two main branches; and each seems determined to ignore the other. The first branch, represented within Gleick's book (1987) concerned with the order hidden within chaotic systems...The second branch focuses on the order that arises out of chaotic systems.' (Hayles, p 12). She notes that many practitioners in nonlinear dynamics now avoid the term 'chaos' as somehow 'unprofessional' in their concern with practical and technical problems.

It is tragic that an approach which is claimed to have so much relevance to social systems reveals such blatant weaknesses in taking account of psycho-social dimensions that are likely to be vital to making any effective use of it in such domains. Hayles asks: 'Why should the split have occurred between the two branches? That it exists is apparent. After reading Gleick's book (1987), one would not know that Ilya Prigogine's work has substantiated connections with the science of chaos; and after reading Prigogine's and Stenger's Order Out of Chaos (1984)... one would not know that many of the figures lionized in Gleick's text had made significant contributions to the field.' (Hayles, pp. 12-13) And even though she includes Rene Thom (1975) with Prigogine in the second branch, the personal dynamics around the failure to interrelate their perspectives is a matter worthy of study.

The history of the development of the Sante Fe Institute (Waldrop, 1992) cited above reveals similar phenomena -- even though the development of the institute was jokingly recognized by its science board as an emergent phenomenon in its own right -- 'a joke they actually took quite seriously' (Waldrop, p. 248). But from that text it would be difficult to conclude that any work of significance had been undertaken outside the USA 'in forging the first rigorous alternative to the kind of linear, reductionist thinking that has dominated science since the time of Newton' (Waldrop, p. 13). Furthermore it is made clear that it is only exceptionally that specialists from social sciences other than economists are included in its uniquely 'interdisciplinary' and 'rigorous' approach to complexity. And yet it is also made clear how the institute has been torn by personal and factional dynamics. After the disasters of 'global modelling', it is a pity that the rigours of such mathematics cannot be shown to be relevant to the complexities of value conflicts in the real world of government policy-making! It is precisely those values that economists have chosen to overvalue that are the origin of much of the difficulties at this time. And it is questionable whether the more rigorous sciences can have any understanding of 'value' in human systems.

One concern in this paper is therefore to respond more creatively to the process of making distinctions essential to greater insight. In this process it seems to be necessary to attach negative value to 'old' approaches in order to establish the identity of the 'new' -- this may even take the form of demonizing the old with appropriate political or religious labels. But both will continue to attract adherents in a learning society. To the extent that an emphasis is placed on coevolution, ways must be found to relate both such seemingly incompatible realities. It could be argued that an approach matures when it is able to track its own evolution and its own dynamics. At this point those most skilled in nonlinear dynamics would seem to be victims of dynamics to which there insights purportedly apply. As Hayles says, why do such splits form? For a discipline that specializes in understanding bifurcation, it has been remarkably unsuccessful in explaining its own evolution. Can a coherent approach to the challenges of governance emerge from such chaotic and unself-reflexive sociodynamics?

(d) Challenge for the valuing participant observer: To date the development of chaos theory has seemingly been based on the insights of detached observers pursuing the scientific programme of elaborating communicable explanations offering some predictive power -- notably for those in positions of power. The drama of the times is the manner in which individuals and groups, whatever their degree of empowerment, are faced with increasing levels of uncertainty. Human values are in flux and subject to challenge. People have to deal with incompatible values on a daily basis. Only in ideal circumstances can explanations be adequately delivered or marketed as products to respond to this condition.

In what follows the focus is therefore on how participant observers might envisage responding with greater confidence to seemingly chaotic value situations. The insights of chaos theory are used to suggest ways of structuring experience and response to such situations. The subjective experience of chaos should not be forgotten -- especially to the extent that each actively defines to some degree the reality he chooses to inhabit (as the social constructionists argue). It is worth noting the effort to apply catastrophe theory to subjective experience (Postle,1980).

How people appropriate the insights of chaos theory and use (and misuse) them to structure their understanding and social relationships may be of much greater relevance to the structuring of the immediate future of society than how that future is explained within the social sciences in terms of chaos theory. Analysis aside, the social sciences have notably failed to contribute much to the actual process of social innovation and community design.

Value confusion

It could be said that there are various kinds of confusion about human values:

(a) What are values? There are many definitions and innumerable studies. No definition has attracted widespread consensus. One would be hard put to locate a useful definition of values within the international community that is not challenged by some alternative definition that is valued by others. This does not of course prevent frequent reference to the 'fundamental importance' of values by major organizations and other authorities. In an important sense it might be concluded that values do not lend themselves to ready definition (for which politicians are probably more than thankful). They may even be valued by the more sensitive precisely because they readily escape the facile definitions and labels with which they are associated. Important conflicts arise over differing interpretations of values, however defined.

(b) How many values are there? This question raises the issue of whether it is even appropriate to conceive of values as in some way discrete. There are a few checklists of values but they have attracted little attention. The international community has no checklist of values. What tends to happen is that values are buried in texts of declarations and resolutions in such a way that it becomes impossible to register them effectively or to deduce how many values are recognized by UNESCO, for example -- despite the importance attached to values by that body. Some academic studies of prime interest to commercial market research have given rise to a limited number of value clusters. Such clusters are however more descriptive of individual behaviour patterns of consumers than they are of values such as peace, justice, etc. How many 'family values' are there? There would indeed be many who would not regret the difficulty in enumerating values.

(c) Values and language: To what extent is the nature of values conditioned by the language used to refer to them? Whether from a deconstructionist or a constructionist perspective, any traditionally straightforward approach to values fails to account for significant advances in understanding of the cognitive implications of language over past decades. And what of the plethora of words through which values are labelled -- many of them synonyms or overlapping in connotation to different degrees, with many others carrying nuances which the arts cherish in articulating sensitivity to value variants ?

(d) Consensus on fundamental values: There have been many initiatives over the past decades to identify a core set of universal values on which 'everyone should agree'. It is safe to say that those constituencies who have been convinced by this perspective have each generated sets of 5 to 10 values that have significantly failed to convince others -- as religious initiatives failed before them in imposing their respective versions of the 'Ten Commandments'.

Conservative groups have expressed regret at the 'abandonment' of fundamental values. Walter Truett Anderson (1990) however reviews the challenge as follows: 'The conservative indictment is correct, and yet the strategy that logically follows from it -- to rebuild consensus, to get a core of standard values and beliefs in place in every American mind -- is doomed to fail. To see that you only need to look at the variety of things being offered by people who are in favour of some such consensus building' (p. 4). He comments on a group of conflicting proposals then continues:

Whilst token acknowledgement may be given to various forms of value consensus, initiatives of this kind tend to be based on an extreme form of naivety in expecting that such consensus will be of any operational significance across cultures. Preparations for the historic United Nations Conference on Human Rights (Vienna, June 1993) were characterized by considerable acrimony on the part of non-Western countries concerned at the attempt by industrialized countries to impose their values on developing countries. Also significant was the conflict between collective rights and individual rights and the trend towards imposing a single category of human rights as a condition of development assistance. The level of disagreement was such that by the end of 1992 it was doubtful whether the event would take place. It could be argued that this approach has been less than successful in part because of the almost pathological fear of any form of disagreement exhibited by its proponents. As a result any consensus is conceptually simplistic. Most tragic is that by asking defining the challenge in a simplistic manner it prevents exploration of richer patterns of coherence that allow for (and may even depend upon) a high degree of disagreement (Judge, 1992).

(e) Value relativism: As Anderson so clearly indicates, whatever the attitude to postmodernism, there is an increasing need to deal with value relativism and to be able to relate to those holding different values -- and especially the fundamentalists enraged by this apparent failure to distinguish between right and wrong. Value relativism is even advocated as a valuable advance over the constraints of traditional value patterns. For many 'anything goes', and rightly so.

(f) Value creation: The emergence of a high degree of value relativism, however much it is regretted in some quarters, has favoured educational programmes emphasizing the subjectivity of values and encouraging 'value clarification'. By this is meant that individuals should develop whatever values they themselves consider appropriate to their circumstances (Anderson, p. 14). In some sense values may themselves take the form of an 'emergent' phenomenon -- a matter of concern if their future emergence is not to be inappropriately constrained.

To what extent does chaos theory offer new insights through which a richer approach to values can emerge? This should presumably strike a more fruitful balance between the relativism of individual values and a measure of collective constraint in a turbulent society.

Values as 'attractors'

One of the key insights of chaos theory is that of strange attractors. Is there a sense in which human values can be usefully understood as strange attractors?

A prime characteristic of a strange attractor is that it is defined as the focus of a pattern of seemingly chaotic behaviour. But it is the pattern that signals the presence of that focus which cannot be identified in any other way. Like strange attractors, human values do not manifest in any tangible manner but rather through interpretations of the way behaviour is governed. But the intangible attractor may indeed be a matter of direct subjective experience under appropriate conditions of human development -- as practitioners of some spiritual traditions would claim.

There is certainly a sense in which behaviour can be understood as 'meandering around' in such a way as to define attractor poles. Whilst there may be extremes, often of the most regrettable kind, behaviour is eventually pulled back into an orbit around one or more attractors. Some forms of behaviour may thus exhibit highly eccentric orbits, but the pull towards the attractor remains fundamental -- even if it may be barely sensed at its most extreme points by those involved.

There is also a sense in which behaviour may be described as trapped by particular attractors. However it may also drift in such a way as to be temporarily captured by another. From this perspective behaviour may be seen as swinging between and around attractors. Chaos theory may offer insights into the laws governing such behaviour.

There are also ways in which behaviour in society appears in some way to be 'pulled forward' as a whole by the value complex and away from the disvalue complex. There may however be many doubts as to the nature of such 'progress' and whether there is some Omega Point as a kind of psycho-social equivalent to the ultimate reversal of the cosmic Big Bang. Thus for Rupert Sheldrake: 'The final unified attractor and the primal unified state of the Big Bang have a symmetrical relationship' (Abraham, et al, p. 11)

'Strangeness' in value-governed behaviour

Maximization of behaviour in response to one value is subject to a well-known phenomenon of reversal -- named in classical Greek drama as enantiodromia (Thompson, 1985). In this sense no particular value is completely satisfactory to an individual or a social group --especially when experienced in its purest form. Paradoxical attractions to other values emerge quite unexpectedly. Much has been made of this in romantic literature and many have experienced the communication problems between the sexes. Equivalent surprises in socio-political systems are also not lacking.

What in fact makes values valuable? As with dietary variation, it is as though there was a need to vary the pattern of behaviour by which development is nourished -- even to the point of pursuing the illusory greenness of more distant fields. Within this metaphor, there are those who yearn for a single complete foodstuff (a form of mana from heaven or the ultimate food-pill). Others speak in terms of a regular diet of certain basic foodstuffs (carbohydrates, protein, etc) required for human health -- with passionate claims for particular diets. But when it comes to taste, the preferences pursued vary enormously -- irrespective of the value to health. As such, the sociology of diet producers and consumers offers useful insights into the sociology of value producers and consumers. A number of computer studies of complexity are based on the supply of 'foodstuffs' in ecosystems of artificial lifeforms. These could be adapted as a basis for studying values.

The current search for a sustainable pattern of 'sustainable development' poses many dilemmas concerning the balance to be struck between the attractions of different values -- for many of which there are calls for maximization. For example, the key figure in the Brundtland Commission, responsible for the concept of sustainability, has agreed to reopen whaling from Norway in response to the appeals from local whaling communities whose cultural and economic heritage is endangered. There is an incredible naivety to the assumption that the values embodied in the different chapters of Agenda 21, approved by the Earth Summit (1992), can be successfully balanced by treating each in isolation, or as the subject of bi-sectoral horsetrading deals. Any integrative perspective is significantly lacking -- especially after exclusion of the overpopulation issue (Judge, 1992).

Even in the much simpler situations of one-on-one psychotherapy, where integrative perspectives are assumed by both therapist and client, rationally agreed initiatives may prove relatively futile and unproductive. As a result one school of psychotherapy favours'paradoxical' strategies to trigger more appropriate modes of behaviour. The client may be encouraged to engage in precisely that form of behaviour that is recognized to be dysfunctional and opposed to the values that he purportedly seeks to cultivate.

Many values, which at first sight seem completely positive, can induce behaviour that is recognized as dysfunctional -- to a degree that compensating behaviours based on incompatible or opposing values are called for. This paradoxical feature is well-recognized in oriental cultures, notably Taoist, for which positive qualities contain negative elements, just as negative qualities contain essential positive elements

Comprehending the complexity of the value surface

Perhaps the great merit of chaos theory is its ability to orient understanding to respond creatively to complexity. As such it is a tool to counter-balance the simplistic efforts of the many honourable initiatives to come up with a set of values applicable to all in a complex, multi-cultural society subject to a wide variety of pressures. These often result in a construction as inappropriate as a horse-and-buggy in a down-town traffic jam, however elegant it may appear. These initiatives have so far failed to attract universal support but they continue to raise hopes and divert conceptual effort from more complex approaches that might prove more appropriate.

A conceptually richer approach might also give a more solid foundation to that widespread intuition that such a seemingly simple set of values should indeed 'exist' in some form. But just as a 3-stage space rocket may be composed of 3 cylindrical forms, this does not mean that juxtaposition of 3 cylindrical forms makes for an operational rocket. There is more to ensuring the viability of a 3-value set than the simple juxtaposition of 3 value charged words representing the flavours-of-the-month of the international community.

What makes for a viable set of values? And how is such a set to be comprehended? Consider the following progression: