3rd February 2008 | Draft
In Quest of Optimism Beyond the Edge
through avoidance of the answering process
- / -
Reflections on the question
Res extensa vs Res cogitans
"In-the-box" vs "Out-of-the-box"?
A curious analogy?
Not-knowing and uncertainty
Res cognita vs Res incognita:
reframing the edge of the known?
A-void-dance as intimate sensing
Optimizing the individual and collective learning process
Learning from this commentary
Synchronicity in playfully questioning the complexity of the edge
Each year the World Question
Center, initiated by The
Edge, formulates a
question that is submitted to a network of people of appropriate eminence in
a relevant field. The Edge
Annual Question of 2007 is as follows:
|What are you optimistic about? Why?
As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic.
Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better.
Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks
to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools
and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better
questions, ever better put. What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise
The 160 responses are
available on the Edge website. They have also been presented in a book edited
by John Brockman (What are You Optimistic About? 2007).
The following is a commentary on an encounter by the writer with that set
of responses. It follows from earlier responsibility for the Encyclopedia
of World Problems and Human Potential, use of its databases to generate
questions of possible significance (Generating
a Million Questions from UIA Databases: Problems, Strategies, Values,
2006), an effort to derive significance from them (Preliminary
NetMap Studies of Databases on Questions, World Problems, Global Strategies,
and Values, 2006), a concern with fixation on the positive (Being
Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge of positive vs negative,
2005) and with questions of a "higher order", and a continuing preoccupation
with the challenge of comprehension (Musings
on Information of Higher Quality,
1996). Aspects of these initiatives notably enabled the work of the
German Research Centre for Artificial
its development of a question-based interactive web media facility for Dropping
a Living Library, 2006).
Reflections on the question
The Edge question to scientists itself raises the question as to the manner
in which science can be described as "fundamentally optimistic" when
has never been considered a meaningful concept in conventional "science".
How then can it be asserted to be "fundamentally optimistic"? Is
it more appropriate to consider that scientists in some way believe themselves
and the application of their methodology to be optimistic?
As a belief, how
is such a belief to be distinguished from that associated with other "belief
systems" ? This suggests
that it might have been appropriate to consider how the question would have
been answered within other belief systems -- as "states of mind" that
consider themselves to be "fundamentally optimistic". Religions are
an obvious example. If "put to the question", how would those of
religious persuasion have addressed that question?
The question asserts that "Science
figures out how things work and thus can make them work better". Presumably
this assertion would also hold for other belief systems which would each consider
that acceptance of their recommendations would "make things work better" --
if only through following the basic precepts of their preferred cognitive or
spiritual discipline. Implicit in the 160 responses however is the technical
application of scientific knowledge and the unquestioned positive evaluations
of the consequences of such application (in a "fix-it" mode) -- which
some at least would consider merit debate.
In a period suffering from hype and spin at the hands of every institution,
discipline and belief system, it is unfortunate that the question included
the assertion that "Much of the news... can be made good, thanks to ever deepening
knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques".
The discussion below is effectively a commentary on the final assertion in
the above question, namely that "Science,
on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put."
The question enjoined respondents to "surprise us" by the focus
of their optimism. But curiously most of the surprises presented had long been
anticipated by theoreticians, and/or, embodied in science fiction. The possibility
of "surprising surprises" was barely considered. What kinds of surprises
are in store for those for whom 9/11 was a surprise?
A first reading of the responses was quite disappointing. As might be expected
many of the responses of scientists are characterized by explicit or implicit "techno-optimism" --
especially when the solutions advocated are effectively presented as "silver
bullets" to deal with some currently recognized crisis. The quality of
healthy doubt and uncertainty regarding the methodology of science, and its
ability to enhance its capacity to move beyond its conventional (unquestioned)
patterns, seemed remarkably low.
Although forced by evolution of fundamental physics to recognize potential
implications of quantum theory and the results confirming it, the embedded
implications regarding patterns of thinking appeared to be far less obvious
in the responses. Uncertainty and probability were not apparent in the "can
do" approaches to planetary issues such as global warming. The technological
fixes proposed within the current techno-optimisitic mindset take no account
of disastrous consequences, considered to be of "low probability",
that may be associated with them -- as so ably documented by Nassim
Nicholas Taleb (The
Black Swan Effect: the impact of the highly improbable, 2007). In
a countervailing spirit of optimism, presumably analogous arguments could
be made for the serendipitous consequences of other events considered to be
"low probability" -- as those of spiritual inclination might claim.
Is it appropriate to consider that the set of responses was characterized
by "in-the-box" thinking and did not get into "out-of-the-box"
thinking beyond its "edges" -- however ironic that might be given
the source of the question?
Contrasting approaches might have been recognized, such as:
- the call by Jennifer Atlee,
Susan Cannon and
Peggy Holman for "Phoenix
Conversations" -- namely "A Call
to Prepare Together for Uncertain Futures" -- described as follows:
An undercurrent of conversations is bubbling in all sectors -- among
business people, government officials, futurists, activists, citizens
over back fences and blogs... There is a growing sense of crisis that
neither mainstream leaders nor the public quite know what to do with.
Many of us are talking about it in our own circles, separately, out of
the public eye. Very little of this conversation is visible in the mainstream
press and political debates, so we don't realize how many other people
and institutions are discussing it.
Practically everyone has an opinion about this uneasy topic of crisis.
Indeed, there is widespread, legitimate disagreement about the extent
to which a "perfect
storm" of complementary crises may be emerging in the near future, involving,
but not limited to: * peak oil, accelerating climate change, serious
economic disruption, loss of democracy, significant resource depletion
(including fresh water and arable land), international instability and
terrorism, increasingly disruptive technology developments and "wild
such as pandemics. [see also The
- other ways of knowing with which scientists may claim to be less comfortable
-- which nevertheless constitute a source of optimism especially in cases
where science and technology seemingly have little of immediate relevance
Where are the surprises of a degree corresponding to that associated with
the much-cited Bohr-Pauli exchange. Niels
declared in response to Wolfgang
Pauli: "We are all agreed that your
theory is crazy. The question which divides us is whether it is crazy enough
to have a chance of being correct. My own feeling is that it is not crazy enough." To
which Freeman Dyson
"When a great innovation appears, it will almost certainly be in a muddled,
incomplete and confusing form. To the discoverer, himself, it will be only
half understood; to everyone else, it will be a mystery. For any speculation
which does not at first glance look crazy, there is no hope!" (Innovation
in Physics, Scientific American, 199, No. 3, September 1958)
Could the challenge of the differences between the perspectives offered by
the respondents, and their disparagement of each others "craziness"
be fruitfully seen in this light? Investment in this possibility might offer
more hope than seeking crudely to eliminate and demonize insights that may,
in some as yet unknown way, be vital to the future creativity and diversity
Res extensa vs Res cogitans
On first reading of the collection of responses, the one that seemed most
extraordinary was that of quantum physicist Anton
Zeilinger (The Future
of Science, Religion and Technology, 2007 -- titled only as The
Future of Science on the Edge website) who notes:
So far science is guided by the, in my eyes fallacious, Cartesian cut between
res cogitans and res extensa. It is wrong to believe that the world out there
exists independent of our observation. But it is equally wrong to believe
that it exists only because of our observation. We have to and we will
find a completely new way of looking at the world which will fully transcend
our present materialistic paradigm. After all, we have learned in quantum
physics that all concepts of material existence evaporate. In the end we
are left with probability fields, probabilities of the results of observations.
This view is not in itself unique. David Peat (Trapped
in a World View -- website preview entitled Is
there a language problem with quantum physics?, New
Scientist, #2637, 5 January 2008) notes:
Language contains deep assumptions about space, time and causality -- assumptions
that do not apply to the quantum world.
It was a theme variously explored by mathematician Vasily
V Nalimov (In the Labyrinths of Language: a mathematician's
journey, 1981; Realms
of the Unconscious: the enchanted frontier, 1982) as
summarized elsewhere (Probabilistic
vision of the world) [more]. Zeilinger however continues:
I am optimistic about the future of religion. We will learn to shed the unessential
dogmas, rules, definitions, prejudices which have been collected by the religions
over centuries and millennia. We will learn that they have been created out
of feelings of insecurity, out of an innate need of mankind to define and understand
even the undefinable and ununderstandable. I am convinced that in all major
religions we will discover the essentials of what it means to be human in this
world.... The present battle between science and religion will some day be
seen as a battle between two positions where neither one is justified even
from their own perspective.
Framed in this way there is an implication that there might be some kind of
cognitive and strategic "gateway" between the seemingly opposed
worldviews of science and religion. The nature of that gateway, in terms of
the paradigm shift implied, would clearly be vital to a new kind of response
to the world "without" (res
a new relationship with the world "within" (res
Unsurprisingly, some respondents indeed framed their optimism
in terms of the final elimination of religion as the fundamental hindrance
to a comprehensive scientific worldview. In contrast Zeilinger's indication
could well enable a radical reframing of the supposedly "external"
problems (global warming, resources, poverty, etc) in the light of new understanding
of the mindsets that in some way sustained them -- whether in terms of new
insight or in terms of new comprehension of more traditionally worded insights
(cf My Reflecting
Mirror World: making my World Summit on Sustainable Development worthwhile,
2002). As such this could prove "surprisingly" fruitful in what is
essentially a stuck conceptual situation in which many would argue that global
leadership has both "lost the plot" (as implied by the above call
for Phoenix Conversations) and is in deep denial regarding such inadequacy.
Any optimism dependent on the elimination of those that offer a contrary
view might be appropriately considered to be fundamentally inadequate. The
view of Gregory Bateson (Mind
and Nature: a necessary unity, 1979) offers
more challenging leads.
Although the original question courageously framed science as "a state of
mind", unfortunately, amongst a plethora of optimistic techno-fix responses
to a challenging future, this view was only partially echoed by the response
of Donald D. Hoffman (Solving
the Mind-Body Problem, 2007, titled on the Edge website as We
Will Soon Devise a Scientific Theory for the Perennial Mind-Body Problem).
Consistent with the view of David Peat, for example, Hoffman argued that:
Evidence is mounting that the mind-body problem requires revision of deeply
held presuppositions. The most compelling evidence to date is the large and
growing set of proposals now on offer. All are nonstarters. They are, to quote
Pauli, not even wrong. We have yet to see our first genuine scientific theory
of the mind-body problem....
I am optimistic, however, that the obstacle is not in our genes but in our
presuppositions. Tinkering with presuppositions is more clearly within the
purview of current technology than tinkering with our genes. Indeed, tinkering
with one's presuppositions requires no technology, just a ruthless reconsideration
of what one considers to be obviously true. Science has risen to the task before.
It will rise again. But progress will be tortuous and the process psychologically
wrenching. It is not easy, even in the light of compelling data and theories,
to let go of what once seemed obviously true.
In contrast with the strong statement of Zeilinger, however, that of Hoffman's
implies little need to change the scientific mindset that is assumed might
somehow achieve this reframing through a form of scientific "business
This is seemingly in complete contrast with the kind of articulation offered
by other cognitive scientists (George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy
In The Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought,
1999; George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez, Where Mathematics Comes
From: how the embodied mind brings mathematics into being, 2001).
views are consistent with a surprising case study by Richard A. Koenigsberg
(Hitler's Ideology: embodied metaphor, fantasy, and history, 2008):
Hitler imagined that Germany was suffering from a "disease within the
body politic" caused by Jewish bacteria. In order to save the life of
the nation, it was necessary to destroy the source of Germany's disease.
Genocide represented the acting out of an immunological fantasy. Insofar
as knowledge is organized when a source domain gets mapped into a target
domain, it follows that Hitler's perception of a disease within the body
politic articulated a disease that Hitler experienced within his own body.
What was the nature of Hitler's (psychosomatic) disease? How does the suffering
of human beings get projected into culture, creating diseases such as war
The implications of such thinking for more appropriate forms of strategy have
been explored elsewhere (Consciously
Self-reflexive Global Initiatives: Renaissance zones, complex adaptive systems,
and third order organizations, 2007) and are highlighted in what follows.
Transcending the optimism of the original question, in reaction against a questionable
pessimism, there might then be some form of "transcendental optimism" of
greater realism and of a more cognitively radical nature.
Following the challenging reframing offered by Douglas
R. Hofstadter (Gödel,
Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid, 1979; I
Am a Strange Loop, 2007), the issue raised
by Anton Zeilinger brings into focus several forms of self-reference:
- that of the respondents as scientists reflecting on their profession, and
those aspects of it with which they disagree
- that of the respondents reflecting on the question and the nature of their
response, especially in the light of other responses with which they are
not in sympathy
- that of the Edge and the World Question Center in positioning themselves
as instigators of the process, handling its responses, and presumably
excluding some as inappropriate
- that of appreciators of the responses in general -- and those, such as
this writer in particular, in choosing to comment on them.
Questions which might then emerge include:
- the extent to which science is a belief system in a set of other belief
systems, each with their peculiarities. This raises the issue of how a set
of belief systems is to be understood in its diversified entirety, as explored
a Periodic Table of Religions, Epistemologies and Spirituality -- including
the sciences and other belief systems, 2007). If, as a mode
of knowing, science was to be compared to sight or vision, how is smell or
taste to be understood within a vision framework? How meaningless is it?
How much of significance can be transferred from "smell" to "vision" --
as explored in relation to synaesthesia?
- how views of a "scientist" are reconciled with those held by the same
- as a believer of some other kind?
- as an actor in a politicized or commodified system which may exert
pressures to which the "scientist" is acquiescent or in which
the scientist is complicit?
- how disagreement is to be processed and why consensus is held to be preferable?
- what is the understanding of how the future will "disagree" with
any currently emergent consensus?
The last points were partially addressed by one contributor
-- Gerald Holton (The
Increasing Coalescence of Scientific Disciplines, 2007) well-known
for his early comments on complementarity (The Roots of Complementarity,
Daedalus. 1970). However, given its prevalence, there
is surely a case for exploring more systematically the nature of disagreement,
especially if any consensus achieved is essentially premature and unstable.
The "coalescence" he notes might be better understood as acceptance
of the need for a bigger toolbox -- but without any significant insight into
a new methodology of multi-tool use. Shifting metaphors,
the chef may have a wider choice of ingredients and equipment but this says
nothing about the skills, recipes and parameters required to produce more
tasty, nourishing foods.
A more radical exploration might follow from the inquiry
of Nicholas Rescher (The
Strife of Systems: an essay on the grounds and implications of philosophical
diversity, 1985) into the disagreement
inherent in the relationships between schools of philosophy precluding any
prospect of agreement (from
his perspective). Given the manner in which philosophy and epistemology
underpin the methodology of scientific inquiry, this would suggest the need
for more radical explorations of the possibility of structures built on incommensurability
Method: engaging opposition in psycho-social organization, 1981; Using
Disagreements for Superordinate Frame Configuration, 1992). Given
the conflicts to which they give rise, the pathetic incapacity of religions
to process their disagreements confirms the inadequacy of approaches dependent
on "coalescence". A similar point might be made with regard to
the natural and social sciences and the manner in which various "sciences"
are marginalized, as variously explored by Paul
Method: outline of an anarchistic theory of knowledge,
In elaborating this commentary, how then is the set of questions as a whole
to be encountered? What might be understood as going on when faced with the
views of 160 people of eminence presenting a variegated optimistic understanding
of the future? One contributor clarified the inappropriate
past initiative to envisage a "unity of knowledge" -- despite
Holton's perspective. Another was optimistic that such will not be found
(Frank Wilczek, Physics
will not achieve a Theory of Everything, 2007).
What kind of coherence,
if any, is then to be expected from the encounter with the set of questions?
Is the emergent significance of any synthesis to be appropriately described
in terms of the delightful German term -- Buchbindersynthese --
namely a synthesis framed solely by the binding of the book in which the collection
of replies is set? Or perhaps by Projektlogiksynthese -- namely a
synthesis framed by the specifics of the task of the moment?
How then to interpret one's direct experience of the set of questions in the
- what does one "get out of it"? Namely what filters does one
apply in selecting patterns of significance and connecting the dots of meaning
- what does one "put into it"? Namely what significance
does one bring to it in supplying a connective pattern -- if such is to be
- how does one find reason to approve of particular responses as appropriate
and relevant whilst disapproving others as especially inadequate?
Beyond the edge of known territory, some incomplete maps of former times
(based on a flat Earth understanding) had zones labelled "here
As with such maps, perhaps it is useful to conceive of current frontier zones
of understanding as inhabited by equally surprising beasts. The "dragons" might
usefully be understood as markers for the need to transform metaphorically
the flatness of cognitive territory into one at least as complex as a sphere
-- to allow for self-reflexivity. Dragons are indeed convenient for this purpose
because of their association with the widespread symbol of the tail-biting
It is somewhat curious that a degree of (unresolved, if not unconscious)
polarization is built into the initiative by the World Question Center:
- a question posed is conventionally defined in polar relationship
answer sought. This is a particular way of framing any advance
in understanding and precludes the possibility of other modes which might
challenge the sufficiency of that mode and offer complementary modes or alternatives.
Such reframing is increasingly of relevance in fundamental physics and the
associated implications and insights for more appropriate awareness (Am
I Question or Answer? 2006)
- in stressing "optimism", and asserting
its value in contrast to that of "pessimism",
the initiative sets up a relationship that might be beneficially challenged.
Perhaps there are more appropriate and less dualistic forms of optimism?
The question is prefaced by the assertion "Science, on its frontiers,
poses more and ever better questions, ever better put". It is not so
evident from the responses what questions were "better put". Curiously,
from a cybernetic or systems perspective, to the extent that "optimism" is
associated with positive feedback and "pessimism"
with negative feedback, it is surely a more appropriate and integrative balance
between the two which is required, as argued elsewhere (Being
Positive Avoiding Negativity: management challenge of positive vs negative,
- the optimism of science was effectively contrasted with
a pessimism or inappropriateness characteristic of other modes of
knowing -- which science
has a marked tendency to disparage. Given the "two
(C P Snow, The Two Cultures, 1959), is this not a dynamic worthy
of a degree of future reframing -- with which a new kind of " optimism" might
be associated? Some reference was made to this possibility in the responses,
but surprising advances in methodology were not envisaged -- perhaps in contrast
with those tentatively explored by Nobel Laureate Hermann
Glass Bead Game, 1943). Given the above-mentioned work of George
Lakoff and other cognitive scientists, the future role of metaphor might
have been cited (cf Metaphors
as Transdisciplinary Vehicles of the Future, 1991; Guiding
Metaphors and Configuring Choices, 1991).
- implicit in the question, and in the call for optimism, is the challenge
of how to respond to the "news that can be made good" -- presumably
because it is "problematic" in some way. Curiously, and seemingly
consistent with the optimism sought, the implication that there are any concrete "problems" that
need to be urgently addressed is avoided -- if not dangerously denied. And
yet many of the respondents
frame their optimism in terms of the "problems" to be overcome
(climate change, energy, ignorance, disease, etc) by the technological "solutions"
they envisage. No effort was made to address the appropriateness of this
polarized problem-solution framing. Perhaps more fruitful framings may emerge
in the light of questions of a "higher order", as discussed elsewhere
with Questions of Higher Order: cognitive vigilance required for higher degrees
of twistedness, 2004).
The simplistic approach to polarization evident in the responses is in curious
total contrast to the sophisticated insights regarding "dualities" considered
appropriate to the fundamentals of string theory (cf Paul
Great Beyond: higher dimensions, parallel universes and the extraordinary search
for a Theory of Everything,
2004). Given the manner in which society is challenged by polarization and
duality, and the current "clash
of civilizations", is there not
a case for imagining the possible relevance of frameworks commensurate in complexity
with those appropriate to fundamental physics? Or are the psychosocial challenges
to be considered of far greater simplicity than those of fundamental physics
-- despite the virtually total incapacity to deal adequately with them?
What might this imply for any optimism regarding the capacity to implement
techno-fixes in complex psychosocial systems?
Physicists attach significance to the 10 (to 26) dimensions (of the
res extensa) of string theory in the full expectation that non-physicists
should believe them. Is it not then appropriate that those who invest years
of disciplined endeavour in the complexities (of the res cogitans)
of consciousness research should expect comparable belief from those who have
not -- especially when both approaches to a "Theory of Everything" are incomprehensible
Might it then be possible that those focused on res cogitans have
in some cases partially anticipated the insihts of physicists -- albeit through
other modes of knowing and explication -- or that each could learn from the
other? If there is a degree of isomorphism between the two, might one fruitfully
"appropriate" some cognitive patterns of the other?
"In-the-box" vs "Out-of-the-box"?
As suggested by the last point, it is appropriate to ask to what extent the
collection of responses reinforces "in-the-box" thinking, or even
a form of
"groupthink", that precludes the emergence of other modes of understanding
that may be more appropriate for the future. Specifically it would appear that
the geographical and cultural distribution of respondents obscures the possibility
of responses that might have emerged from those more sensitive to other modes
of knowing (Enhancing
the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors,
Gardening through Music: patterns of coherence for future African management
as an alternative to Project Logic, 2000).
From a scientific perspective, another mode might have emerged from consideration
of the adaptive cycle (a focus
of the Resilience
Alliance) and the consequent
need for resilience in anticipation of the probability of societal collapse
-- as most ably documented by Thomas
Homer-Dixon (The Upside of
Down: catastrophe, creativity, and the renewal of civilization, 2006).
The issue is how resilience in an adaptive cycle is to be understood in relation
to knowledge and belief systems -- as distinct from the adaptive cycle in social
and environmental systems (however these may be underpinned by a less tangible
cycle). Homer-Dixon rightly insists on the need to explore the means by which
psychosocial systems could be designed to "degrade
gracefully" in anticipating the
collapse phase of any such cycle. This design characteristic is now carefully
built into some technical systems vulnerable to collapse -- although the pursuit
of efficiency may preclude this in other cases. How might systems of knowledge
be designed to "degrade gracefully" -- if only in the case of aging scientists
obliged to experience loss of memory and senility in its various forms?
How is it that little of the "optimism" identified the possibility
of transcending the constraints of the scientific method itself -- seemingly
envisaged to be calling for little further improvement (as is the case with
other belief systems that science tends to disparage)? When scientists are
so optimistic about their theoretical and technical capacities in response
to the challenges of the future, how is it that the ability to explain (or
predict) the differences between them (as evident in the responses) is so modest
-- especially when such differences are rarely a significant factor in informing
In reflecting on one's experience in relation to the set of responses, they
usefully raises questions about the beliefs:
- one "buys into"
- one fabricates for oneself or one's group
- one is forced into by circumstances
Anthropologists have helpfully documented the extent to which notions of space
and time may be characteristic of particular cultures. With respect to time,
this notably extends to distinctions between linear time (as promoted
by western science, when time itself is not considered to be an illusion) and
circular time, perhaps including a sense of process reality. Such diversity
may be extended to the significance of relationships, but especially to a
sense of personal or group identity, notably as explored elsewhere (Emergence
of Cyclical Psycho-social Identity: sustainability as "psyclically" defined,
Kenneth Boulding (Ecodynamics;
a new theory of social evolution, 1978) makes the insightful point that:
Our consciousness of the unity of self in the middle of a vast complexity
of images or material structures is at least a suitable metaphor for the
unity of group, organization, department, discipline or science. If personification
is a metaphor, let us not despise metaphors -- we might be one ourselves.
In such terms, who are the respondents? Who do they think they are? Who are
those who declined to respond? What
might be understood about the identity of any person exposed to the responses
-- including this commentator? What are the relationships between these various
identities and how is this significant to any understanding of their "pessimism"
or "optimism" with regard to the future? Given the radical nature
of some theories of fundamental physics, what significance should be attached
to any sense of identity associated with either respondents or responses --
whether inferred or attributed, or to their possible "entanglement"?
The point might be most challengingly formulated in the statement of Gregory
Bateson (1972): "We are our own metaphor"
In perusing the responses, to what extent does one attribute significance
to the respondents and their responses? How appropriate or inappropriate is
that process? Are they to be recognized as "stars" in the universe of knowledge
-- whose "brightness" has been achieved by some special process combining accumulation
of "knowledge" and special "insight, as acknowledged by others in neighbouring
parts of that firmament?
What then of contrasting assessments, by other respondents
(or oneself), regarding their relative "brightness"? How should one's
own sense of insight be relativized by any such encounter? What significance
is to be attached to any personal sense of "resonating" with one
set of views rather than another? Why does variation of appreciation -- perhaps
derived from pre-logical biases -- not get fed back into assessment of the "objectivity" of
any degree of "optimism"? (cf Axes of Bias in
A curious analogy?
The responses are provided in a period of ever increasing recognition of information
overload and the incapacity to process significant proportions of it with any
adequacy (cf Coherent
Policy-making Beyond the Information Barrier: circumventing dependence on access,
classification, penetration, dissemination, property, surveillance, interpretation,
disinformation, and credibility,
1999). Knowledge generation is matched by attention deficiency and ready forgetfulness
-- if only as an appropriate psychological defence mechanism. This occurs
in a period when increasing attention is being given
to global warming and climate change -- the policy "flavour of the month",
as notably evident in the responses.
In systemic terms, there is a curious degree of isomorphism between the process
of carbon "emission" that is giving rise to global warming and the
quantity of information emitted in a variety of forms within a global society.
This accumulation, whether to be caricatured as "hot air" or not,
gives rise to a form of global warming -- as suggested by increasingly "heated" debate
between mutually opposed views. As concluded by the editors of Scientific
Hot Air Already -- to slow climate change, it's time to talk about real action, December
Talk is cheap. It's time for politicians to stop spewing hot air and start
enacting hard limits on dangerous emissions.
This debate might be caricatured as "overheated",
destabilizing, and capable of engendering various forms of social collapse.
Does the use of this metaphor in management of the economy and financial markets,
characterized by other forms of emission, point to intuitive collective understandings
of the generic challenge of global society -- as a form of "overheating"?
Is it possible that there is a characteristic common to the mindset that engenders
unrestrained carbon emissions and that which engenders unrestrained emission
of opinions and perspectives? Both might be seen as intimately bound up in
the intimate psychosocial process whereby identity is defined and affirmed
-- especially through any process of reproduction. This is most
likely to be the case if there is a degree of mirroring, resonance, entrainment
or entanglement between the processes of res
extensa and of res
cogitans -- as might be implied by recent research on mirror
In such terms there are striking relationships between:
- the reproductive drive, so important to individual psychology and any sense
of legacy, that nevertheless increases the population of the planet, its
use of energy and thereby engenders and sustains the global warming process
- the creative drive to assert opinions and to "make one's mark",
so important to affirming individuality
and affirming less tangible forms of legacy and recognition
Much of the controversy regarding global warming, to the extent that the phenomenon
was recognized, has been whether it was indeed problematic in the longer term.
Its disruptive effects on weather systems and rising sea levels (as a consequence
of melting ice caps) are however increasingly acknowledged. Are there equally
pernicious effects to be recognized as a consequence of "emissions" associated
with undisciplined individual and group creativity -- perhaps to be framed
as "opinionated" and disrespectful of traditional knowledge (especially
of the wisdom imputed by some to sacred literature)?
Is it now the decision-making ("whether") systems
that are effectively being chaotically disrupted? Furthermore, to the extent
that there is merit to the analogy, what is it that has been "locked up" in
cognitive "ice caps" that is now in the process of "melting"?
Curiously the response may lie, by comparison with the type of molecular
bonding associated with ice formation, with the psychosocial bonds
characteristic of the formation of coherent groups. There is no lack of
research to indicate the breakdown of traditional patterns of social bonding,
whether in terms of individual relationships, neighbourhood communities, or
on a wider scale -- to the level of the "clash of civilizations".
These processes have been noted as increasing individualism and alienation.
Ironically an equivalent to the "rising sea level" may perhaps be
found in the acclaimed emergence of an increasing sense of global community
-- potentially problematic in its marginalization of traditionally isolated "low-lying" cultural
Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge
Just as research is suggesting that the pattern of resource use, and the associated
global ecological footprint, may require 3-8 additional planets for
it to be sustainable, is it the case that a form of global psychosocial footprint
requires considerably more psychological space than currently envisaged? This
possibility would appear to be confirmed by the psychosocial pressures in high
density urban environments -- despite assumptions that humans can readily and
fruitfully adapt to such conditions on a long-term basis. The assumption that
sustainable lifestyles are feasible on a single planet (with suitable techno-fixes)
is then matched by the assumption that psychosocial tensions can be sustainably
contained within mega-city environments of the future. Indeed one respondent
specifically points to such lifestyles as the remedy for current planetary
ills (Stewart Brand, Cities
Cure Poverty, 2007).
Beyond the decision by the World Question Center to "emit" its annual
question, why did the respondents choose to "emit" their answers? Why the choice
of this writer to "emit"
this commentary? Such cases call for self-referential reflection if the insights
are not merely to be seen as a further contribution to information overload
-- cognitive global warming -- requiring appropriate defensive responses in
terms of selective attention.
It is intriguing that any such emission may be framed as having components
- a response from a particular perspective to a sense of inadequacy in the
pattern of knowledge that would otherwise be produced as definitive. This
implies a form of remedial, corrective response to the "pattern that
an effort to fine tune it to hold some personally intuited sense of greater
insight, coherence or even wisdom
- an effort to process the alienating "otherness" of some contributions
to the pattern, recognized as a challenge, and thereby to engender a larger
whole in the pattern
- a degree of presumption that putting in one's "10 cents worth" is
of some significance in the larger scheme of things, if only as an affirmation
of one's own identity
There is even a case for considering "emissions" of opinions and
explanations -- in academic papers, media pieces, internet discussion lists
or blogs -- as functioning in a manner similar to that of "greenhouse
effectively creating a closed conceptual greenhouse within which the creative
rays of a symbolic sun are trapped.
The human cognitive world
may be effectively dependent on such a sun, as myths of many cultures have
always implied -- indicating the existence of processes of psychosynthesis
functionally analogous to those of photosynthesis. This is in sympathy with
the recognition of belief systems as greenhouses within which it is unwise
to "throw stones" (cf Dynamically
Gated Conceptual Communities: emergent patterns of isolation within knowledge
society, 2004). There might even be some merit to considering
how peer review and gatekeeper processes act as appropriate constraints
on information emissions -- effectively anticipating the function of the constraints
of carbon trading on greenhouse gas emissions.
Not-knowing and uncertainty
In considering the appropriateness of a pattern of responses, and what that
pattern might seem to obscure or exclude, some sensitivity to forms of "not-knowing"
might have merit:
- In its simplest form, not knowing may only be a question of ignorance and
not seeking to know -- or a failure to understand. Typically this would be
associated with a form of complacency -- contentment with an habitual pattern
of thought. This might occur with the best informed as with the least informed.
The challenge of understanding a mathematical theorem might be a sophisticated
version of this form, as suggested by Øystein Linnebo in a review of
a study by Stewart
Shapiro (Philosophy of Mathematics:
Structure and Ontology, 1997):
Although I suspect Shapiro would not welcome this conclusion, it seems to
me it may point the way to a transformation of the traditional epistemological
problem posed by mathematical realism. Instead of being primarily a problem
about access to abstract objects, it now becomes a problem about our grasp
of mathematical concepts. The central notion is that of coherence. A theory
is coherent if it is in principle possible to assign a unique truth-value
to each of its sentences, observing the principles of logic. But in the vast
majority of cases, we're not actually able to determine what truth-value
is assigned to a sentence. What, then, does our understanding of the theory
- Not knowing of a different kind occurs with recognition of the possible
inadequacy of what is known and the need to explore beyond
its frontiers -- as motivated by curiosity. however that is to be scientifically
defined. Typically this is what drives research, the need to respond to anomalies,
and to challenges calling for unforeseen forms of remedial action. It also
drives the search for certainty through non-scientific belief systems from
divination to religion.
- Not knowing what to do might be distinct from the previous
case, especially for any individual tortured by existential doubt. It might
be a fruitful admission on the part of collectivities and leadership to guard
against tendencies to assume the adequacy of a strategy in situations where
it may be quite inappropriate. The doubt associated with accepting ignorance
of what to do may be a prerequisite for adequate dialogue amongst those who
together can conceive a way forward. No doubt, no dialogue! (Future
Generation through Global Conversation: in quest of collective well-being
through conversation in the present moment, 1997)
- In the recognized absence of certainty and adequate knowledge, a precautious
attitude may be cultivated -- the kind of not-knowing associated with the
precautionary principle. This is of course the strategic
posture favoured by those sensitive to the possibility of systemic surprises
arising from unforeseen combinations of events. The posture may also be associated
with any form of risk management -- raising the issue of how much weight
is to be attached to what is not known. It is of course significant to game-playing
in its more technical and strategic sense.
- Not knowing may also be cultivated as an attitudinal and philosophical
style that questions the value of seeking a high level of certainty regarding
the medium or long-term future. Here the issue is the attitude required for
living in the present moment, in terms of the information
available, accepting what might subsequently emerge -- however disruptive.
It specifically challenges the sense of insecurity associated with the need
to know in order to control.
Each of these modes may be simultaneously operative to some degree. Each
affects the need to ask questions, to answer them, and the manner of doing
so. Together they constitute a knowledge process that may well be fundamental
to the sustainability of a knowledge system underlying a society (cf Sustaining
the Quest for Sustainable Answers, 2003). Clearly a healthy balance
is required between them and any excessive development of one at the expense
of others is liable to prove dysfunctional. Excessive preoccupation with knowing
and the need for certainty is, for example, typical of obsessive over-control.
Res cognita vs Res incognita: reframing
the edge of the known?
One way of thinking about such disparate forms of (not) knowing is that of
the logical quadri-lemma especially favoured in some Eastern cultures -- as
noted by Kinhide Mushakoji (Global Issues and Interparadigmatic
Dialogue; essays on multipolar politics, 1988). This framework might be
used to make the following distinctions:
- knowing and not-knowing
- neither knowing nor not-knowing
Together these pose the question of the nature of the question-answer process
and the psychosocial engagement with it. As a psychoactive pattern, they are
together a challenge to any sense of identity (whether individual or collective)
dependent on particular forms of questioning or answering. They call for a
dynamic response that avoids dependence on one or the other -- but requires
an appropriate dance between them. This might be seen as consistent with the
traditional Sanskrit adage: Neti
Neti (Not-This, Not-That). The above interrelationships are discussed
in more detail elsewhere (Relating to the unknown -- beyond
denial, 2005). They might be fruitfully be considered as mapped onto
a complex plane to highlight the complexity of the boundary between the known
and the unknown (cf Psycho-social Significance of the
Mandelbrot Set: a sustainable boundary between chaos and order, 2005).
The contemporary framing of the challenge is that of US
Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld (DoD
News, 12 February 2002):
Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to
me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know
we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there
are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the
ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history
of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend
to be the difficult ones
This much-cited remark has been reviewed in the light of its inadvertent wisdom
(see Philip Stephens, Rumsfeld's
unwitting wisdom. Financial
Times, 12 December 2003). Whilst acknowledging that: "The chaos in
Iraq testifies to what happens when politicians substitute hubris for intelligent
thought" he acknowledges the merits of Rumsfeld's statement: "Sometimes
we can be certain about things; sometimes we know the direction to take but
are aware of gaps in our knowledge; and sometimes we just stumble around
in the dark". According to Stephens, compounding Rumsfeld's error in
ignoring his own advice, his unstated error is his assumption that the present
can be readily projected into the future.
These considerations all raise the challenge of how to navigate "betwixt and
- res extensa and res cogitans, or
- res cognita and res incognita
To what might traversing such a pass lead -- individually or collectively?
Will this be the discovery of the pioneers of the 21st century? Should such
possibilities be the focus of an optimism "beyond the edge" to deal with the
current cognitive challenge of polarized thinking:
- optimsism vs pessimism?
- positive vs negative?
- solutions vs problems?
- intellectual abstractions vs operational praxis?
- hope-mongers vs doom-mongers?
There are several Eastern patterns that provide degrees of complex coherence
appropriate to such a patterned dynamic:
- the style and process -- a blend of directness and indirectness -- of
the question and answer associated with the Zen
- the emergent integrative understanding of what has been ambiguously translated
as a Gateless Gate whose
nature is indicated through a classic collection of 48 Zen koans (Mumonkan; Wumenguan)
and their many commentaries.
- schematic and artistic representations in the form of psychoactive mandalas
In different ways these variously point to the importance of a form of central
cognitive (or epistemological) "emptiness" or nothingness (Shunyata)
as a focal reference. A mnemonic confirmation of this is to be found in the
widely distributed traditional Chinese talisman, the jade
bi disk (or pi disk), characterized by its empty
centre. Its shape may originate in the circular
path of the sun, with the central hole standing for the fixed Polar Star, or
for the philosophical principle of the Absolute (t'ai
chi) or "Absolute
Susantha Goonatilake (Toward a Global
Science: mining civilizational knowledge,
1999) presents a well-argued case for vigilant attentiveness to the insights
of relevance to future science and technology that may emerge from non-western
civilizations and cultures, notably those of South-East Asia (cf Enhancing
the Quality of Knowing through Integration of East-West metaphors,
2000). As an example, in the above-mentioned article by David Peat (Trapped in
a World View --
website preview entitled Is
there a language problem with quantum physics?, New Scientist,
#2637, 5 January 2008), he points to the compatibility of the process-oriented language of the Montagnais people
(of Canada) to understandings of quantum physics.
The fundamental cognitive implications of "void" are however more meaningful
from a Western perspective in terms of:
- understandings of ignorance in comparison with knowledge -- or even wisdom
-- and the implications for learning processes (cf Ronald Duncan, Encyclopedia
of Ignorance, 1978; UNESCO Philosophy Forum "What
do we not know?",
1995; Ayyam Sureau (Ed). What
We Do Not Know, 1996)
- the technological implications of the wheel, notably for purposes of transportation
- the scientific and cultural significance associated with (discovery of)
the concept of
zero or nothing
Kaplan, The Nothing that Is: a natural history of zero, 2000; John
D. Barrow. The Book of Nothing: vacuums, voids, and
the latest ideas about the origins of the universe, 2001)
- the function of communication "holes" around which communication
circulates within groups in large institutional structures (cf Ron Atkin, Combinatorial
Connectivities in Social Systems; an application of simplicial complex structures
to the study of large organizations, 1977), as summarized elsewhere
organization determined by incommunicability of insights)
- the astrophysical concept of void as
the empty spaces between filaments,
the largest-scale structures in the universe -- together with the associated
phenomena of black "holes"
- the architectural principles associated with void creation by
arching structures, notably those that are spherically symmetrical as with
those based on principles of
- the topological significance associated with the torus, notably as a dynamically
- the fluid dynamics that sustain the coherence of a torus as a dynamic
structure centred on a void (Comprehension
of Requisite Variety for Sustainable Psychosocial Dynamics: transforming
a matrix classification onto intertwined tori, 2006)
- the challenging technological possibilities of magnetohydrodynamics in
managing nuclear plasma in a toroidal fusion reactor, namely a tokamak
With respect to the last point, the hopes recently invested in fusion reactor
technology (the ITER research
initiative), as a source of energy to sustain human civilization, offer a
striking metaphor for a corresponding cognitive challenge -- especially any
sense of achieving sustainable cognitive fusion as a basis for any psychosocial
civilization of the future (cf Enactivating
a Cognitive Fusion Reactor: Imaginal Transformation of Energy Resourcing
(ITER-8), 2006). Both might be understood in terms of engendering
and managing processes associated with a void -- perhaps well-labelled as "a-void-dance" --
as another understanding of the cultivation of "mindlessness" (Paul
J. Griffiths, On
Being Mindless: Buddhist Meditation and the Mind-Body Problem, 1999).
As with the circular movement of
plasma in a fusion reactor, or around a particle accelerator, the issues of
collective attention management and concentration are challenging and resist
description in logical terms. This is indicated by a quotation from
the preface of the Gateless
the compiler Mumon (or Wumen):
Whether the focusing ("magnetic") constraints are a single polarity, or
a configuration of multiple polarities, the ambiguous nature of experience
of them is well-indicated by effort to move a metal object between two
magnetized pillars. The capacity to do so is then well-indicated by the
ability to "walk freely between heaven and hell" (between "positive" and "negative" forces)
or other variant translations and understandings. This might be an appropriate
description of the opportunity for a viable mode of thought between res
extensa and res cognitans -- as the pillars of such a gateway.
The relationship between
the counter-intuitive dynamics of the "gateless gate" and those
of a fusion reactor are explored in more detail elsewhere in the light of
emerging recognition of the global ocean conveyor (Potential
Misuse of the Conveyor Metaphor: recognition of the circular dynamic essential
to its appropriate operation, 2007).
That such indications are considered "meaningless"
from within many conventional frameworks may in fact be what merits further
exploration. So much philosophical, conceptual and institutional commitment
is made to the achievement of "unity" in its various guises that
the understandings of such unity obscure the possibility of an underlying "zero" or "void" of
some kind. This could play a vital role analogous to that of the zero in the
numerical system. Perhaps the hope for "unity" should be reframed
in terms of hope for a central void -- an empty centre -- around which the
variety of cognitive and institutional modalities could be more appropriately
configured. One approach to the functioning of such a "structural zero" has,
for example, been extensively explored by R
Buckminster Fuller (Synergetics:
the geometry of thinking, 1978-9). Its role is a theme of the Chinese
classic, the Tao Te Ching:
Thirty spokes share the wheel's hub.
is the centre hole that makes it useful...
Therefore profit comes
from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
Science has notably advanced over the past
century through the recognition of the special conditions associated with more
and more extreme degrees of vacuum -- and has enabled the technology to achieve
them. Although more dubious scientific research has focused on sensory deprivation,
the possible role of a form of cognitive void has only been explored through
modes of knowing unrecognized by science. Given the organizing dynamics associated
with voids, how might cognitive "a-void-dance" come to be understood?
Might such understanding not prove highly relevant to the
sense of meaninglessness and pointlessness characteristic of the many -- including
scientists -- tortured by existential doubt and experiential challenges to
their very sense of identity? How is it that those who consider themselves
most closely associated with the advancement of knowledge, through their various
professional communities, disparage other contexts as places where "nothing
happens"? Is this sense fundamental to most communities who attach little
significance to what happens "elsewhere" -- whether or not some are
tortured by the possibility that "everything is happening elsewhere"?
Is "nothing happening" in most places? How is this related to the
sense that leads to their being caricatured as "holes" -- possibly characterized
by a dynamic into which it is dangerous to be drawn?
Such conditions have also been described in terms of a "social void".
This may be understood to be inhabited by the marginalized and "losers",
then characterized as "political zeros" or "social zeros" (as
discussed in Luis Gonzalez y Gonzalez, La
Vida Social, 1956). Such a void may also be understood as a feeling
of lack of identity with average sized groups, institutions or associations
also used to caricature those of opposing views, intellectuals, new-born children
(T H Huxley, On
the Natural Inequality of Man, 1890) or women. The "social void" is
also associated with discussion of corporate governance (Lee A. Tavis, Corporate
Governance and the Global Social Void, 2001) and of the consequence
in developing countries of the departure of colonial powers -- notably with respect
to engendering a "political void".
It is ironic that so many habitual patterns
of "substance abuse" -- of major economic significance to governments
and world trade -- are adopted in an effort to "fill" such a poorly
acknowledged experiential void. The role of alcohol, drugs and oil may be
seen in this light. Global society is liable to be characterized by the future
as a "world
gone mad" in its mindless sacrifice of what are claimed to be its highest
values. Is it to be understood as driven in some way by
a perverted intuition of "mindlessness" -- of a higher order of meaninglessness
and emptiness? (Global
Strategic Implications of the Unsaid: from myth-making towards a wisdom society,
Are we all "zeros" in a sense as yet to be understood and cognitively
embodied? Is this what is implied by the paradoxical "temporal topology" (cf
Robin Le Poidevin, Relationism and Temporal Topology: Physics or Metaphysics?,
such statements as:
- The first shall be last, and the last shall be first (Matthew
- And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started /
And know the place for the first time (T S Eliot, Little
The question has even be raised as to whether, in terms of quantum physics,
time itself is an illusion (Amanda Gefter, Is
time an illusion? New Scientist, 19 January 2008).
In this sense, the future to which the attention of respondents was directed
by the Edge question may be an illusion in their own scientific terms.
light of such issues, and the insights of quantum physics regarding the insubstantiality
of matter, rather than the quest for a "Theory
of Everything", would it not be more appropriate to explore the possibility
of a "Theory of Nothing", as suggested by Russell Standish (Theory
of Nothing, 2006)? Given
the cognitive points raised by Lakoff and others regarding embodiment and process
reality, "Nothing" might even be be explored in terms of "Knowthing".
might also be a synaesthetic modality of knowing for which an appropriate
grammatical form has yet to emerge -- if it is not to be understood as a resonant
hybrid between the nine categories of grammar (as notably highlighted by
the explorations of Arnold
Keyserling, Weltgrammatik, 1979)
A-void-dance as intimate sensing
There is a case for exploring the degree to which "a-void-ing" is
effectively a form of "intimate sensing", to be contrasted with conventionally
understood uses of the senses of vision, hearing, tasting, feeling and smelling.
The latter senses may then be considered as various modalities of "remote
whereby more meaningful engagement is effectively avoided. By contrast, the
nature of intimate integration has been eloquently described by David Abram
(The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more-than-human
world, 1997). *** less is more -- senses?
But the extent to which such sensing involves a degree of "cognitive
calls for a stronger set of complementary clarifying metaphors associated with
that process of a-voiding:
- the dynamics of the process prior to capturing cognitive prey from res
extensa (leading to its de-finition from an unbounded, in-finite context)
might also be understood as involving "cat-and-mouse" playfulness
(on the part of the cognitive predator) -- a somewhat macabre a-void-dancing
prelude (from the perspective of the cognitive prey)
- the draining of significance from res extensa (through rendering
meaningless as a source of nourishment) might be compared with the processes
employed by those animals that capture and immobilize their prey to consume
them (live) at their convenience.
- this bears some resemblance to the manner in which a complex system
is cognitively described and defined as a "unit"
-- a form of embalment that closes any "doors" or "windows" through
which they interact with their environment
- the digestive sensing of res extensa might be understood as achieved
by enwrapping it in what is effectively an extruded stomach with its associated
- as the primary digestive organ, the stomach could be much closer
to those processes ensuring nourishment than the remoter sense organs,
effectively acting in a secondary role to facilitate access to nourishment;
sensed "things" might indeed then be understood as "e-vents"
- extrusion of the stomach (stomach eversion) is a technique employed
by starfish and
related species. For example, with the crown-of-thorns
starfish (Acanthaster planci) whose feeding patterns are
of great concern for the management of the Great Barrier Reef; the extruded
stomach of a 2-year old would cover an area of about 160cm2.
[Curiously extruded stomach feeding is a imaginatively used in some role
- disciplines could then be understood as classes of cognitive enzymes through
which the "thinginess" of res extensa is "grokked" --
a process envisaged in a science fiction novel that has given rise to that
cult term (cf Authentic
Grokking: emergence of Homo conjugens, 2003)
- the palette of enzymes then corresponds to the various modalities
of the scientific method, consistent with the sciences as cognitive "cutters" of
various kinds (as suggested by the Fench scie and scier)
- transformative metaphors, through which res extensa is cognitively
modified, might themselves be fruitfully understood as cognitive enzymes
It is fruitful to compare such processes with the widespread emergence (and
seemingly undisciplined phenomena) of the "blip culture" of sound
bites, and the like -- so named by Alvin
Toffler (The Third Wave, 1981). The associated cognitive predation
might then be caricatured as "cognitive quickies in the now" -- through
which the essence of a "happening" is extracted to nourish the processes
of res cogitans. Its importance is to be seen in the extent to which
more and more communications relate to the immediate present, its appropriation
and its organization -- projects curiously informed by a processs of projection.
This focus could be usefully explored in terms of the analogy with the addictive
consumption of foodstuffs of high sugar content to provide a rapid -- if not
immediate -- energy boost. Such foodstuffs not only contribute to obesity but
are associated with the provocation of diabetes -- in contrast with those that
release energy more slowly. Clearly res cogitans might be more beneficially
nourished by happenings of longer-term significance -- whether or not "information
overload" is associated with a form of "information obesity" (cf Engaging
Macrohistory through the Present Moment, 2004).
Optimizing the individual and collective learning process
The unconscious sense of an underlying or conditioning void has a curious
influence on the enthusiastic engagement in many social change "projects"
(cf John Ralston Saul, The
Unconscious Civilization, 1995). These
tend to be undertaken as though nothing similar had been undertaken previously
-- namely in an ahistorical, atemporal mode of an assumed tabula
rasa. Participants tend to be unconstrained by what they, or their predecessors,
may have learnt from previous initiatives -- especially, self-reflexively,
with respect to their personal contribution to the failure of those initiatives.
From a learning perspective, such projects are therefore essentially asystemic
-- confirming the recognition that those who fail to learn from history are
condemned to repeat it.
The above argument points to the central importance in a knowledge-based
society of the processes whereby closure is "avoided", or of how
unavoidable closure is managed. The fundamental importance of closure in
relation to reflexivity has been well explored by Hilary Lawson (Closure:
a story of everything, 2001; Reflexivity: the
In the question-answer process, closure
may however be usefully compared to the manner in which the dynamic engendered
by a question is collapsed and brought to an end by an answer -- framed as
the desirable "achievement
of closure". By comparison with the challenge of managing nuclear plasma,
such closure may however be compared with the (undesirable) phenomena of
quenching -- whereby the plasma is de-energized and de-natured through contact
with its container, namely the walls of the fusion reactor with which contact
is otherwise prevented by magnetic repulsion technology.
Curiously some schools of philosophy, as well as some disciplines of meditation,
advocate approaches that avoid closure in various forms -- certainly premature
closure. An extreme example of the latter is of course the dysfunctional closure
associated with groupthink (Groupthink:
the Search for Archaeoraptor as a Metaphoric Tale, 2002)
The case for suspension of the quenching-answer dynamic may be compared
to philosophical arguments in favour of epoché or
bracketing. Consistent with the query raised by Zeilinger (above) regarding res
extensa vs res cogitans, this is understood as the theoretical
moment where all belief in the existence of the real world, and consequently
all action in the real world, is suspended. One's own consciousness is then
subject to immanent critique so that when such belief is recovered, it will
have a firmer grounding in consciousness. The phenomenological philosopher
Edmund Husserl (Cartesian
Meditations, 1931) develops the notion of "phenomenological
-- where the world is "lost
in order to be regained" through placing the epoché and thereby
"bracketing" the world.
As discussed elsewhere (Present
Moment Research: exploration of nowness, 2001), potentially much
more relevant is the initiative of Francisco
Varela (in several papers)
to give an explicitly naturalized account of present experiential nowness
based on two complementary approaches: phenomenological analysis and cognitive
Specious Present: a neurophenomenology of time consciousness, 1997).
He provides a valuable review of Edmund Husserl's extensive philosophical studies
of "intimate temporality", noting the concern of Maurice
Merleau-Ponty that "Time
is not a line but a network of intentionalities" (Phenomenology
of Perception, 1945).
Varela presents a four-fold model of nowness based on flows and dynamical trends.
He concludes that neurobiological attributes and the phenomenology of lived
experience are interacting partners:
One thing is clear: the specific nature of the mutual constraints is far
from a simple empirical correspondence or a categorical isomorphism. three
ingredients have turned out to play an equally important role: (1) the neurobiological
basis, (2) the formal descriptive tools mostly derived from nonlinear dynamics,
and (3) the nature of lived temporal experience studied under reduction.
What needs to be examined carefully is the way in which these three ingredients
are braided together in a constitutive manner. what we find is much more
than a juxtaposition of items. It is an active link, where effects of constraint
and modification can circulate effectively, modifying both partners in a
fruitful complementary way.
Elsewhere, Varela (The
Gesture of Awareness, 1999) proposes a 3-fold cycle at the core
of the act of becoming aware in the moment: "an initial phase of suspension of
habitual thought and judgement, followed by a phase of conversion of
attention from 'the exterior' to 'the interior', ending with a phase of letting-go or
of receptivity towards the experience." Varela sees the phenomenological epoché as "the
ensemble of these three organically linked phases",
In the current global situation the quality of questions and answers,
and the dynamic of the question-answer process, would seem to be less than
adequate to the challenges. There may therefore be a case for benefitting from
the insights -- the cognitive patterns -- of the advanced science and technology
fundamental to successful nuclear fusion in order to optimize sustainable collective
learning processes. Exactly how might the question-answer dynamic then be "suspended" to
"quenching" closure, whilst sustaining the generation of insights
vital to collective learning?
What might be the relevance for the organization of the
communication dynamics of large conferences or electronically enabled collective
communication processes that are so vital to collective decision-making (cf Documents
relating to Dialogue and Transformative Conferencing)? Given the
relevance of the "conveyor" metaphor to the global dissemination
and circulation of knowledge (if not wisdom), there is a case for benefitting
from insights into the global ocean conveyor that is seemingly so vulnerable
to disruption by climate change (Potential
Misuse of the Conveyor Metaphor: recognition of the circular dynamic essential
to its appropriate operation,
There would appear to be is a degree of equivalence between:
- the desperate focus on early consensus ("unity") and the associated elimination
(or marginalization) of disagreement (or dissent) in the hopes of ensuring
that global processes are manageable within the currently somewhat simplistic
dominant mindset upheld in international discourse -- and in national voting
- the desperate focus on knowledge (exemplified by its cultivation in exclusive
elite networks of excellence) and the elimination of ignorance (or the marginalization
of the ignorant) and meaninglessness in the belief that human ingenuity
will prevail in ensuring emergence of insight appropriate to strategic challenges
Ignorance will continue to be omni-present and will
necessarily continue to be engendered, and sustained, in a knowledge-based
society -- if only through the birth of children and through the ageing
process. This will necessarily be associated with the prevalence and generation
of disagreement. There would therefore seem to be a case for working with such
phenomena rather than assuming that they can be eliminated or considered insignificant.
In an exponentially expanding knowledge society, the personal experience of
ignorance is necessarily fundamental and central.
Past decades have dramatically demonstrated the incapacity of collectivities
to articulate strategies that:
- ensure agreement amongst a wide range of
- attract appropriate resources in practice (rather than as promises to be
- prove capable of being effectively implemented, rather than tokenistically,
to the ends envisaged (eg "health
for all", "jobs for
all", "education for all", "justice for all", "housing for all", etc).
in response to climate change offers the most recent example. In the light
of such a track record, is it to be expected that collective action consequent
on the optimism of the 160 respondents will be fulfilled through the mindsets
with which they are associated?
Perhaps the apparently dysfunctional avoidance of remedial strategy-making
and implementation could be reframed as indicative of the need for more radical
insight into strategic indirectness -- grounded in a form of "a-void-dance"?
Rather than deplore collective strategic inadequacies based on ineffectual
agreement, perhaps others forms of collective insightful initiative can be
based on the avoidance of global decision-making -- in ways other than the
action avoidance and non-decision-making in which society has proved to be
so proficient (The
Art of Non-Decision-Making -- and the manipulation of categories,
1997; The Quest
for the Socio-Economics of Non-Action, 1993). Is there indeed a collective
art of "not doing" to be discovered -- as purportedly cultivated
at the highest levels of the classical Chinese imperium?
In the light of such perspectives and possibilities, how do the Question
Center and its respondents understand and manage what they avoid? Would there
have been a case for configuring the set of responses on some form of map
to identify what had been avoided and was implicitly conditioning the dynamics
within the pattern of responses (as in the methodology developed by Ron Atkin,
Learning from this commentary
The above comments raise the question -- for the writer -- of how best to
learn from the process of engaging in it. How best to move beyond the boring
conventional pattern of selective criticism and appreciation, inappropriately
framing one or the other to make a point? How is one repositioned and reframed
by engaging with the responses to which one is necessarily obliged to bring
one's own meaning -- as with bringing a bottle of wine to an unlicensed restaurant?
How does the process enable insight into the the meta-pattern identified
by Gregory Bateson as "the
pattern that connects"? How does this relate to any fundamental sense
of meaninglessness and the "happening of nothing"?
Can the insights of the respondents indeed be fruitfully understood like
stars distributed across the firmament of knowledge? What then of the patterns
the relationships between them seem variously to form -- conveniently to be
labelled, like the constellations of the zodiac, as an aid to comprehension?
Are these to be understood as humanity's best effort at identifying the songlines
of the noosphere? (Cultivating
the Songlines of the Noosphere, 1996; From
Information Highways to Songlines of the Noosphere, 1996)
Can the responses be experienced as trajectories
to be dynamically "ridden" to
other locations such as to elicit a larger pattern -- the meta-pattern as the
of legend, providing a new mode of transportation? Given the strategic allusion
above to the legend of the phoenix, how does one give form to the phoenix
or "re-cognize" its
emergence? How is the "phoenix" to be cognitively formed, be-winged and flight-enabled
-- to transcend the fate through fire of millions of "turkeys" commodified
for sacrifice at the next optimistic thanksgiving? Rather than the conventional
comparison of the "eagle vs the turkey", that of the "phoenix vs the turkey"
might then offer a more strikingly ironic reminder of the challenge articulated
by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson (Philosophy
in the Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to western thought,
the responses be experienced aesthetically, through a form of synaesthesia,
as verses in a poem offering facets of coherence -- a poiesis as
a necessary prelude to autopoiesis --
explicating a larger implicit framework in the spirit of David
and the Implicate Order, 1980)?
Gregory Bateson suggested, for example, that:
We can give to each other in poetry the access to a set of relationships
in the other person and in the world that we are not usually conscious of
in ourselves. So we need poetry as knowledge about the world and about ourselves,
because of this mapping from complexity to complexity. (Cited by Mary
Catherine Bateson, Our Own Metaphor, 1972, pp. 288-9)
Is this possibility a key to the global strategic challenge of the future,
as argued elsewhere (Poetry-making
and Policy-making: arranging a Marriage between Beauty and the Beast,
of Governance in the Year 2490, 1990; A
Singable Earth Charter, EU Constitution or Global Ethic?, 2006)?
Nicholas Rescher (The Strife of Systems:
an essay on the grounds and implications of philosophical diversity,
1985) concludes his study by noting:
For centuries, most philosophers who have reflected on the matter have been
intimidated by the strife of systems. But the time has come to put this behind
us -- not the strife, that is, which is ineliminable, but the felt need to
somehow end it rather than simply accept it and take it in stride. To reemphasize
the salient point: it would be bizarre to think that philosophy is not of
value because philosophical positions are bound to reflect the particular
values we hold.
This said however, Rescher's argument does not necessarily preclude the possibility
of new ways to take the strife "in stride". Indeed it has been argued
elsewhere that new forms of transdisciplinarity may effectively emerge from "striding" (Transcending
Duality as the Conceptual Equivalent of Learning to Walk, 1994; Walking
Elven Pathways: enactivating the pattern that connects, 2007).
It might also
be argued that the "strife" is fundamental to nonlinear
dynamics and to the emergence of new patterns of order -- as through the "problem
process identified by management cybernetician
Stafford Beer (Beyond
Dispute: the invention of team syntegrity, 1994). A related approach was
used in endeavouring to configure the issues of sustainable development
Globally and Contending Locally: shaping the global network of local bargains
by decoding and mapping Earth Summit inter-sectoral issues,
Does the source of optimism then lie in the question: when, and why, is
the perceived connectivity of the delicate tracery of lines between the stars,
the points in the above argument, in a poem, or in the proof of a complex theorem,
to be considered meaningful -- or completely meaningless -- even "monstrous
moonshine"? (cf Theories
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